The lights would go down, and player introductions would begin: Ira Harge. Claude Williams. Mike Lucero. Skip Kruzich.
Then, as the name “Dick Ellis” echoed through the University of New Mexico’s Johnson Gymnasium, an almost deafening chorus of boos would rain down from the crowd.
Newcomers to Lobo basketball were puzzled. Why, they wondered, didn’t the fans like this guy?
In fact, they did like him – a lot.
Richard Earl Ellis’ nickname just happened to be “Boo.”
Ellis, a multi-talented guard who helped the Lobos make the championship game of the 1964 National Invitation Tournament, died on Aug. 14 in his hometown of Indianapolis. He was 77.
As stylish as he was talented, Ellis was never a score-sheet stuffer. Yet, he excelled at virtually everything a college basketball player could be called upon to do.
This, from Arizona Republic sports writer Dave Hicks before a UNM-Arizona State game in February 1965: “Ellis is the 6-foot-3, 195-pound backbone of New Mexico’s Western Athletic Conference leaders, who meet the Devils Friday in Tempe.
“He doesn’t lead the Lobos (18-2) in any statistical department, but the Indianapolis junior is one of the league’s most gifted performers in every phase of the game. Perhaps he’s the best.”
Ellis came to UNM from Trinidad (Colo.) Junior College by way of Indianapolis’ storied Crispus Attucks High School program, the school that produced NBA legend Oscar Robertson.
In 1963-64, coach Bob King’s second UNM edition, Ellis stepped into a lineup that returned four starters in Harge, Williams, Santa Fe’s Lucero and Kruzich. That “Ferrous Five,” as labeled by the Albuquerque Journal, went 21-5 on the regular season and tied Arizona State for the WAC title, earning an NIT Invitation.
Ellis averaged a modest 10.6 points per game that season. But, at 6-3, he pulled down 7.4 rebounds per game.
It was on defense, though, that Ellis made his greatest impact. Blessed with quick hands and uncanny anticipation, the breakaway layup became a specialty – well, except it was never a layup.
As Ellis would approach the basket after a steal, for unexplained reasons, he would take a few steps to his right and bank in a 6- to-8-footer. It might as well have been a layup; he never missed.
In response, the crowd would boo with utter delight.
Where the nickname came from, it seems, was never explained. In a Journal story, Ellis said people just started calling him that.
He went with it. At his memorial service in Indianapolis on Sept. 2, the program read: Celebration of Life/”Boo.”
At the 1964 NIT, New Mexico drew a first-round bye, then defeated Drake in the quarterfinals. Somewhat uncharacteristically, Ellis led the Lobos in scoring with 20 points.
Ellis scored just eight points in UNM’s semifinal victory over NYU, but King couldn’t have cared less.
“If you can find a man who can do a better defensive job than Dick Ellis, I’ll eat your hat,” King said. “He might just be the best sophomore in the country.”
Unfortunately, the Lobos saved their worst game of the season for their last – blown out 86-54 by Bradley in the championship game. Ellis, with 18 points, was the only Lobo in double figures.
The 1964-65 Lobos might have been more talented than the 1963-64 team, with Mel Daniels, Bill Morgan and Carlsbad’s Ben Monroe stepping in for Harge, Williams and Lucero and Kruzich returning as the floor general. But the predominately young Lobos, after the aforementioned 18-2 start, lost five of their last six WAC games and bowed out to St. John’s in the NIT first round.
Even so, Ellis’ all-around brilliance did not go unrecognized. It was he, not Lobo immortal and future American Basketball Association star Daniels, who was named first-team All-WAC after averaging 14.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game.
Unfortunately, the loss to St. John’s turned out to be Ellis’ final game in a Lobo uniform. With no fanfare, it was reported that he’d flunked out of school and would not return for his senior year.
Based on Ellis’ obituary notice, it appears he played no more college basketball after leaving UNM. He did play professionally for the Harlem Clowns, a Globetrotters-like touring team.
In 1987, he was inducted into the Indiana High School Basketball Hall of Fame.
His legacy at New Mexico? Two superb seasons – and giving the term “Boo” some of the best publicity it ever received.