Back in the day, finding Michael Muldawer at the Palestra was a safe bet. A Philadelphia native and former University of Pennsylvania student, he would take his wife, a former student at Temple, more often than not to soak up city basketball in one of the country’s most storied arenas.
The Palestra is still beloved, but for clarity’s sake: this was the golden era. Felt in full houses for Big 5 doubleheaders. Seen in luminaries like Bill Bradley on the court. Heard when cheers for La Salle and Temple, still close to the pulse of college basketball, rained down.
“You saw great stuff,” he said.
And like many, he was hooked.
So in 1970, when Muldawer and his wife moved to New Mexico, he was drawn to the Pit. He liked the passion. The similarities to the Palestra atmosphere, defined not by the student body but the city around it.
In the early 1990s, he got seats at the Lobo Level, essentially the Pit’s version of courtside seating. Muldawer, 82, was there again on Wednesday night, where he gazed around briefly.
“I’m kind of disappointed,” he said, fans filtering in slowly. “We’re not going to have really much of a turnout. If they end up with 7,000 fans, I’d be surprised.”
An announced turnout of 6,803 showed out on Wednesday as the Lobos broke a nine-year postseason drought with their first National Invitational Tournament (NIT) appearance since 2011, another endearing positive in a season filled with them.
And 6,803 were also on hand as New Mexico trailed by 13 at the intermission before ultimately falling to Utah Valley 83-69, another deflating loss in a closing stretch that was all too defined by them.
“Always, something goes wrong,” Muldawer said. “But I’m still here.”
It wasn’t the postseason appearance many New Mexico fans were hoping for in December. January. For some, February.
But of the fans surveyed by the Journal before Wednesday night’s game, they were positive about the opportunity to host the NIT and the state of the program going forward.
Rick Salazar, 55, was one of them. A season-ticket holder, he said he called to get better seats than normal before driving in from his residence in Santa Fe. Another home game at the Pit? In the NIT, an event he’s attended to support the Lobos since the Gary Colson era in the 1980s? Nothing less than a treat.
“We’re two seasons away from a six-win season,” Salazar said. “To make it to the postseason two years later, I think it is a great step.”
Like Muldawer, Salazar recognized how the closing stretch wasn’t what fans wanted or really expected. Still, he’s confident Richard Pitino is the coach that can take their program to new heights.
“He’s got it on an upward spiral. He gets the fans,” he said. “He gets what it’s like here, he gets what it’s about. (A few coaches) have come in that really haven’t gotten what Lobo basketball is all about, but I think Pitino does and I can’t wait to see what he does in the next few years.”
Alex Lopez, 60, was an early caller as well. To him, some of the good feelings from the NIT have more to do with being able to host a piece of the postseason after the Pit fell away from the NCAA Tournament’s hosting requirements.
“It means a lot … we used to come during our lunch hour and watch the open gyms (of visiting teams),” he said.
As for the attendance? Fans who are disappointed in how things ended likely didn’t make it out. That’s certainly a part of it.
But there’s the timing as well. Nolan Murphy, the de facto leader of New Mexico’s student section in the Howl Raisers, admitted it was harder to get students out for Wednesday’s game and a lesser turnout had more to do with the first round of the NIT overlapping schedules with UNM’s scheduled spring break.
“People make this a bad thing but for us, we’re moving up,” Murphy said. “We didn’t make it last year. We’re moving up.”