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Battle of the Rio Grande rivalry has ex-players amped up

Most of the former UNM Lobos basketball stars, left, and former NMSU Aggies basketball stars got together Friday afternoon to take some pictures on the Pit floor before tonight's Battle of the Rio Grande alumni all-star game. While they were all smiles Friday, a growing intensity was evident. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Most of the former UNM Lobos basketball stars, left, and former NMSU Aggies basketball stars got together Friday afternoon to take some pictures on the Pit floor before tonight’s Battle of the Rio Grande alumni all-star game. While they were all smiles Friday, a growing intensity was evident.
(Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

The group text messages during the past few weeks have been heating up.

The memories are fresh, and the trash talk is real.

But the competitive juices really started to come out Friday afternoon on the Pit floor.

As a group of former New Mexico State Aggie and University of New Mexico Lobo basketball stars gathered for some pictures in advance of tonight’s Battle of the Rio Grande alumni all-star exhibition, 48-year-old Reggie Jordan couldn’t help himself.

“He looked at the court – at the players on both sides, looked down at the other end (where former Lobos were shooting baskets) and said, ‘I can still go,'” said Brandon Mason, one of the event coordinators. “‘I know I can still get buckets. I gotta play.’ That’s what he said.”

ROSTERS: See team rosters and pictures at bottom.

So the former Aggie, and former NBA player, grabbed a crimson jersey – the only one without a name on the back – and turned in his honorary coaching whistle to join the playing roster for tonight’s game.

The decision didn’t surprise Mason, the former Aggie who has been on both the UNM and NMSU coaching staffs and now coaches at UNLV – or fellow event coordinator Cameron Bairstow, the former Lobos star who now plays with the Detroit Pistons.

“Since Brandon and I are putting things together, we’re in both group chats about the event – one with all the Aggies players and one with all the Lobos,” Bairstow said. “It’s pretty intense. Aggies don’t like losing to Lobos and Lobos don’t like losing to Aggies.”

Former Lobo and NBA star Danny Granger agreed.

“All of us have this in common: that we all hate New Mexico State,” said former Granger, maybe only half joking. “Maybe we don’t all hate them, but we all had heated rivalries with them.”

Unlike last year’s all-Lobos exhibition, which drew a crowd of about 9,500, tonight’s event will have paid referees, two 20-minute halves and will be an actual game. The proceeds from the event go to Bairstow, Mason and fellow coordinator Kevin McCurdy with UNM getting both a contractual cut for use of the Pit and also a donation from Bairstow to the Lobo Club.

Last year, Bairstow donated $11,000 to the Lobo Club and $5,000 to former teammate Hugh Greenwood’s Pink Pack foundation, but ultimately took a small loss on the event, he said, not detailing how much.

After expenses, including paying for the travel and hotel accommodations for many of the players, Bairstow said he hopes to break even this year, but he will still give a donation to the Lobo Club, regardless.

DUNK CONTEST JUDGES: Judging the dunk contest are NMSU graduate and current UNM baseball coach Ray Birmingham and four former Lobos – Marvin Johnson, Rob Robbins, Greg Brown and Ruben Douglas.

KEY MEMORY: Former NMSU point guard Billy Keys, now coaching the Mayfield Trojans, said while younger Aggies may have revenge on their mind after the past decade has seen the rivalry dominated by UNM, he has a different mindset.

“I was 3-1 against them. Let’s start there,” said Keys. “I remember when they came to Las Cruces after beating (No. 2) Arizona (in 1999). Maybe they were still high on that or something, but we beat them and I think I went for 24. That night on ESPN, the late, great Stuart Scott did our highlight on ESPN and showed me cross up Kenny Thomas and said, ‘Don’t hate the player, hate the game.'”

MISSING AGGIE: Ex-Aggie Troy Gillenwater will miss the game due to an unexpected personal matter.

OUT OF RETIREMENT? Don’t count on seeing Granger back on an NBA court anytime soon. The former Lobo, who spent the past year in the television studio analyzing games, says he still feels healthy enough to play, but doesn’t want to push his body beyond repair.

“I always can get up and down (the court),” said Granger. “Yeah, I still can play. I still can dunk. I still can run and jump. The reason I stopped playing (and retired) is because I wanted to be able to do that late into my retirement. I didn’t want to run my body down to the point where I needed another surgery or I had another back issue.”

HONORING AGGIES: Mason and Bairstow made two game jerseys for late Aggies – Lou Richardson, who died in 2009 and has family in Albuquerque, and Ryan McDermott, the Alamogordo High graduate and former NMSU player who died last year.

The jerseys will be presented at tonight’s game and given to family.

THIS AND THAT: Merchandise will be sold on the concourse during tonight’s game. Per its contract with Bairstow, UNM gets a percentage of all sales. … Cheer squads from both universities plan to attend. … Pistol Pete, NMSU’s mascot, will be in attendance, but Lobo Louie will not, due to a decision by UNM.

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