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Mike Roberts’ voice echoes in the Pit

I cannot pretend to know what Mike Roberts thought when he tread carefully down the venerated ramp, toward the noise, toward his farewell.

He knew the sound — the hum that precedes a basketball game in the Pit — the sound he had heard hundreds of times.

I can only tell you what he said:

“I really don’t know why I’m here.”

I don’t know if it was meant for my ears, or something he was saying to himself. But he repeated it.

“I really don’t know why I’m here.”

It was Nov. 16, 2010. More than two years had passed since he was forced aside as play-by-play announcer for the UNM Lobos. This was an attempt at mending fences, but the break was hard, the gap was wide and no bridge was going to be built in one evening — not even a night such as this.

Mickey Freeman Roberts died last week. On Monday he was buried in Santa Fe after a funeral in Albuquerque.

Roberts was a native of Carthage, Mo., which sits along Route 66, which, of course, ties it to Albuquerque.

The first time I heard his voice, it came with great authority over a small transistor radio, courtesy of mega-watt station KOB-AM. I was a boy living in a thick adobe house built by my father in the Jemez. It was the 1960s and I had just discovered the Lobos.

Through Mike Roberts’ voice, I was introduced to Ron Nelson and Darryl Minniefield. He told me about Rocky Long and Sam Scarber.

Most importantly, he let me listen to his conversations with Bob King and Norm Ellenberger.

His banter with Ellenberger was particularly fun. They were two very different men, yet on the radio they blended beautifully.

I first met Roberts on a football road trip to Wichita State in 1978. I found myself in the backseat of a rental car, tucked between Mike and the venerable and venerated sportswriter Frank Maestas. They were arguing with great certainty — something about a tornado.

I would have many conversations with Roberts over the next decades — breakfasts in Salt Lake City, lunches in Laramie, Wyo. Sometimes months would pass between meetings, but it was always easy to pick up where we left off.

We had one of our last chats in the Pit that night in 2010. We sat in the south end of the arena as the Lobos tussled with Arizona State in front of us.

He told me of the cards and calls he had gotten from fans since his dismissal.

“We miss you.”

“Hope everything’s all right.”

He told me of a couple from Belen who had sent him a Lobo quilt.

He was grateful that Joe O’Neill had given him a gig calling high school games for 101.7 FM. His life was OK again, it seemed.

And yet, he had been apprehensive about that night, unsure how the fans would respond to his presence.

He had stood at the bottom of the ramp (after an over-zealous security guard had tried to chase him off) and waited for his name to be called.

The Pit announcer began:

“The voice of the Lobos …”

And 15,239 fans rose and roared.

The rest of the introduction was drowned out, but it hardly mattered. Everyone knew the rest.

Later, as we sat in the dimness of Section M of the Pit, his still sturdy voice splintered a touch as he said this:

“It was nice. It was nice.”

And we sat quietly for a little bit, watching a game we had little interest in.