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The Pit: Awesome from the start

Albuquerque Journal sports editor LeRoy Bearman led his game advance story with the following: “You’re going to like the University of New Mexico’s new 14,800-seat basketball arena.”

It wasn’t the venerable Bearman’s most fearless prediction, but one of his most accurate.

On Dec. 1, 1966, a new era of UNM men’s basketball began. That night, the Lobos played Abilene Christian in the first game at the arena that would become known far and wide as the Pit.

Ron Nelson and Howie Grimes weren’t just eyewitnesses. They were players on the team — and in the drama.

Their first feeling regarding the new arena was one of awe, but with a tinge of skepticism thrown in.

“I think we had one or two practices there before (the first game),” said Grimes, who was a sophomore that season. “We went in first with nobody there. You had 12 players on the floor and two coaches, and (otherwise) the whole place was empty.

“It was a phenomenal thing to see, my goodness.”

Nelson, a junior guard, had a hard time believing those 14,800 seats would ever be filled. The new arena was almost twice as big as Johnson Gym, the team’s previous home.

“I asked Hoov (senior point guard Don Hoover), ‘Do you think we’ll ever fill this place up?'” He kind of laughed and said, ‘Well, maybe for the BYU game.’ … We were kind of in awe of the place.”

The Lobos didn’t quite fill the Pit that night. A crowd announced at 12,020 watched the Lobos beat Abilene Christian, 62-53, in somewhat desultory fashion. And this was a talent-laden UNM team ranked sixth nationally in The Associated Press preseason poll.

Coach Bob King panned his team’s act in the Journal the next morning.

“That was the poorest job of execution we’ve had since I can remember,” he said. “We just didn’t do the job.”

Mel Daniels, the team’s star center, led the Lobos with 19 points and 12 rebounds. Forwards Ron Sanford and Bill Morgan had 11 and 10 points, respectively.

Grimes and Nelson, both newcomers to the varsity, played only briefly in that first game at the Pit. Nelson scored two points, Grimes none.

Their awe of their new surroundings, Grimes and Nelson believe, affected the Lobos’ performance that night.

Nelson remembers entering the game and, his first time down the court, finding himself wide open for a jumper from the left wing.

“This has never happened to me before or since,” he said, “but I went up to shoot and everything went black. I mean, totally black.

“I shot the shot from memory, just knowing where I was on the floor, and it went in.”

Nelson was a 6-foot-2 sharpshooter from Artesia by way of New Mexico Military Institute. He’d impressed King by scoring 21 points and hitting the winning basket for NMMI against the UNM freshman team at Johnson Gym the previous season.

Grimes, who played on the UNM freshman team that lost to Nelson and NMMI,  was a muscular 6-foot-5 forward from New Lenox, Ill. He’d turned down a football scholarship to play basketball at UNM,  partly because the father of former Lobos point guard Skip Kruzich was the principal of his high school. Mostly, though, he was impressed by King and Harv Schmidt, the lead assistant coach.

Grimes lives in Los Ojos, near Chama. He’s a retired classroom teacher who coached at Escalante High School in the early 1980s.

The 1966-67 Lobos were a veteran team, led by Daniels — a returning All-Western Athletic Conference center and an All-America candidate. Two other 1965-66 starters, small forward Ben Monroe and power forward Bill Morgan, also returned. They were joined in the starting lineup that night by Hoover — a reliable backup the previous three seasons — and heralded shooting guard Frank Judge, who’d been the 1965-66 junior college player of the year for Cameron College in Oklahoma.

On Jan. 7, the Lobos — now ranked fourth nationally — beat a highly regarded Seattle team 80-60 to improve their record to 11-1. An overflow crowed of 14,936 watched at the Pit.

Then, though, the season began to unravel.

A loss at BYU on Jan. 21 was UNM’s fourth straight defeat on the road — dropping the Lobos from the national rankings and into the Western Athletic Conference cellar.

Judge, the highly touted transfer, had proved to be a bad fit in King’s defense-first system. Then, at midsemester, he flunked out of school.

Hoover, the point guard, struggled to make a jump shot — allowing opposing teams to sag off him and help against Daniels inside.

The Lobos would finish the season with a 19-8 record. Their first-ever loss at the Pit came in the regular-season finale against Wyoming, 65-64.

Nelson and Grimes would go on to play key roles the following year, when the Lobos became the surprise team of the Rocky Mountain-Southwest. New Mexico went 23-5, won the WAC title and went to the NCAA Tournament for the first time.

Nelson led that team with 19.5 points per game. Grimes averaged 9.3 points, leading the team in floor burns and bruises handed out.

A half-century after that first game, they retain their fond memories of the Pit.

“The noise level,” Grimes recalled. “I don’t think anyone can imagine the noise level.”

Yet, for these two former Lobos, it all started with awed silence.

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