Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Pit

 The University of New Mexico basketball arena, better known as “The Pit,” will be on national display again today when the first round of the NCAA tournament starts. The Pit is one of the host sites for March Madness.

I have been to some great Lobo games over the years with vivid childhood memories of Kenny Page and Michael Cooper (before the three-point line), to my college days when Luc Longley showed spurts of greatness, but also frustrated fans with his easy-going ways; and Kelvin Scarborough and Darrell McGee who spent as much time playing pick-up games at Johnson Gym, where I worked as a student, as they did at The Pit, battling Tim Hardaway of UTEP. I also remember the epic battles between Kenny Thomas and Utah’s Keith Van Horn. I’ve seen a handful of NCAA tourney games featuring the likes of Bob Knight’s Indiana Hoosiers and a game between UCLA and the New Mexico State Aggies. One of my favorite memories was the McDonald’s All -American Game at The Pit, which featured the best high school stars in 1988. That team included Alonzo Mourning, Christian Laettner and Billy Owens. I got to meet legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden as he watched the teams practice at Johnson Gym. I even got to see my basketball hero, Michael Jordan, play in an exhibition game at The Pit. Unfortunately, I did not get to attend the most famous game ever played at The Pit – the national championship in 1983 when North Carolina State upset Houston. But I do remember flying back from Washington D.C., where I traveled for an 8th-grade trip, and sitting next to an NBA scout who was on his way to Albuquerque for the Final Four.

So, what does this have to do with my family history? My maternal Grandfather, Louis Chavez, worked on the original construction of The Pit as an ironworker in 1966. I was always fascinated by that, but for some reason, I never asked him much about it. I thought it was ironic that he played a role in building the famous arena, but he never wanted to go to see live games. He didn’t like crowds and preferred to watch from the comfort of his home.

“The Pit was built in a 37-foot hole on Albuquerque’s Southeast Mesa,” according to a historical account of the arena that is featured alongside the photos on the concourse. “First the roof was constructed, then the hole was dug, and the arena built. The unique Behlen roof (338 by 300 feet) was set up by contractors and then 55,000 cubic yards of earth were removed. About 28,000 yards of concrete were poured in the initial construction, which allowed a seating capacity of 14,831. The cost – an incredibly economical $1.4 million.”

The Pit was expanded in 1975, at a cost of $2.2 million, and allowed for 18,018.
Over the course of more than four decades, The Pit became dated and not suited for big-time college tournaments. In 2009, UNM started a major overhaul of The Pit, which cost $60 million and actually reduced the number of seats to accommodate 40 suites. I was all in favor of a new arena, but skeptical about whether a modern version could hold on to the mystique and charm of the old arena that my Grandpa Louie helped build. In the end, I think the architects did a great job. The first game I attended in the new Pit, I was pleasantly surprised when I took a seat and still felt like I was in the old Pit, where there were no bad seats in the arena.

Sadly, I don’t get to too many games any more. I’m more likely to shuttling my daughters to soccer practice or gymnastics, than grabbing a Lobo Dog. But my wife, Yvette, and I go once or twice a season, usually with friends. And, of course we have to meet for a pre-game dinner at The Quarters on Yale Blvd., just east of The Pit.

Earlier this season, I caught a game on ESPN in which the TV personalities were showering praise on the renovated arena. They also showed some black-and-white photos on display on the concourse that chronicled the history of The Pit. I had seen some of the photos before, but a few caught my eye. Each one showed an ironworker doing some welding work on beams. I immediately thought of my grandpa.
University of Wisconsin practicing Thursday at The Pit

On Wednesday, I went to The Pit during lunch after I learned that the arena was open to the public for tournament practice sessions. I took my camera, found the photos of the ironworkers, and shot a few pics. Then I sat in Row 3 (if you’ve been to the Pit, you’ll know that the first row, which is at ground level, is actually the furthest distance from the floor, which is 45 rows below...thus, the name, “The Pit.”) I watched the University of Wisconsin practice for a while and the memories of years past came rushing in.

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