Saturday, December 12, 2015

Keeping a Dream Alive

It has become one of my favorite icons in our retirement home town — weathered boards nailed to an old utility post with a slightly off-kilter metal hoop that looks as if it might have come from Dr. Naismith’s original peach basket.

It could be any boy-crafted  basketball goal in any back yard of the midwest where I grew up, except for this master touch: with a bristle-deprived brush and the dregs of an old paint can someone has marked this as “PAN AM.”

You’ve got to know some college basketball history to appreciate this.  “Pan Am” is short for the Pan American Center at New Mexico State University, a 13,000 seat arena where the Aggies basketball teams play.  When Neil McCarthy coached the Aggies (1985-97), most of those seats were filled for every home game, and the Aggies won more than 20 games every year, and for seven consecutive seasons the team went to the NCAA basketball tournament, once even reaching the Sweet Sixteen. Every kid in Dona Ana County who ever threw a basketball at a home-made goal aspired to play in the Pan Am.  It was during this period that the goal on Fairacres Road was erected.  It still stands, recently enhanced with a new net.

Only seven basketball players of the Neil McCarthy era ever graduated from NMSU, and the NCAA found the school guilty of repeated and egregious violations of academic standards to keep players eligible.  The university fired McCarthy who sued for breach of contract and won.  The school paid the court’s judgment and was too broke to hire another coach.

Enter Lou Henson.  Lou had coached a state champion high school team in Las Cruces, then coached at NMSU and took a team to the Final Four.  The University of Illinois hired him away from the Aggies and he established a winning tradition there, including regular runs deep into the NCAA tournament. He had retired to play golf in sunny Las Cruces when the McCarthy settlement impoverished the NMSU athletic department.  Lou agreed to come out of retirement and coach the Aggies for $1 a year.

The Pan Am rocked again and there were great games, like the one against heavily favored arch-rival New Mexico when Lou switched to a zone for the last inbounds play of the game, which so befuddled the Lobos that they threw away the ball and their last chance at winning.  “There’s a reason the man has won over 700 games,” said his star player at the time.

The court at the Pan Am is called “Lou Henson Court” and Lou is in the college basketball Hall of Fame.  Under his successor, the former NBA star Reggie Theus, and now under Coach Marvin Menzies, NMSU continues to be a winning team, with frequent post-season appearances in the NCAA tournament.

Every now and then someone freshens the “Pan Am” paint on the makeshift goal on Fairacres Road.  I like to think that kids still go there to shoot hoops and dream of playing in the real Pan Am.  Perhaps some day one of them will lead a local high school team to a state championship and receive a scholarship to play as an Aggie.

ESPN talking heads will call him “the Latino Larry Bird” or “the Hispanic Stephen Curry” and he’ll get hot in the NCAA’s and take the Aggies to the Final Four, or maybe to the championship game, or even, perhaps, invoking the miracles of Villanova in 1987 or Texas Western (now UTEP) in 1966, New Mexico State will beat Duke or Kentucky for the national championship. It’s all about dreams.

And someone keeping a dream alive  with a ramshackle goal nailed to a utility pole on Fairacres Road.

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