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The elder gentlemen settled into courtside seats behind tables after the NMSU Aggies defeated Utah Valley Feb. 15 on a last-second shot by Jabari Rice.
Little kids wandering around the Pan American Center floor didn’t know what to make of these old guys, in their late 60s and early 70s.
“They were great basketball players,” parents told their kids. “They were in the Final Four!”
The kids looked up with blank stares, then put their posters in front of the men.
The men looked back with twinkles in their eyes, offered sincere smiles and questions, then signed the posters for the kids, who finally smiled back.
For me, it was different.
I knew exactly what these men had done.
I looked past the gray hair and beards and saw the souls of those guys forever young in the black-and-white photos.
They weren’t quite the gods of mythology, but close.
Instead of envisioning them with Mercury’s winged feet, I envisioned them in old-school canvas Converse All-Stars when those shoes were new-school.
I saw grizzled warriors, once fearless flyers, some who looked as though they could still lace them up and give it a few runs down the court.
This was New Mexico State University’s 1969-70 Final Four team, returning to the desert 50 years after they made magic here.
Sadly, four of the members have passed on.
But of the nine remaining, all nine made the trip back to the Pan Am’s beautiful parquet floor, since named Lou Henson Court, in honor of the coach who brought them all together and led them to their fabled fate.
There was Las Cruces’ own Rudy Franco, who still had a thick head of hair. John Burgess, from down the road in El Paso. Lonnie LeFevre, from Albany, New York, was a sophomore. Chito Reyes made it back to the Mesilla Valley, where he used to stay with his grandmother when visiting from California. Reyes was a sought-after high school star in California, but Coach Henson knew Reyes’ Las Cruces roots, and lured him back, probably with visions of grandmother’s cooking. Roy Neal, was one of three Aggies from Syracuse, New York. Tom McCarthy, another Syracuse sophomore, made the trip back, looking fit and trim.
Also looking strong was Jeff Smith, a junior from New Jersey, and the team’s second-leading rebounder. The team’s smallest player, 5-8 Charlie Criss, from Yonkers, New York, played a decade in the NBA. Last in the signing line, but first on the Aggie scoring sheet was senior Jimmy Collins, another Syracuse native, who led the team with 24.3 points per game that year, and was named to the NCAA All-Tournament team.
Assistant coaches Rob Evans and Keith Colson also made the trip. Henson’s health prevented him from joining his squad, but he sent a video message that was played in the arena.
The four who have passed away are Milton Horn, Eddie Huff, Bill Moore and Sam Lacey. While Collins was the great shooter and flashy scorer, the 6-10 Lacey was the anchor inside, doing the dirty work. He averaged almost 18 points a game that season and pulled down 16 rebounds before playing 14 seasons in the NBA.
Nine players still living, nine made it back. That says a lot about those men, and it says a lot about the current Aggie athletic department, that they keep these guys engaged. It’s important for players and fans to remember the foundation that built NMSU’s reputation as a great basketball school.
Yes, it’s been 50 years since NMSU has been to a Final Four, but many schools have never been at all. The Pan Am was only a year old when that team had its magical 27-3 season.
In the 51 years since, Aggie fans have had an 80 percent chance of seeing an NMSU victory in the Pan Am. The Aggies are 586-150 in the arena. In the three seasons since Coach Chris Jans has led NMSU, the team is 41-3 at home.
This current Aggie team will have to defy a lot of odds to make the Final Four, or even the Sweet Sixteen. But despite an impossible rash of injuries and other adversities, they still have a great chance to win the WAC tournament and make it back to the NCAAs.
Once there, anything can happen.
Just ask those nine men from that old black-and-white photo.