There WAS a TV screen for every customer on Saturday afternoon at Coaches Sports Grill on Central, just a skip-pass away from The Pit. The place was as quiet as a library.
"The calm before the storm," said Coaches owner Ernie Blackstone. "Tomorrow's gonna be wild."It would be hard to dispute Blackstone's point. Today at 1:30, Utah and New Mexico meet in the biggest WAC game of the season. The Utes are 18-0 and ranked No. 3, the Lobos are 15-3 and ranked No. 14. The outcome will likely determine the Mountain Division winner.
"This," added Blackstone, not without relish, "is gonna be one of the all-time great Pit experiences."
Blackstone is well-versed in Pit experiences. He's been in Albuquerque for nearly two decades, since he played baseball at UNM. He was there when flamboyant coach Norm Ellenberger - turquoise and silver jewelry jangling - broke every recruiting rule imaginable. And some that were unimaginable. When Ellenberger came before a judge on charges of violating federal law, he was acquitted. Legend has it the judge said he couldn't throw the book at someone who did what others were doing, and what the public demanded: cheat to build a winner.
Blackstone was there for UNM's 61-59 win over No. 1 Arizona in 1988, and again last season for an 84-77 win over the Wildcats. He was there for the four-point loss to No. 5 Oklahoma in 1989. In 1984, when No. 1 Georgetown escaped with a 69-61 win at The Pit, Blackstone was present and accounted for.
So it's a dead-certain lock he'll be there today. New Mexico's 37-game home win streak began after a Jan. 27, 1996, loss to Utah.
"This," he continued, "is going to be one of those electric Pit atmospheres that we think (Utah coach Rick) Majerus hates."
New Mexico basketball, of course, isn't a just game, it's a sensory experience. Officially known as University Arena, The Pit is home to 18,018 vocally enhanced fans. Be sure you know where the mute button is on your remote.
The Pit has been named one of the five best arenas in America to watch a game, which is easy to understand. The seats come down to courtside. The public address system blares. The fans warm up their vocal chords while the players warm up their legs and arms. Several years ago someone brought a noise meter to a game and it registered 125 decibels - as loud as a jet air-plane.
Arena configuration, enthusiasm and sheer numbers combine to make it among the most clamorous buildings in the country. This year UNM sold 14,174 season tickets, the maximum possible without taking away seating from VIPs and fans from visiting teams. The Lobos have been among the top 10 in attendance in 30 of the last 31 years.
This is a place where in 1979, despite going 6-20 after the "Lobo-gate" scandal, attendance still checked in at 14,838 - seventh highest in the country. It's where season tickets are haggled over in divorce court; where they hold tryouts just to see who will sing the national anthem. If you come home on a Saturday night, groggy and nursing a splitting headache, there are only two possible culprits: tequila or a Lobo game.
Not surprisingly, the players feed off the crowd. As they moved toward a 79-64 win over TCU earlier this season, redshirt transfer Damion Walker took a look at the scene and observed, "Heck, we could beat the Bulls in this place!"
All this is no secret to the Utes. Last year when the teams met, Utah was No. 4 in the nation and New Mexico No. 13; the Lobos came away with an easy 87-71 victory.
"The crowd has probably never been better than they were for Utah last year," said Albuquerque Journal sports writer Dennis Latta. "It's probably the best I've seen it in the 18 years I've been here."
That, however, could have been just been the warm-up to today's game. On Thursday night, Blackstone's grill was packed with fans watching the BYU-UNM game on television. "I could just feel it that night. We had a good crowd here, but it was like people were holding back for Sunday's game," he said.
So it is, the Utes are matched up against not only one of the nation's best basketball teams - they're matched up against One Humongous, Riled-Up Crowd. A crowd that knows what it's like to go home happy. A crowd that knows if it doesn't inspire its team to victory, at least it inspired a whole new crop of ear, nose and throat specialists.