March 20, 2012 | Las Cruces Sun-News (NM)
By James Staley
The mob pounded on the doors.
Reportedly 900 strong, many among the enraged group had spent the night in line, outside, waiting in vain for tickets that sold out in 20 minutes. “They just about had a riot,” Debbie Joyce told the Sun-News that day. “They locked up the Pan American Center, because I think it was fixing to get stormed.”
The fans felt duped. Were there really 1,000 tickets available? Were the clerks following the four-ticket-per-customer rule?
Perhaps worst of all, they weren’t going to be able to see their beloved New Mexico State University basketball team play in a historic Sweet 16 NCAA Tournament game in Albuquerque later that week.
Up north, during the same week, emerged in Albuquerque a different sort of craziness. A billboard sprouted — the first indication of a temporarily erased in-state feud. Not only did the sign read, “Go Aggies!” but it also stood within walking distance of the Pit, hallowed ground at the rival University of New Mexico, and an arena where NMSU coach Neil McCarthy was considered a villain. Inside, Aggies were anything but welcome, so that sign was a bizarre sight, indeed.
Farther north, at an isolated gas station outside Chama, an elderly attendant recognized a Aggie reserve player as the guard filled up his jeep during a trip with his girlfriend. The enthusiastic attendant wouldn’t let him pay for the fuel.
“I knew then,” former NMSU guard Ron Putzi wrote in an email, “we’d made the state proud.”
The attendant wished Putzi and the Aggies luck in their upcoming game against power UCLA.
Twenty years have passed since that March 1992 week of statewide Aggie mania, when an undersized and brash NMSU team somehow managed to survive the first weekend of college basketball’s crowning tournament.
Even though the NCAA officially vacated NMSU’s records from that memorable tournament, part of a 1995 punishment for multiple rules violations, that run had a lasting impact on the lives of those involved.
William Benjamin, NMSU’s quiet, unselfish and respected leader that season, is the only member of the 1992 team remaining in Las Cruces.
Yet, if it weren’t for McCarthy, he might not be.
Benjamin is the head boys basketball coach at Las Cruces High; the Bulldawgs went into last week’s state tournament as the No. 1 seed. Longtime local basketball fans might recognize the match-up zone defense Benjamin employs at LCHS — it’s the same one that McCarthy used during his 12 years at NMSU.
Benjamin said he regularly calls McCarthy at the retired coach’s home in Salt Lake City to “pick his brain” about defense, which many considered to be McCarthy’s strength.
Benjamin knows about McCarthy’s reputation. Several people interviewed for this story hold twin opinions about McCarthy — one for the man and another for the basketball coach.
Marc Thompson, who was Benjamin’s backup that year, called McCarthy “arrogant” but added that “he made me a better player.”
Chris Hickman, the other four-year senior on the 1992 team with Benjamin, said McCarthy was “morally and ethically challenged in his quest to win,” but that McCarthy was a “good coach” who “understood games and the dynamics of teams.”
Others close to the program criticized McCarthy, saying his only concern was winning, and he didn’t care enough about academics.
Benjamin, meanwhile, is grateful for McCarthy. He saw a different side.
It was McCarthy who recruited Benjamin, and stayed loyal even though the talented guard had academic challenges.
The reason Benjamin is a special education teacher now, he said, is because of the positive impact his special education teachers had on his life. Benjamin dealt with behavioral issues as a child, which made academics difficult.
Benjamin said he passed the ACT on his last try. By that time, many prospective college coaches gave up on him.
The coach promised Benjamin’s mother that her son would graduate, no small feat considering Benjamin’s previous classroom struggles, and that he was the first in his family to go to college.
Throughout his career, Benjamin, who had his eyes on the NBA, remembers hearing McCarthy harping on him, saying, “Benj you’re not that good. Get your degree.”
But Benjamin didn’t listen to that advice till exhausting his eligibility, playing professionally in Finland then returning home to Southern California. He felt lost in looking for a job. He remembered McCarthy’s words.
“What can you get when you’re 25 with no degree and no experience with anything?” Benjamin said.
McCarthy eventually convinced Benjamin to return to NMSU to finish his bachelor’s in social work, offering to help Benjamin through re-enrollment. “He didn’t have to do that,” Benjamin said. “But he did.”
Benjamin wanted to go into coaching too, and said the idea was to serve on McCarthy’s staff. But McCarthy was fired that year — officials cited, among other factors, the program’s lack of academic success under McCarthy; he reportedly had an 11 percent graduation rate.
Benjamin’s plan was starting to unravel until former LCHS coach Mike Smith hired him to lead his freshman team.
Said Benjamin: “He was the only one that gave me a chance.”
Benjamin earned his undergraduate degree while coaching, working as an educational assistant and painting parking lots for extra money. Now, he also has a master’s degree.
“It was humbling,” he said.
Among the electrical engineers in Austin, Texas, one is known for the ring he always wears. It commemorates a Sweet 16 berth.
And when Chris Hickman played in the 1992 NCAA Tournament, he was known for a ring, too.
Hickman spent a lot of time at the free-throw line that postseason, and the CBS cameras focused often on his Nike Air Flight Lites. Tied in the lace of his left hightop was Hickman’s wedding ring, which he received the previous August when he married Tammy, a senior on the NMSU women’s basketball team.
Perhaps no NMSU player turned in a more clutch NCAA Tournament performance that year than Hickman. In a second-round game against Southwestern Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette), Hickman scored a career-high 18 points. He hit all 12 free throws he shot, including all eight in the final 2:50.
Ron Putzi, Hickman’s roommate, credited the wedding ring.
“To this day, I’m convinced the energy worked,” Putzi wrote in an email.
Hickman was a role player for most of his career. He started fewer than half the games his senior season, but that included the final nine. The Aggies went 8-1 during that time. Hickman had taken over with NMSU floundering.
“It could have easily went the other way,” Benjamin said.
Hickman and Benjamin ensured that it didn’t. Former NMSU assistant coach Jeff Reep called the duo “a steadying force.”
After earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering, Hickman worked in Albuquerque and Colorado Springs, Colo. Three years ago, he moved to Texas and started Innovari, Inc., which serves power providers. He built his team based on some of what he learned playing basketball at NMSU.
He has been back to Las Cruces some, and said he always makes time for Chope’s Bar & Cafe when he does.
“Sometimes when you have expectations at a program like Duke, it’s different,” Hickman said. “When that only comes around once in a while, maybe it’s more special. It was ridiculously fun.”
Both Hickman and Benjamin thought the 1991 team, from their junior year, was more talented than the 1992 bunch. That team featured two eventual NBA players, and was ranked as high as No. 11 in the polls.
Going into 1992, McCarthy and his staff had to replace nine players (including two medical redshirts) before the season, so they filled in the holes with junior college players.
McCarthy reluctantly called it a “rebuilding year.”
Rebuilding wasn’t in their mind. Many of those new players believed — accurately or not — they were NBA talents.
John Bartleson was the last player off the bench in 1992, and a player the fans loved. His first impression of the new Aggies?
“Knuckleheads with big hearts, dreams and aspirations,” Bartleson wrote in an email.
“This is a brash bunch of youngsters,” former NMSU basketball coach Presley Askew told the Sun-News in 1992. “And that’s good, because they don’t think anybody can beat them.”
Point guard Sam Crawford embodied that attitude.
He captivated the estimated 3,500 fans at the season’s ceremonial first practice, the Aggie Midnight Shootout. The crowd begged the 5-foot-8 Crawford to compete in the dunk contest. He did and McCarthy declared a tie between Crawford and the powerful Cliff Reed and the acrobatic Putzi, according to reports.
Once the season started, Crawford, who had prodigious court vision and could squeeze the ball into areas others could not, impressed fans more. Jeff Reep, the assistant coach, still remembers a bounce pass Crawford threw from midcourt through three defenders.
Crawford authored one of the best individual performances in Aggie basketball history in the first round of the Big West Conference Tournament against Fresno State. He scored 29 points and had seven assists and eight steals. He scored the game’s final eight points, including a game-winning 3, erasing a seven-point deficit in less than 1:30.
By the time the NCAA Tournament came around, Crawford was a media magnet. He was small, among the national leaders in assists, and had a compelling history.
Crawford grew up in a tough Chicago neighborhood. The Chicago Sun Times reported that at age 10 Crawford came home with a switchblade in his stomach, but the muggers didn’t get his jacket and shoes, which they coveted.
Soon, Crawford’s mother sent her son to Los Angeles to live with her sister and brother-in-law, former Los Angeles Lakers guard Ron Carter.
Crawford honed his game with former Lakers, but left the Carter home as a teenager when the couple divorced.
In an early season interview, Crawford told the Los Angeles Times he had slept in a car some nights, and contemplated suicide. Later, at the NCAA Tournament, Crawford denied those parts of the story.
The first line of a column from the Springfield (Ill.) Journal-Register’s coverage of the NCAA Tournament in Tempe, Ariz. was, “Your initial instincts tell you to dismiss Sam Crawford as a con artist.”
People near the NMSU program at the time used those exact words to describe Crawford. He left Las Cruces the following year owing a more than $1,000 in back rent, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
Crawford played professionally, and had a tryout in the NBA. He also appeared in the movie, “Blue Chips.”
Crawford could not be reacheds for this story. Carter said Crawford is living in Los Angeles and working at various camps as a basketball instructor.
Before the season, Reep said the most highly regarded of those nine junior college players was Eric Traylor.
A first-team junior college all-American, the first NMSU ever landed, Traylor selected the Aggies on a coin flip (heads was Oklahoma State; tails was NMSU). He said he only visited Las Cruces to come see a friend, James White, who played at NMSU before being booted from the team.
Traylor played professionally all over the world before settling back in his hometown of Malvern, Ark. He owns an event facility called Da Village.
Initially, Traylor didn’t think the 1992 team could make an NCAA Tournament run, but “the competition level in practice was very high.”
Malcolm Leak, who could not be reached, provided that competition. So did Cliff Reed, an athletic and emotional forward, who had a reputation as a talker on the court. He often unleashed primal screams after rebounds.
Reed had faith in the talent of his new teammates, because of what he had read.
“The only thing was a matter if they were going to gel,” said Reed, who, after a long basketball career overseas, is back in his hometown of Las Vegas, Nev., where he teaches basketball to kids.
Several players said that process took time. Traylor said he and Tracey Ware, a redshirt forward, got into a “big fight” early in the season.
Marc Thompson, who served primarily as Benjamin’s valuable backup that season, said eventually the team became very tight, and they hung out regularly. Like Benjamin, Thompson works at a school and coaches, teaching his middle school team the match-up zone defense.
Thompson played professionally in Costa Rica, then went back to Philadelphia and finished his bachelor’s degree at Temple University. Thompson also has a master’s degree, and now works as a counselor at Abington Friends School, a private, Quaker school in Philadelphia, also his alma mater.
He may visit to Las Cruces this summer, as he is coming to New Mexico to see longtime friend and former Lobo guard Greg Brown.
Putzi, Ron Coleman, Brian Sitter, Chris Dinkins and Bartleson might be best known from that NCAA Tournament as the guys cheering from the bench.
Most notably, by the end of the second-round game, the entire bench was celebrating free throws in unison, holding hands and raising them aloft as the ball splashed through the net. NMSU, uncharacteristically, made 16 consecutive free throws to seal it.
“I try to tell people that we started that tradition but people don’t believe,” Sitter wrote in an email. “Would be cool of we ever got credit for it. it was totally unrehearsed and really just showed how close of a group we were.”
Benjamin said the aforementioned bench players, who saw little time on the court during the late season, were critical to NMSU’s success because they were always so positive.
Sitter and Bartleson were roomates at NMSU, and are still close. Both live in Las Vegas, Nev. Sitter played five years of professional basketball. In 2007, he founded and now directs the largest youth basketball organization in Nevada, the Vegas Elite Basketball Club.
Bartleson served as an assistant coach in college, and now manages a basketball facility.
Both said their experience at NMSU pushed them make basketball part of their career.
Coleman and Dinkins could not be reached for this story, but Coleman’s mother, Cynthia, said her son is a police officer in Chicago.
Putzi lives in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, and is an investment adviser for a large firm. On advice of those in the business, he first played professional basketball overseas, learning five languages. He saved his salary during his playing days to buy property in his native Canada when he could.
“Now I can give to charities and the community,” Putzi wrote in an email. “Love it.”
He also relishes seeing the many Canadian players on NMSU’s current roster, and cherishes his days as an Aggie, especially that NCAA Tournament run.
Wrote Putzi: “We changed peoples lives for the better. We changed and gave hope and happiness to the people of NMSU. We were good players and people who worked very hard to maximize our talent. It was one of the best teams in NMSU history — and that will never be taken away.”
The 1992 team hasn’t been honored by NMSU, and may never be.
Braun Cartwright, NMSU’s director of athletic compliance, said NMSU officials would have to be careful how they worded such a ceremony because of the NCAA’s vacating of the tournament games.
Cartwright said nobody from the athletic department has inquired about the 1992 team.
Then: He was quirky, combative, and widely regarded as a gifted basketball coach. To opposing teams, he was a natural villain.
McCarthy was also known for his ego, as multiple people close to the program recall McCarthy being stranded at an airport once, mistakenly thinking the commercial plane wouldn’t leave, “without the Big Dog,” as he called himself.
The former boxing champion at Fort Bliss was a fiery competitor. He left NMSU with more wins than any coach in the program’s history, but was fired due to problems within the program.
Now: At 72, he and his wife, Vivian, have been retired in Salt Lake City for several years.
“We have a great little cocker spaniel, Parker,” McCarthy said.
After leaving NMSU amid controversy in 1997, he did not coach again.
McCarthy said he spends most of his time with grandchildren, reading and watching sports. He even watches the Aggies sometimes: “they come on channel 61 here,” he said, before noting he was impressed with their rebounding and athleticism this season.
In 2008, he was inducted into the Vallejo (Calif.) Sports Hall of Fame, which is in McCarthy’s hometown.
“I think I gave New Mexico State a pretty damn good 12-year run as coach,” he said, adding that he planned to stay another five to seven seasons. When asked about his legacy, McCarthy said: “I don’t really care to be honest. They did the most they could to keep me there 12 years, then (he was fired). It was a political thing. I couldn’t have done anything about it.”
Then: Forman was the lead recruiter, and known for his eye for talent. A shrewd competitor, he was also known, on the road, to rifle through gym trash cans for practice notes of opposing teams, finding such pieces at Pacific, once, and taping them together with the staff’s help.
Now: Last year, Forman, the general manager of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, made headlines for winning the NBA’s Executive of the Year Award, along with Pat Riley of the Miami Heat. He has worked for the Bulls since 1998, when he joined the organization as a scout. Before that he was an assistant coach at Iowa State, the program he joined after leaving NMSU in 1994. The Bulls did not respond to interview requests for this story.
Then: Marc Thompson called him the opposite of McCarthy because Reep was a great communicator. He also was known as an effective teacher and held many responsibilities in organizing the NMSU program’s day-to-day operations.
Now: Reep left NMSU in 1995 to become head coach at his alma mater, Cedarville (Ohio) University. He stayed in that position for five years, then moved to his current position of associate director of career services at Cedarville, where he was once voted staff member of the year by students.
Then: Lowe was in his first gig as a Division I assistant.
Now: An assistant coach for nearly 30 years, Lowe is working at Cal State Northridge, where he has been since 2009. He left NMSU in 1992 and has also coached at Southern Utah, Portland and Cal Poly.
1991-92 Aggie basketball:At a glance
Overall record: 25-8*
Conference record: 12-6 in the Big West; third place
Won the Big West Conference Tournament and received an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Seeded 12th in the West Region, the Aggies knocked off No. 5 seed DePaul and No. 13 seed Southwest Louisiana (now Louisiana-Lafayette) in Tempe, Ariz. to advance to the Sweet 16. NMSU lost to No. 1 seed UCLA at the Pit in Albuquerque.
The Aggies won three of four games against rivals UNM and UTEP, becoming the first NMSU team since 1970 to win in Albuquerque and El Paso in the same season. The 1970 team advanced to the Final Four.
NMSU started 13-1 and nearly cracked the top 25, coming as close as 28th.
Sam Crawford was the only Aggie named as an All-Big West selection, and he was on the second team. He was the only player from the team to get a significant shot at the NBA. But at least eight players earned money playing basketball abroad.
- —The NCAA vacated the NCAA Tournament records from this season in 1995, making their record 23-7