LUBBOCK, Texas — As he walked back to the team bench during a break in a loss to Utah State last week, University of New Mexico men’s basketball player Jeremiah Francis lifted his expressionless face just long enough to see a teammate waiting with a high-five.
He listlessly met that hand with one of his own, slumping his shoulders as he plopped into a padded chair strategically placed six feet apart from the nearest person. Hanging in the air was the muffled sound of crowd noise, an ambient infusion of murmured voices piped over the public address system.
All around were masked teammates and support staff, each with that same thousand-yard stare that says more than any combination of words can possibly produce.
This wasn’t The Pit. Those sounds weren’t from UNM’s traditionally passionate fan base.
And this is not anything close to a normal college basketball season.
It’s life in a Texas bubble, one designed to keep a moneymaking machine alive long enough to reap the millions of dollars generated by a lucrative national TV rights agreement, alive long enough to sustain what is quickly becoming a nightmarish 2020-21 season.
“This entire situation is strange and, yeah, it’s a challenge for everyone,” said UNM athletic director Eddie Nuñez, who joined a number of high-ranking athletic department officials in Lubbock for last week’s games against Utah State.
The athletics boss by day, it was Nunez’s task after both games to lend a hand in tearing down signage and rolling up tarps shipped to Lubbock from Albuquerque, advertisements and banners meant to make this tiny gym feel more like home.
The current address of Lobo basketball is the Rip Griffin Center, a small brick building with 1,950 royal blue plastic seats that houses Lubbock Christian University’s basketball and volleyball programs. It doubles as a COVID-19 testing site during the day and is pretty much the last place anyone in New Mexico expected to see the Lobos play a home game.
UNM is paying the small NCAA Division II school just $1,500 per game, meaning it would cost only $15,000 — a proverbial bargain in the world of big-money college sports — to complete the remainder of the regular season.
This is the life of the Lobos, the pride and joy of so many in New Mexico. Relegated to the role of nomadic band of basketball journeymen they are, to put it bluntly, tired, homesick and mentally drained.
They’ve been forced into exile, taking up temporary residence five hours from home in an attempt to escape the reach of the coronavirus shutdown.
In New Mexico, a statewide order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus restricts the size of groups, which prevents the Lobos from practicing and playing games in the state.
To say the least, it’s wearing the team down. Case in point: Wednesday, when a mob overran the nation’s Capitol. With the news of the day exploding on every platform, inside that tiny gym stood UNM assistant athletic director Ed Manzanares. He’s been on the road with the team every day since mid-November, orchestrating the administrative duties required to keep this house of cards from blowing over.
Asked about his reaction to the events unfolding in Washington, Manzanares was completely unaware of the violence that had been erupting for hours.
“I had no idea because this,” he said, deadpanning a stare around the gym, “is all I’ve been doing.”
It’s the circumstance of New Mexico’s public health order. The state has gone without organized sports since March and the pandemic has left teams of all age and skill levels with two simple and difficult choices: Shut it down and wait until conditions improve or pack your bags and play in states that will allow it.
UNM’s football spent a truncated seven-game season in Las Vegas, Nev., becoming the feel-good story by ending the nation’s longest losing streak with two straight wins in the finishing kick without a single positive coronavirus case.
Basketball hasn’t been quite as fortunate. Expectations being what they are for Lobos hoops, anything short of prolonged success isn’t enough to satisfy a fan base that is already calling for head coach Paul Weir’s job. The Lobos followed three straight season-opening wins in Houston with six humiliatingly lopsided losses, four of them coming in Lubbock.
“For the first time I’d say since this started, the last few days have probably not gone the way the previous 45 had gone,” Weir said last week.
“We’ve got to find a way to pick ourselves up off the mat and work through this situation as best we can. There’s no alternative right now, so it has been challenging, and the last few days have been the first time, I think, that if any player and any coach sat down with you and was honest with you, they’d say, ‘You know, we’ve hit a wall here.’ ”
UNM has kept the players shielded from the media. At no time were any of them made available for comment last week, a sign that the stress and strain of UNM’s bubble is starting to take over.
Nuñez hasn’t ruled out shutting things down for either of his basketball teams; the UNM women are in their own bubble up the road in Amarillo, having endured a brief lockdown after an unnamed member of the traveling party tested positive for COVID-19.
“It’s not something I’m considering but if it comes to that, if that’s something the coaches and team want to discuss, then I would listen,” Nuñez said. “We’re not there yet. Everyone understands the challenges but, yes, it’s something that’s out there. It has to be.”
UNM’s football bubble in Nevada didn’t come cheap, setting the school back roughly $70,000 a week to cover hotel, travel and food expenses for about 140 people.
The basketball bubbles aren’t nearly as pricey; the men’s traveling party is about 30 people, spread between a pair of hotels in Lubbock.
Every movement is monitored. Players and staff are tested for COVID-19 three times a week and players are restricted to their rooms when not at practice or games. Their hotel, which is within walking distance of Texas Tech’s football stadium, is too small to accommodate meeting spaces, so all film study is done in the lobby.
The team struggles to find places to practice, spending one day last week at an unheated high school gym and other times at LCU when it’s not in use.
In past weeks the players have talked about what they do to get through each day.
Some brought gaming systems, others stream movies. Unlike the football team’s stay at a plush resort in Henderson, Nev., basketball has changed hotels several times and none of them, Manzanares said, has had the open space for players or staff to simply walk around and stretch their legs.
“Guys are tired because we’re talking about going on, what, six weeks without them seeing their girlfriends, going out to eat, hell, even hanging out at each other’s places,” Nuñez said.
This is not the Pit
Toss in the fact that the five-hour road trip from Albuquerque to Lubbock includes constant reminders they’re nowhere near home — like the residence not far from the Texas-New Mexico state line that proudly flew a Confederate flag in its front yard the day of the Capitol attack — it’s easy to miss the thousands of adoring fans screaming for them as they run down The Pit’s famed ramp, a line of cheerleaders leading the way.
“These kids, they came here, a big part of it, to play in The Pit,” Nuñez said. “Can you imagine what you’re asking of these guys, to give up everything to come out here for this? I don’t know if people really get that.”
The players certainly do. The public health order took their summer conditioning away, then delayed the start of preseason camp by several weeks.
Then came the requisite road trip, one that will last a minimum of 14 weeks from start to end — 14 weeks living out of a suitcase, eating boxed meals, being told to shelter in place, study in the confines of a hotel room and not have the freedom of hopping in their own car and grab a bite to eat with friends.
Weir said one of the myriad challenges was keeping the players engaged.
Giving them a reason to feel included and part of something means juggling the mental status of 18 players, 17 of whom have seen action this season and some of whom are undoubtedly teetering between quitting or staying the course.
Neither Weir nor Nuñez have had a player request to opt out, but each has been hit hard by the unmistakable reality that this isn’t a season anyone signed up for.
Weir tried mixing things up last week, reversing course on a decision he’d made about staying in Lubbock until the team’s Jan. 16 and 18 games at UNLV.
He told the players before Friday’s game against Utah State — a 36-point shellacking on national TV that extended the Lobos’ losing streak to six — that they’d return to Albuquerque on Saturday afternoon and spend at least a couple of days at home before flying to Las Vegas, Nev.
He hoped it would serve as a shot of adrenaline but it only got worse.
After falling behind 14-2 just four minutes into Friday’s game, he erupted during the first timeout, screaming at the players about a lack of heart and passion.
With nothing but the ambient crowd noise to compete with, everything he said was clearly audible from one end of the building to the other.
Weir said later he’d be lying if it hadn’t been a difficult couple of days. The wall he spoke of, the Lobos had become a splattered stain right in the middle of it.
“There’s no handbook for this,” he said.
Homestand in Vegas?
UNM is hoping to work out a deal where the team could remain in Las Vegas for at least a week or two and play its Jan. 21-23 games against San Jose State somewhere in the city, be it UNLV or elsewhere.
The fact that all travel plans are basically scribbled onto napkins and made up on the fly cannot be dismissed.
It’s wears on the players and staff, making a bad situation infinitely worse.
“That’s the thing,” Nuñez said. “There are so many different scenarios that are happening all at once. We’re right now looking at every possibility. Like I try to tell people, it is literally almost week by week.”
Since it’s bound to come up, here are the specifics about Weir’s job status.
Multiple officials from the athletic department said they’ve fielded complaints about his performance and some are calling for his dismissal. Truth is, it’s not nearly that simple.
Weir remains under contract for two more seasons, and a termination of his original six-year deal would prove costly. If he exits before the contract expires on March 31, 2023, he’d have t pay UNM $250,000.
If the university pulls the plug before the end of this season, the buyout would top $1 million, with each season requiring a minimum $350,000 annual severance.
Athletics sources said they’ve received calls for Weir’s dismissal.
Given the current economic climate, it appears highly unlikely.
As for the players wanting out, they can pull the ejection handle at any time.
Players are given the option of opting out for the remainder of the season without losing their scholarships. To date, no one has.