It’s through the eyes of a 9-year-old that Paul Weir’s reputation as the kingpin of Lobo basketball begins to take shape.
One of more than 120 kids signed up to participate in Weir’s inaugural instructional camp held Saturday and Sunday at St. Michael’s High School, Henry Kaufman said Lobo fans are in for something good now that former coach Craig Neal has been sent packing.
“I like him,” Kaufman said. “I mean, just look at him.”
Lest anyone forget, Neal was fired after coaching the Lobos to a 49-45 record the last three seasons. A former assistant with Neal when both were at Iowa more than a decade ago, Weir was hired away from New Mexico State back in April.
His camp attracted Kaufman, an elementary kid from Eldorado who knows more about basketball then most guys at a sports bar. He once lobbied for Bill Russell as the greatest of all time but showed up to Sunday’s camp wearing an orange Russell Westbrook jersey — his latest GOAT.
“Neal was sort of strict and wanted his players to be, like, perfect and stuff,” Kaufman said. “I think Paul Weir’s calmer. His players will like him.”
It’s that love affair that has the potential of being all too fleeting in a place that values Lobo basketball above most other things. Neal’s winning record wasn’t even close to satisfying the masses, and Weir’s rebuilding project after losing six scholarship players to transfer means lean times are likely ahead.
Still, he’s savoring the love he got during his initial foray into the City Different.
“I haven’t lost a game yet so everyone’s still happy,” he said, supervising the propane grills set up outside the gym for Sunday’s lunch.
Weir brought with him six players, including returners Sam Logwood and Anthony Mathis. Also there was a player well on his way to winning people over; Antino Jackson, a 5-foot-11 senior transfer from Akron.
With most of the campers sitting at midcourt, a handful began chanting, “dunk it, dunk it,” in Jackson’s direction. He did just that, throwing down the kind of one-handed slam you’d expect to see on NBA All-Star weekend.
“Got up there for that one,” Jackson said as a handful of players stood to egg him on for one more try.
Also in the gym was a familiar face; Mikey Dominguez. The former Capital star who memorably scored 11 points in the final two minutes to win the 2004 Class 4A state championship game drove six hours from Grand Junction, Colo., to be a volunteer assistant at the camp.
An assistant coach at NCAA Division II program Colorado Mesa, he is a candidate to replace Guy Meyer as the video coordinator and scouting director on Weir’s staff.
“It’s been a wild ride the last 12 years since high school,” he said. “Just coming back here and helping with a Lobo camp is kind of like living one of those dreams every kid from Northern New Mexico has. We all grow up wanting to be a part of the Lobos and this is just a small way of doing that.”
Weir helped tap into Santa Fe’s fan base when he was on staff at NMSU. With a large contingent of Aggie alums in the area, he knows there are even more UNM fans paying even more attention to the team just an hour down the road.
He said he was hoping to get about 50 kids for his camp.
“I don’t want Lobo basketball to just cater to one particular demographic,” he said. “I think it’s everybody’s team and that includes Santa Fe. This place has shown how important Lobo basketball is to them, too, just by the turnout we’ve gotten. I mean, to expect 50 kids and get more than 120? It shows how important it is to people around here.”
While UNM’s trip to Santa Fe appears to have been a one-time thing facilitated by Meyer’s ties to the school, Weir said the inroads he and his players made were worth the effort of conducting business away from the comforts of home.
Kaufman agreed. Watching Weir walk back into the gym with a handful of players circling around him, he said the coach already had at least one diehard fan by doing nothing more than being himself.
“Next time I go to a game I’ll be a bigger fan,” he said. “He and his players, they’re all great.”