Wednesday, April 17, 2024
HomeSportsSix days immersed in the world of America's most diverse team

Six days immersed in the world of America’s most diverse team

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s 9:40 a.m. in the southeast parking lot at The Pit, and a man in black-and-white face paint circles on a dirt bike. This is Snake. He arrives early for New Mexico men’s basketball games, hypes up friendly faces and sportively harasses the visiting team when it arrives. Everyone knows Snake. He’s been at this for years. He’s a believer.

An attendant asks Snake how he is, and Snake declares he has everything he needs. His Lobos are hunting for their first NCAA Tournament berth in a decade. In a couple hours, they’ll be on network television, playing the first of back-to-back home games against ranked teams. That hasn’t happened in two decades. A door cracked open for a program aching to find a way.

When the team’s coach, Richard Pitino, pulls into his parking spot, Snake offers reassurance.

We’re going to do this together!

The bubble is a sorting tool, yes. It’s also a state. It’s being where you’re supposed to be, but not quite there yet. This is New Mexico, a team featuring two basketball scions, a COVID recruit-turned-star, a 25-year-old on his fourth program, a Nigerian center who almost didn’t make it to the U.S. this season, a teenager with a nephew in the NBA and more. With a Pitino leading the way in the high desert, eyes on the horizon.

On one mid-January Friday, right before everything became possible, senior Jamal Mashburn Jr. puts it like this: “Anything can happen in a week.”

The Roll Call

First: introducing the bubble’s most eclectic crew.

The Legacy

Jamal Mashburn Jr. was oblivious to being the son of a college All-American and NBA All-Star who scored 11,000-plus points. “I never understood why he got stopped so much in the mall,” Mashburn Jr. says. He’s the kid who liked fossils and lacrosse and didn’t give basketball much thought before he was 11. He’s a deep thinker who journals daily and a player with 1,703 career points, who left the Big Ten to follow a coach he’s known since eighth grade. “It was a no-brainer to come from Minnesota over here,” Mashburn Jr. says, “because I trusted (Pitino), and he trusts me.”

The relationship isn’t like their fathers’ connection, as coach and player at Kentucky. No one talks race horses inside the Davalos Basketball Center. But a Mashburn and a Pitino are in on something big, together. Again. “It’s a partnership, honestly,” Mashburn Jr. says. “We had one goal in mind. We wanted to come in and make a positive impact, and fast.”

The Other Legacy

Jaelen House grew up a pro wrestling fan. His favorite: Randy Orton, whose most famous gimmick involves hearing voices in his head. “I like the way he carries himself,” House says. “He’s a little crazy. And I’m a little crazy.”

The 6-foot guard is now New Mexico’s third-leading scorer, men’s hoops’ active career steals leader and, most notably, a mouthpiece-gnawing antagonist who plays like he’s holding onto an electrified fence. “The way he acts,” Lobos sophomore Donovan Dent says, “puts a battery in my back.”

House needed his own recharge, though, three years ago. He went to Arizona State, just like his father, Eddie, who scored 2,000 points for the Sun Devils. But the younger House didn’t start once. He scored 229 points across two seasons. A transfer to New Mexico birthed a new antihero in The Pit. “He helped me become myself again,” House says of Pitino. “He took the leash off me and just let me go.”

The Nigerian Pitino expert

Rick Pitino needed players at Iona, his latest next stop. A former player, Gorgui Dieng, recommended a big man from the NBA Academy in Nigeria. Pitino offered Nelly Junior Joseph a scholarship, sight unseen. A day later, Junior Joseph took it. “I didn’t get to visit,” he says. “I just wanted to play for Rick Pitino, that’s all. (New York) was crazy. Too many people. Loud.”

After a transfer and a fraught visa process that delayed his arrival until Oct. 31 – a day before New Mexico’s first exhibition game – Junior Joseph sits in a lounge, enjoying the tranquility. Albuquerque suits him, as does the son of his former coach. “He is more calm than his dad, for real,” Junior Joseph says of Richard Pitino, smiling. “His dad has this high spirit. I thought it was going to be the same, until I got here. I was like, ‘Oh, wow, Richard is more chill. That’s good.’”

The hoops Methuselah

Jemarl Baker Jr. was a four-star recruit and top 100 player nationally in his recruiting class. He signed with Kentucky. The top prep players in the country were Marvin Bagley, Michael Porter Jr. and DeAndre Ayton. This was 2017.

It is 2024, and Baker, 25, is in the practice gym, doing band work to help sore knees. He is at his fourth school after two seasons each at Kentucky, Arizona and Fresno State, the injuries and extra years of eligibility piling up. “Oh, there’s definitely been times when I was done,” Baker says with a laugh. He is not done, though. “I’ve wanted to play basketball professionally for my whole life,” Baker says. “I feel like this is my passion and purpose. If I stop, I feel like I’m giving up.”

The teenager with an NBA nephew

Around the time Tru Washington began to loathe practicing football in Arizona heat, he began to envy his nephew and the gear he’d bring back from basketball tournaments. “I’m like, I want some shoes,” Washington says. “I’m just sitting at home not doing anything, waiting for another game on Saturday.”

He turned to basketball in middle school and relied on quickness – steal ball, shoot layup – before growing into the No. 98 recruit in the Class of 2023. Were it not for programs seeking out older transfer guards, Washington might not have been New Mexico’s highest-rated signee in a decade. Now he targets the path his nephew set … because his nephew is TyTy Washington, current Milwaukee Bucks backup who’s two years older than his uncle. Effectively? They’re brothers. And the “older” brother keeps tabs on the “younger” brother, sending video clips and commentary after every game he catches. “I know how to see what he’s doing to make me better,” Tru says. “He plays the game with his brain. And he uses his brain at a high level.”

The star who rose from COVID

Donovan Dent proudly lists the colleges of his fellow starters from Centennial High School basketball in 2020-21: Duke. Arizona. UCLA. Loyola Marymount. “We had a squad my junior year,” the Riverside, Calif., native says. They also had a compressed schedule and few people in the stands due to pandemic restrictions. The player who’d eventually become his state’s Mr. Basketball stared at offers from the Big West … and anonymity. “It was pretty frustrating,” Dent says. “I knew it wasn’t me not playing my part.”

How does one go from overlooked to averaging 15.5 points and 5.9 assists in the Mountain West as a sophomore? By getting out of California. Dent’s performance at the Border League tournament – held in Arizona during the summer of 2021 – opened eyes. “He didn’t shoot a lot,” Pitino says, “but we liked his feel.” That helped the Lobos hold on when Dent led Centennial to a state championship as a senior and other programs converged. “I’m not going to abandon who trusted in me before I became what I am now,” Dent says.

The coach

Richard Pitino is not from anywhere. Or doesn’t feel like it, anyway. People assume he’s a New York guy, but he was born in Boston. He’s 41 and he’s coached in seven states. It was not easy to lose the Minnesota job in 2021 after eight up-and-down seasons; suburban Edina began to feel like home. Nor was it easy to adjust to Albuquerque, but his family is comfortable, and the weather forecast never makes him wince. Always a fish out of water, somehow swimming along. “I’ve always felt like I can go anywhere, if you give me time, get to know me,” Pitino says. “When I got hired here, there was for sure a ‘Hmm, that’s weird.’ But I feel like I can run a program anywhere, as long as I have that support I need.”

He is his father’s son, and also not. Every now and then, Pitino folds his arms behind his back as he watches the action, too. But he also lacquers on…

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