The Greatest Team

The 2004-2005 University of New Mexico's Lobo Basketball Team

It was another Lobo team and another time - though not so very long ago. It is a story of tragedy and triumph, somehow all held together by a most resilient type of glue, that they called brotherhood. That their story is also our story, goes without saying. Because if you don't know your own story, then you have forgotten the face of your father. Some current Lobo fans refuse to recoginize these things. They claim to live only for today. How poor tomorrow must then be for them. This is (hopefully) as real as life and death gets for those folks, but the truth is, these things will eventually land much closer to home for all of them.

For three years, a group of young kids saw it fall upon them like a meteor shower.

That they still somehow managed to accomplish victory, friendship, and beauty beneath such a bombardment, is ideed an inspiration for Lobo teams to come.

It is an inspiration for all of us, in fact.

"When the United States entered World War II, the U.S. government turned to ordinary Americans and asked of them extraordinary service, sacrifice, and heroics..."

That excerpt - taken from Tom Brokaw's bestseller, "The Greatest Generation" can't help but remind me of the 2004-2005 Lobo basketball team. Arriving back today from a disappointing result in the biggest game of their young lives - in a sense, we have asked those very same things of these young men under the guise of collegiate athletics.

That even in defeat, they have delivered those things above and beyond the call of duty, makes them the greatest Lobo team ever in my mind.

Just three years removed from the dark times that threatened to put a Lobogate-like drought on our postseason hopes, a team was put together by a fine young man and coach, that has brought honor and dignity back to the Pit. And just like those people that made up that Greatest Generation, these were not superhuman athletes or even famous people. They were simply good, smart, hardworking kids with athletic dreams and goals. Some were castoffs from other teams. Some were heavily traveled - never comfortable in their surroundings. Some had been forced to take the long road to Division 1 - through junior colleges, community colleges or prep schools.

What they all had in common though, was some sort of inner compass that eventually led them to play together for Ritchie McKay at the University of New Mexico. While there, they would meet brothers that they never even knew they had before. One of those brothers, Senque Carey, would go down paralyzed from the neck down before they barely got to know him at all. Though he would later regain his full mobility, he would never play basketball again. Another brother - Mark Walters, would blow out a knee after that first year, and struggle to return to form the very next season, all the while being tangled in a jungle of severe depression.

Oh, but those were the lucky ones - believe it or not. As in any story of triumph, there is a flip-side to this story darkened by personal tragedy.

When Coach McKay conducted his very first informal practice after taking over the reins from Fran Fraschilla, Patrick Dennehy abruptly walked out on it, in an attempt to show the coach his disdain for the direction and changes that the new coach wanted to put into place. Already wary of Dennehy from his past behavior, the coach told him to just keep on walking.

Patrick soon transferred to Baylor, where he would be murdered by a fellow teammate under circumstances that still aren't entirely clear. What is clear however, is that the pressure to win in college basketball at all costs, tempted the winningest coach in UNM history - Dave Bliss, to break the rules and cheat at Baylor - ultimately leading to an attempted cover-up of the facts surrounding Dennehy's death.

We had seen something similar to that deceit before with Norm Ellenberger, and later on to a much lesser extent, with Fran Fraschilla. In choosing a moral man such as Ritchie McKay to salvage the mess that had been made, Rudy Davalos was taking the high road for our team.

At the same time, the fans and the media acted like they had just been slapped across the face. This was just not the shortcut back to the top that they had hoped for.

Thank goodness, for those roads not taken.

New Head Coach Ritchie McKay was a second-generation Lobo, as his late father had played for the team in the early sixties. He had wanted this job all of his life - even if most people at the time did not want him. For McKay, his faith is often a difficult path to follow, but he maintains it all the same. For many fans, the path that they had beaten out traveling to support their team, was also difficult to follow these days. In fact - for many, it had became untraversable.

Attendance - which had been in decline for quite sometime by then, fell even further. This might have deterred some coaches, but not Ritchie McKay. He knew exactly what kind of team he wanted representing this university, and he worked tirelessly towards that end. Unfortunately for the young coach, more tragedy was waiting just around the corner.

Kids sometimes slip through the cracks - or as in Dennehy's case, they jump right through them.

Occasionally, a kid can get swallowed-up by those fissures without even realizing it.

Billy Feeney was a bright light that attracted new friends like moths on a summer night. An early McKay transfer with a very promising basketball future, there wasn't anything that William Patrick Feeney wouldn't do for anyone that he came in contact with.

I wish that "Fat Rocks" had kept some of that charity for himself.

On a dark, August night, Billy Feeney - despondent over some personal issues, became intoxicated and slipped into a deep depression. His teammates - sensing their brother was in need, went out looking for him. They found him talking to his sister on his cellphone in an Albuquerque alley around 3 a.m. - just two hours before he committed suicide.

"He was drunk and distraught," Danny Granger said of his best friend. "We tried to get him in the car. We talked to him for an hour and a half. He finally said he was going to walk to the bus station a block and a half away and go to Colorado."

"I had no clue he was going to do that," Granger added, referring to the suicide. "I should have gotten him in the car. I went home after we talked to him, and he called and said he bought the bus ticket. The last thing he said to me was, ‘Thanks, man, I love you."

Billy also called the coach, between 4 and 5 a.m. speaking with him for about half an hour. Billy told him that he was calling from a bus station and he had purchased a ticket and was going home to Boulder, Colorado. because of some personal issues.

Soon the news would come out that Billy Feeney never really caught that bus back home.

His family while immersed in grief and knowing the closeness of the team, chose his extended family to be the pallbearers at Billy's funeral.

In an emotional and tearful service, they laid their brother to rest.

Coach McKay spoke about how Feeney had the "rare ability to make us all laugh, but never at the sake of another's feelings. He had a way of making you feel important...he would absorb your pain."

"That was God's gift to Billy," the coach said, ultimately breaking down.

And that is why, this is the greatest team.

Moving on from such a difficult year would test the very best of men, but move on in fact, this team did. With few scholarship players, and with two more Fraschilla recruits transferring out, things did not get any easier that second season for the family. Though they would pull out four more wins that season - 14 as opposed to just 10 the season before, many of the natives had moved beyond the restless stage and were inching towards open revolt.

Inexplicably, recruits who had yet to play a game here, were villified on Internet message boards. A coach who had seen more than enough adversity to last a lifetime, was being crucified by those same folks, and the local media were not doing him any favors either.

A lot of players and coaches would surrender to those kinds of things and just play out the rest of their rides and contracts.

But not this family.

2004-2005 was a tale of two teams: The one that nobody believed in and the one that always believed in themselves.

In the end, it would be the latter who would prevail triumphant over them all.

Early on, Lobo fans were greeted with the news that we had once again played bridesmaid for our top two recruits, Ben Allen and Shaun Green. The schedule was of course, picked apart as it is every season. Never mind that it hasn't gotten any easier to convince teams to play us here through the years.

Meanwhile, the family simply took care of business. By the end of the season, the crowds were returning, and the pride and dignity were restored after three long, arduous and mostly thankless years for this coaching staff and team.

  • Second best record in team history at 26 wins and 6 losses
  • The longest away from home winning streak in 27 years
  • Most Conference regular season wins in 7 years
  • First MWC Tourney Championship since 1996
  • First NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999

You might be tempted to think that all of this was accomplished because the misfortunes of the past had not crept into this season. You would be wrong.

The greatest all-around player this school has ever had - Danny Granger, missed three games with a knee injury. All three were losses. Starting point guard Kris Collins was lost for the entire season early into conference play, with a broken foot.

And tragedy was not finished with our kids just yet, either. The father of Lobo basketball - Bob King, would pass away from a prolonged illness just as this team started conference play. If any generation of Lobo fans could truly be called "The Greatest Generation", it would be those who stood alongside this great coach during the 1960's, as he put Lobo basketball on the map.

Coach King would have recognized the father inside of the son now coaching his beloved lobos.

They were kindred spirits.

Tragically last summer, yet another Lobo would be tested by the loss of a loved one. As Alfred Neale watched by helplessly, cancer claimed his beloved mother after years of personal sacrifice for her children. Few would know about it outside of the team at the time, as Al kept his grief private and between his Lobo family until the season had passed.

Mary would have wanted it that way. She had such grand hopes and dreams for her devoted son.

And that is again why, this is the greatest team.

Arriving in Nashville, Tennessee for the NCAA tournament, hopes were sky-high, with the team receiving more hype than it had in several years. Bandwagon fans were out in full force - neither recognizing nor comprehending the trials and tribulations that this family had been through just to get here.

By halftime, it seemed that Lady Luck had forsaken us once again. Shots weren't falling and a tenacious Villanova defense seemed to have broken the hearts of our team.

Well, it might have seemed that way to those who don't know any better, but this team had borne the weight of a thousand heartbreaks and disappointments over the course of these past three seasons.

There had been no quit in the family then, and there would be no quitting in the family today.

In the second half, a seemingly insurmountable lead became just one basket away from being a one-possession game. Mark Walters played as if his heart was going to explode, driving into the lane and refusing to be stopped. Exhorting his teammates to continue up that hill, their charge simply ran out of gas and time.

But only for this one year.

For that is what families do. Leave a solid foundation for future family members to succeed and prosper beyond what they themselves have accomplished.

Extraordinary service, sacrifice, and heroics. Is there really any other way to describe this team?

I am so proud of them. In three years of blood, sweat and tears, they have never let themselves, the school, nor us down....not even once.

Champions all...each and every one. And I don't need stupid Dickie Vitale or a banner to tell me that.

Since the journey of this extraordinary family ended in Music City, I can think of no better way to put a coda on this story, than with these words from Garth Brooks. I dedicate them to the greatest team ever for me: The 2004-2005 New Mexico Lobos.

And now I'm glad
I didn't know
The way it all would end
the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could have missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance

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