As a fourth-grader growing up in the heights of southeast Albuquerque, Marty Watts had no interest in the 1962 men’s basketball Class A state championship game in Albuquerque.
In fact, he had no interest in basketball at all until he was dragged to Johnson Gym and thrust into a seat a few rows off the ground.
It was a simpler time. The Pit would not open for four years, the tournament was not overcrowded with apparently 160 teams split into 10 brackets as it is now, and the games shown on television were spectacular events rather than the one of dozens of entertainment options at your fingertips. Nowadays.
“The state was a big deal in its own way in 1962,” says Watts, now a sales manager for an Albuquerque-area radio station.
Surrounded by a sold-out crowd of over 7,000 fans, the young Watts unwittingly joined a countless line of others who – past and present – fell in love with a team that never lifted the trophy. championship and who has nevertheless cultivated a mythical position that exists 60 years after his triumphant failure.
“Looking back, this has to be the most legendary game I’ve ever seen,” says Watts. “It was one of those games you could never sit down because it was so exciting. If anything, it made me want to go out and be a baseball player. That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? It gives us all a chance to see something magical, even from teams that don’t win it.
That team that captured hearts and minds in March 1962 was the St. Michael’s Horsemen, a group of Catholic school children colloquially known as the Mighty Midgets. While the moniker’s origins are up for debate, his pitching streak stems from a starting lineup made up entirely of players 5-foot-9 or under.
The surviving members of this team still stay in touch and, when the situation calls for it, get together on occasion to catch up and share a few laughs. All are now in their late 70s; a few still live in the area.
Five of the remaining Midgets attended Friday’s practice at St. Michael’s and spoke to the players ahead of Saturday’s Class 3A state tournament opener.
“These boys, they’re about to experience something that will stay with them forever,” says former Midget Steve Arias. “We were lucky to create memories for a lifetime. I can only hope they do the same. It’s there for them.
The Midgets, of course, never achieved their goal. Their 66-64 loss to Albuquerque Sandia in what was then the Class A final was broadcast live on statewide television, attaching them to a wider audience than any of them would have. could imagine it.
“People came to like us because we were so small and we weren’t supposed to do what we were doing,” says David Fernandez, the team’s top rebounder and multi-sport star during his time at St. Michael’s. “We would run. Oh, did we run. We would press and play defense and go full speed the whole game. People liked our hustle and that’s how we won.
Coached by Dick Shelley, the small team that could — and, yes, future Kansas State 7-footer Nick Pino was on the team but barely got off the bench — gained a huge following. In the regular season, he played at Santa Fe High in front of a packed crowd of 5,400 at the Sweeney Center and faced rowdy crowds on a two-game road trip to Hobbs over the holidays.
The team even had a game in Roswell where one of the three cars they used to get from town to town caught fire during the game.
“Some of those trips have been the best part,” former Midgets guard Ivan Montoya said. “That, and being part of something big.”
At the time the tournament took place, places were hard to come by. The first two rounds were sold out at Johnson Gym and the title match was sold out before the tip-off.
“My parents couldn’t even get in,” Midgets guard Tommy Vigil said. “They must have sat in the car and listened to it on the radio.”
All stories need a hero, and Vigil was cast in this role early on. Universally regarded as the team’s worst free throw thrower, he was sent to the line in the dying seconds of overtime against heavily favored Carlsbad in the quarterfinals.
In a small group before he got down to business, Vigil’s coach gave him a kind look and a vote of confidence that a Hollywood producer would dream of.
“And let me tell you, none of us thought he was going to make those free throws,” Montoya says.
“Nick Pino had this old pickup truck, and he used to take us all out after practice, and the last thing you wanted to do was get in the back during basketball season,” says backup guard Connie Trujillo. “Coach Shelley had a thing where he made you stay late until you made that many free throws. Tommy was always the last one out. I don’t think he ever got in the seat before .
Vigil, of course, did both, and the Midgets won in triple overtime.
“Remember, this was probably the best team Carlsbad ever had,” says Marty Saiz, an insurance agent from Albuquerque who is writing a book about the history of high school basketball in New Mexico. . “They had the great Ben Monroe, the future Lobo 6-3 or 6-4. St. Mike’s had no reason to win this game.
Consider that the state tournament only included two rankings from 1954 to 1963. Schools with more than 500 students were designated for class A, and everyone else was in class B.
Enrollment at St. Michael was just over 500, thanks to a K-12 program.
“We entered this tournament with maybe a third of the student body from schools like Sandia, but our 500 was much smaller when you think about the number of elementary kids we had,” says Arias.
Part of Saiz’s book chronicles the 1962 tournament, a tournament filled with upheaval, overflowing crowds at Johnson Gym and an inevitable buzz generated by the Midgets.
Three-time defending state champion Las Cruces, coached by future college hall of famer Lou Henson, lost to Valley in the first round while Hobbs was shocked by Cobre.
Even Santa Fe High had fun. Coached by Salvador Perez, the Demons and future University of New Mexico quarterback Stan Quintana were eliminated by Sandia in the quarterfinals.
Saiz compares the St. Mike’s-Sandia tilt to some of the greatest prep games New Mexico has ever seen, like the 1999 final that featured undefeated big schools Hobbs and Albuquerque La Cueva and the title game. of 1981 between the undefeated Hobbs and coach Ralph Tasker against a one loss at Albuquerque High and coach Jim Hulsman. He also mentions, to name a few, the 2012 5A final which pitted future college players Bryce Alford (La Cueva) against Cullen Neal (Albuquerque Eldorado).
The Midgets upset Valley in the semifinals before meeting Sandia and a roster that included future NBA player Gary Suiter and 6-foot-7 college prospect Lou Baudoin. Baudoin won a national title four years later with the legendary Texas Western team coached by Don Haskins. He was also portrayed as a supporting character in the 2006 film road to glorywhich tells the story of this team.
Suiter played one season in the NBA with the Cleveland Cavaliers, but he, like a number of other players on that team, has since passed away. That list includes Jimmy Pappan, a 5-9 guard whose 20-foot jumper with seven seconds left proved to be the game-winner. It turned out to be his only field goal of the entire tournament.
“It was one of those hits where everyone on our side was, like, ‘No, no, no…yes!’ joked Baudoin. “Jimmy and I had only one job the whole game: to get the ball in half court and toss it to Gary. Jimmy’s job wasn’t to shoot the ball with seven seconds left.
Midget elder Ray Sanchez had a chance to tie the game at the buzzer, but his last-second shot just inside the free-throw line bounced off the iron. He broke the hearts of an entire city but, even in defeat, forever etched the team in their memories.
“For a few years, people stopped [us] down the street and say, “Hey, you were one of the Midgets,” Trujillo says. “Such a good feeling.”
The 1962 final went exactly as one would expect. Suiter had an incredible game with 24 points and 34 rebounds – eight more than the Horsemen as a team. Baudoin shot 9 for 11, finishing with 22 points and 10 rebounds, but the Midgets’ quickness nearly exposed a fatal flaw in the Matadors. St. Mike’s forced more than three dozen turnovers, many of which helped erase a 15-point deficit.
Fernandez had 22 points to lead the Midgets while smooth shooting Gil Gutierrez had 17 and Sanchez 14.
A retired teacher at Albuquerque Academy, Baudoin lives in Corrales and still keeps in touch with a number of Midgets. When he revisits his earliest memories of that 1962 tournament, he can only laugh at his first impression of what was to come.
“First let me say this: they were the toughest team we’ve seen and they just ran and pressed like nobody we played with,” Baudoin said. “But they didn’t really strike you as typical basketball players. Some of these guys, their shooting style was like something you would find in a guy off the court. They didn’t really have that classic style but, yeah, they could play. And their trainer, the man was a genius.
A few years ago, the Midgets hosted a reunion to help raise money for a scholarship named after Dick Shelley. The Horsemen will go on six more trips to the final before the decade is out, winning three. Shelley died in 1967 at the age of 39.
Honoring their coach, someone found the original TV footage of that Sandia match and edited out the final seconds to make it look like the Horsemen had won, that the trophy was theirs.
As fun as it is to dream of a different outcome, the man known as ‘Freight Train Fernandez’ suggested the Midgets were okay with their story.
“We’ve been through a lot together, but I don’t think we would change anything,” he says.
And a city that still retains the team’s legendary status wouldn’t either.