Chito Reyes, a fan favorite during a glorious period for New Mexico State… (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles…)
Forty years later, Chito Reyes can't help grinning, eyes wide, as he steps onto the floor at Pauley Pavilion.
"Look at this place," he says.
The arena is empty on a weekday afternoon but he can still see the crowd, hear the band, just like 1969 when he first set foot in the building.
Memories come trickling back from that day when Reyes, a sophomore forward for New Mexico State, played against UCLA in a regional semifinal of the NCAA basketball tournament.
He recalls seeing the blue-and-gold flags and feeling jittery during warmups. Wanting to meet John Wooden. Watching the Bruins jog out from the locker room, one head bobbing far above the others.
"Lew Alcindor," he says. "You didn't want to admit it, but when you saw that guy you felt like you were already 10 points down."
Most of all, Reyes could not quite believe he was there.
Basketball was taking him on a wondrous journey, a path that would lead to professional ball in Mexico and to the Olympic Games, then back to Southern California, where he forged another type of career working with troubled youths.
All these years later, as Reyes sits in the stands to watch his alma mater face UCLA in a nonconference game tonight, he still marvels.
"You've got to realize where I came from," he says.
Working at it
Just outside of Las Cruces, N.M., thousands upon thousands of pecan trees line the highway, part of a vast farm where Reyes grew up. Much of his youth was spent picking pecans, and some cotton, beside family members.
"No one had ever gone to college," he says. "We didn't think about that."
Sports offered a relief from work, but he never guessed this hobby would amount to much. Two things happened to change the course of his life.
First, he grew tall enough to be good at basketball. Second, his parents moved to Southern California and, after some years of staying in New Mexico with his grandmother, Reyes decided to join them.
The teenager who showed up at Marshall High in the mid-1960s had a curious two-handed jump shot that started somewhere behind his ear and wrapped around his head.
"It wasn't what you'd learn out of a textbook, but it made him play taller, hard to block," says Pete Arbogast, who serves as Marshall's unofficial sports historian when he's not calling USC football games on radio.
"Chito had a good quick move, a first step to the basket from the wing," Arbogast says. "He stood out for sure."
Reyes also worked as hard in the classroom as he had in the fields, earning solid grades. Not many Latinos played big-time basketball then, but when recruiters started showing up at his games, college became a distinct possibility.
Nebraska, Arizona State, and the Naval Academy expressed interest, and USC nearly had him signed -- until a more tempting offer came along.
Back in the early 1960s, Lou Henson made a name coaching at Hardin-Simmons University in Texas where, after persuading administrators to integrate the team, he built a winner.
Taking over at New Mexico State in 1966, he continued scouring the country for the right kinds of athletes.
Sam Lacey was a skinny, 6-foot-10 kid from Mississippi. Charlie Criss was, at 5-8, too short to draw much attention in New York.
The situation was different for Reyes, who had options, but Henson discovered that the recruit's beloved grandmother still lived near Las Cruces.
"When we found out we had a chance to get him," the coach recalls, "we recruited him hard."
Reyes quickly warmed to the idea of coming home, even though Lacey, Criss and Jimmy Collins were clearly the stars.
"Put it this way -- the plays weren't designed for me," Reyes says. "If I wanted to be on the court, I had to do the dirty work."
It was a glorious time for the Aggies, who established themselves among the nation's top teams with a string of NCAA tournament appearances.
While Reyes played a workman's role, rarely putting up big numbers, he became a star in the community and a favorite among Latino fans. People called him "Chito the Bandito."
"You talk about a guy with charisma, I've never seen anybody who has more," Henson says.
Playing on a strong team and getting a college education, reunited with his grandmother, Reyes was having the time of his life and it was about to get better.
At the end of his sophomore season, New Mexico State charged into the NCAA tournament, defeating Brigham Young in the first round to earn a shot at top-ranked UCLA.
He was on his way back to Los Angeles.
The greatest thing
Forty years later, his youthful charm remains, the 60-year-old Reyes standing tall with that smile and a ready laugh, his hair turned white.
Too much of life has gone by for him to worry about the final score of any particular game.
After college, he won championships with the Chihuahua Dorados and represented Mexico in the 1976 Summer Olympics.