Hobbs High takes aim at 17th state title

Gene Bartow only took UCLA to the Final Four in his first season. That wasn't good enough when filling John Wooden's seat on the Bruins' bench.

Joe B. Hall only won one national title with the Kentucky Wildcats. That didn't satisfy those devoted to his predecessor, Adolph Rupp.

Phil Bengtson? Succeed Vince Lombardi in Green Bay? Didn't work out very well.

Such scenarios ran through Russ Gilmore's mind before the 1998-99 season when presented the opportunity to coach the boys' basketball team at Hobbs High School (New Mexico). Basketball was the stuff of legend at Hobbs, with sold-out crowds in the 3,300-seat arena. Fans waited decades to get a shot at sold-out season tickets in the first-tier seats.

If Gilmore said yes, he would be handed the keys to a state treasure from the retiring Ralph Tasker. In 49 seasons in the southeastern New Mexico town of about 40,000, Tasker won 11 state championships, built a following that filled the stands on most game nights, and even left his name on that gym. At one time, he was the winningest coach in national high school basketball.

Even today, 11 years later, his lifetime record ranks third (1,122 victories). Robert Hughes, most recently of Fort Worth (Texas), leads the way with a mark of 1,333-265 (83.4 percent). Hall of Famer Morgan Wootten, of DeMatha, is second with 1,274 wins.

That's what gave Gilmore second thoughts.

"I was thinking like a traditional coach," said Gilmore, head coach back then at Tascosa (Amarillo, Texas). "Why don't I let somebody else take it, let them fail, and I'd be the next guy to come along."

In stepped the Gilmore girls. The coach's two daughters said "the next guy" might just keep on winning and dear ol' Dad might never get the opportunity.

Gilmore listened. "I just kind of took it and ran with it," he said.

And run he has. Even the most devoted Hobbs Eagles fans back then, seeking the slightest flaw in their new coach, must have walked away frustrated. In that opening '98-99 season, Gilmore and the Eagles won every game, and they did it in the same manic style that Hobbs fans came to embrace and then demand under Tasker. Twenty-seven wins in all, all the way to the Class 5A state championship in Albuquerque.

The next year, the Eagles didn't win 'em all, but they won another title. And again in 2001. And in '02, to surpass Tasker's best run of consecutive championships.

Last season, Hobbs made it five titles in 10 seasons under Gilmore in dramatic fashion. The second-seeded Eagles were matched in the 5A final against the top-seeded Clovis Wildcats, their district rivals. Hobbs won 73-71 to claim its 16th title, most of any school in the state. By comparison, St. Anthony of Jersey City, N.J. has 25 state championships; Cheynne Central in Wyoming has 24, according to the 2009 National High School Record Book.

"Not anyone could come in and keep that going," Hobbs athletic director Greg Haston said. "Yes, there's a tradition here. But they've got to get those kids from point A to point B. They work their kids harder than anybody."

Hobbs fans expect winning, accomplished in the framework that Tasker laid out in the mid-1950s. The Eagles employ man-to-man pressure from baseline to baseline, buzzer to buzzer. It was that tactic that was observed and adopted by a young coach at Bowie High (El Paso, Texas) a few decades ago. It became known nationally as "40 minutes of hell" when Nolan Richardson, who witnessed it as a visiting high school coach, reached the University of Arkansas.

Guy Baber played on Gilmore's first three teams and confesses the Eagles didn't always press.

"We'd drop into a zone to throw off the opponent," Baber said. "But only on the road."

Throughout Hobbs' long run of success under Tasker and Gilmore, all roads in town have led to the high school gym. Any time of the year and almost any age. Tasker left a higher-paying job at nearby Lovington after winning a state championship in 1949 because he didn't have the say over when the gym could be used.

"It's tradition to play in summer league since you're a little kid, from noon to 9," said Baber, a graduate of Texas A&M who lives in Houston. He played as a Sanger Elementary Sun, then a Highland Junior High Bear. All with the hope of becoming a Hobbs Eagle.

A basketball-playing Eagle. About 90 minutes away in the Midland-Odessa area of Texas, football holds the same trance over the populace.

"I was not interested in football at a young age; I didn't even think about it," Baber said. "We idolized the basketball players. My dad played. My uncle played."

The kids are part of the show at high school games. Youngsters in little Eagles uniforms lead the varsity team out onto the court before each game.

The fan base has practically become part of the show. The school sells season tickets to the best seats at Ralph Tasker Arena, capacity about 3,300. The most prized spots are on the east side, lower section. That's the side that features the scorer's table -- but not the benches. The coaches and players sit beneath the baskets, a practice that Tasker began to get what he considered a better view of the game.

Gayle Flores keeps track of the tickets now. If you called today to get on the waiting list for one of the 1,028 season tickets, Flores said she'd put you down at ... let's see ... No. 258. You probably won't get a call back until after the next presidential election. Or two.

"It's just amazing the support that the town of Hobbs gives to that basketball program," said Frank Castillo, long-time coach at La Cueva (Albuquerque). "You almost have to experience it to understand it."

The gym was named for Tasker in 1970. That was the year the Eagles averaged 114.6 points a game. In the early '90s, he briefly held the national record for career victories.

Tasker died at age 80 in July 1999, a little more than a year after leaving the bench.

Hobbs' lineups have usually been small and athletic. Alums include three-time NBA all-star Bill Bridges and veteran college coach Rob Evans.

Hobbs is located only two miles west of the Texas line, and many Eagles have played at Texas Tech. The proximity to the larger population centers of West Texas -- and the reluctance of some New Mexico coaches to schedule the Eagles -- has resulted in Hobbs playing much of its non-district schedule against Texas schools.

Rick Shed has been following the Eagles for 30 years and has coached one of the two eighth-grade teams in town for the last six. He's part of the traveling show that often follows Hobbs on the road, a road that's two hours to Clovis, five hours to Albuquerque.

"I've been in Midland, Amarillo, Abilene, El Paso; in some instances, there have been more Hobbs fans than hometown fans," Shed said. "I run into the same people out of town. I probably see 'em more out of town than I do in town."

Sometimes all the tradition has its tangible advantages. Jeff Taylor was a Hobbs player in the 1970s who went to Texas Tech, played in the NBA for a couple of seasons, then settled in Sweden. His son, Jeff, decided as a teenager to play American high school basketball and moved in with relatives in Hobbs for his junior and senior years. He set the school scoring record in just two seasons and was the star of last season's champions. He is starting this season for Vanderbilt.

Qualifying for the 5A basketball playoffs in New Mexico is similar to reaching the postseason in the NBA or NHL. There are 22 schools in five districts and 16 playoff slots. The five district winners will be joined by 11 at-large schools chosen by a state committee. The first-round games will be played at school campuses with the eight winners advancing to Albuquerque.

No, state tournament games aren't included in the Hobbs season-ticket package. Maybe they should be.

"The Hobbs fans plan their vacations around the state tournament," said Evans, an assistant at Arkansas after being the head coach at Mississippi and Arizona State. "They expect Hobbs to win the state championship. And if Hobbs isn't there, they'll probably go anyway."

The Eagles are 21-4 with one district game left to play. Three teams compete in the district: Hobbs, Carlsbad and Clovis. Hobbs plays each opponent twice. They'll finish on Feb. 20 at Clovis and are assured another playoff berth.

"They just play together well as a team, rebound really well and play good defense," said Gilmore, probably describing most Hobbs teams for more than half a century.

Would winning another title make this a good time for Gilmore to walk away on top?

"I just love coaching the game," he said. "I love taking high school kids and seeing how good you can make 'em, try to come together as a common goal.

"If you feel that high school's the way you want to go, it's really hard to do a whole lot better."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.