A Golden Anniversary

1970 Final Four men’s basketball team reunites to celebrate historic feat

By Tiffany Acosta

The most successful team in Aggie men’s basketball history returned to Las Cruces to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its momentous achievement. All nine living players from the 1969-70 Final Four team and two assistant coaches gathered for a reunion in February 2020. 

John Burgess, Jimmy Collins, Charlie Criss, Rudy Franco, Lonnie Lefevre, Tom McCarthy, Roy Neal, Chito Reyes and Jeff Smith, along with assistant coaches Rob Evans and Keith Colson, were honored at halftime of the Feb. 15, 2020 game. Head coach Lou Henson was unable to attend. Team members who have passed away include Milton Horne, Eddie Huff, Sam Lacey and Bill Moore.

“To see all the guys again, it’s really a heartfelt thing to be here,” says Criss ’70. “The reunion is great because I haven’t seen some of these guys in years and years, and to know they are still around, and a couple of our guys have gone, but you think about that and understand what life is all about. Basketball is like life, things go around and you have to deal with it.

“We were a close knit bunch, and we knew we had a chance to do something that was going to be spectacular,” Criss says.

The team finished with a 27-3 record and set the standard for Aggie basketball. Playing in a new facility, the Pan American Center that opened in November 1968, the Amazin’ Aggies made a run in the NCAA Tournament before falling to eventual National Champion UCLA, 93-77, in the national semifinal game.

“We figured we could beat them,” Criss says. “I think if Sam (Lacey) didn’t get hurt we had a good shot to beat them because we were only down seven at half. We had some momentum going into the locker room but Sam was hurt and we got down a little bit about that.”

In the third-place game, NMSU beat St. Bonaventure, 79-73. Collins, Criss and Lacey went on to NBA careers.

“To see the guys, it’s kind of hard to imagine what we did,” says Reyes ’71. “It goes to show what kind of bond we had. All of us fought hard for each other. We had to be close. We weren’t going to lose that’s the way we looked at it.”

For fans who didn’t get to see the Amazin’ Aggies play, Reyes describes the team as “we had a little bit of everything. We had some excellent, excellent defensive ball players. We had a lot of good shooters. The main thing was we all played together, and we had a good game plan. We knew what we had to do, and if we didn’t do it coach Henson would sit us. We all had a game plan and we all stuck to it and supported each other.”

A Yonkers, New York, native, Criss says attending NMSU gave him the opportunity to not only experience the other side of the country but to meet different people.

“I had only been in New York and hadn’t gone anywhere else,” he says. “Being out here was a shock to me, but I knew when we started playing basketball and started practicing it would get better and it did.”

Criss’ NBA career included stints with the Atlanta Hawks, San Diego Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks.

Reyes says his time at NMSU gave him the confidence that resulted in representing Mexico in the 1976 Olympics.

“It prepared me to travel all over the world,” Reyes says. “It seemed to me everywhere I went I was mentally, physically and emotionally prepared for any kind of tournament no matter where I was.”

All nine living players from the 1969-70 Final Four team (from left) Charlie Criss, John Burgess, Roy Neal, Lonnie Lefevre, Jeff Smith, Chito Reyes, Rudy Franco, Jimmy Collins and Tom McCarthy, along with assistant coaches (seated) Keith Colson and Rob Evans, gathered for a reunion in February 2020.