It was his work that led to construction of Pojoaque Valley High School’s gymnasium in 1992, the one that has held his name ever since.
On Thursday, 16 schools will play homage to the New Mexico House speaker, who died Tuesday after a long bout with cancer, as they participate in a basketball tournament that also bears his name.
The Ben Luján Tournament begins at 10 a.m., when Taos and Mesa Vista tip off in the girls portion of the tournament, which is in its 21st year. The boys bracket, which is now in Year 13, begins at 2:30 p.m., with Laguna-Acoma facing Raton. It will be a more somber occasion this year, as the tournament coincides with Luján passing.
No longer will the man with the silver hair sit near midcourt and watch some of Northern New Mexico’s top teams race in front of his gaze.
“Ben Luján, he was just a sports fan,” said Matt Martinez, Pojoaque athletic director. “He loved sports and coming to the games. He loved being at Pojoaque wearing the green and white. That was one of his passions he had in life, along with the other things he did.”
Martinez helped create the girls tournament in 1992, in part to honor his efforts in helping gain the funding for the 2,500-seat facility. Its success eventually led to a boys portion in 2000 and three days of basketball that started in the morning and didn’t end until well into the night time.
Santa Fe Indian School head girls coach Cindy Roybal won the tournament all three years she was at Pojoaque (2003-05), and she noted that Luján’s influence went beyond Pojoaque Valley.
“When I was [athletic director and women’s basketball coach] at Highlands, and I went in front of the Legislature to ask for funds for the university itself, he was always willing to help anytime I needed him,” Roybal said. “It was him or Lucky Varela who were always there for whatever costs I had.”
Martinez developed a strong relationship with the family, especially brother Nestor Luján and his son, Danny Luján, who is an official and the Northern region’s basketball assignor for the New Mexico Officials Association.
“The family is very dear to me, and I really got along with the speaker since I got here 29 years ago,” Martinez said. “He always treated me very dearly and as a professional and friend. I will treasure that. But I think that’s how he treated all the people he came in contact with and he had a lot of friends.”
Roybal said she had been thinking about Luján on Tuesday night, but didn’t learn of his death until watching TV Wednesday morning.
In his honor, the Lady Braves will wear pink ribbons as well as green ones in memory of the victims killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting last week.
Students at Pojoaque already erected a wreath over Luján’s picture in the gymnasium by Wednesday afternoon and Martinez said a moment of silence will be observed before the start of games. He added that no other arrangements have been made out of respect for the Luján family.
Martinez said he will talk to coaches after this weekend about an appropriate way to honor the Speaker.
“We will see what we can do and will continue that for the rest of the year and maybe into next year as well,” Martinez said. “We want to respect the family and their privacy as they make arrangements. We will help them in any way we can.”
In the meantime, the tournament will go on. Yet, the memory of the man who influenced a community always will be in the background.