New Mexico’s newest pro basketball team: the Santa Ana Thunder

New Mexico’s newest pro basketball team: the Santa Ana Thunder

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – There have been multiple professional basketball teams to come through New Mexico over the years. This year, 2024, marks the inaugural season for the state’s newest team, the Santa Ana Thunder.

With ties to the Santa Ana Pueblo, the Thunder plays in The Basketball League (TBL) and calls Bernalillo High School its home for gamedays. The league fosters an environment for players who want to continue their playing career at a professional level and give them an opportunity to showcase their talent for other leagues overseas and even the NBA G-League.

The Thunder is coached by Cliff Levingston, who brings an extensive resume to the team. As a player, Levingston was a two-time NBA champion with the Chicago Bulls in the early 90s. Following his playing career, he has coached at multiple minor league levels in the United States and around the world.

Through Levingston’s experience, he has learned the importance of embracing the local basketball culture. There are multiple players on the current Thunder roster who call New Mexico home and are helping kickstart the franchise. It is a big step for the team to connect with the community.

“You know you have to find local talent in order to make minor leagues work, especially here in New Mexico,” said Levingston. “There’s a lot of guys in New Mexico who want an opportunity but never had a real opportunity of playing with a real pro team.”

“Everybody knows how it is out here when you’re from here,” guard Marcus Williams said. “They don’t think that we’re that good until they out here. So it’s good that I come out here and show.”

The team is also a bit of a trailblazer in a few ways. Led by the first female African-American majority owner in league history, Ingrid E. Hutt, the team also rosters the first player in league history to come from Navajo heritage.

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“I’m from Naschitti, New Mexico, really. It’s Navajo Nation, and we have all the land, dirt, hills rocks, and so the whole day when I’m not in the gym, I’m running hills,” said guard Nathaniel Yazzie. “I knew the numbers of it, like me playing pro, it was very low because I’ve never seen a Navajo play professional basketball. I felt like I was good enough to make that jump to get paid to play.”

Many of the players feel they are good enough to play at higher levels of basketball and are glad to use the Thunder as a stepping stone to get there. They believe they are in a league capable of being seen by scouts thanks to its competitive and challenging nature.

“This is not a hobby. This is a career, Levingston said. “If you want to make it a career, you can make it a career.”

“It’s different than anything I’ve been involved in, but all the players are really talented, very athletic, very skillful guys,” said Williams. “We have a talented team. We just have to figure out how to put it together.”

The Thunder is currently nearing the mid-way point of its first season. There are six remaining home games, which all take place at Bernalillo High School. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.

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