TULSA, Okla. — Seven hundred and eighty miles. That is the driving distance from Las Cruces, New Mexico, to the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Driving time is roughly 12 hours if you only stop to get gas and buy snacks when you need to. It is not the most scenic trip, either. The New Mexico desert eventually turns into the flatlands that lie in the panhandle of Texas, and as you continue the trek east the landscape slowly becomes greener and greener until you’re in the Sooner State.
For 21-year-old NMSU junior communications major Kal McCorkle, that drive was just a part of his childhood. Take Highway 70 through the Sacramento Mountains to Roswell. Highway 54 will get you to Amarillo, Texas. Head east on I-40 for six hours and you’ll arrive in Tulsa.
McCorkle knows those directions like the back of his hand. He and his mother Christi, along with his younger sister Kayla, made that trip four or five times per year to visit their entire family in the Tulsa suburb of Skiatook before pancreatic cancer took Christi’s life in 2015. After his mother passed, Kal was unable to return to visit his grandmother, Diane Stewart, and other family members because he did not have a reliable vehicle to make the cross-country venture or the funds to pay for a round-trip plane ticket.
“It has been really hard on me because I don’t have any family in Las Cruces,” McCorkle said. “I call my grandma a couple times a week, but especially when my mom passed away, it was just really hard on everybody because me and Kayla couldn’t go home and grieve with our family.”
Nearly two and a half years since McCorkle last visited Skiatook, the New Mexico State men’s basketball team earned a ticket to the NCAA Tournament by beating Cal-State Bakersfield in the WAC Tournament Championship. Tulsa was hosting the first and second rounds of the Big Dance for only the third time since 1985. No projections by ESPN or Yahoo had NMSU playing in Tulsa.
When CBS sportscaster Greg Gumbel announced that NMSU would be the East Region’s No. 14 seed and was slated to face off against No. 3 seed Baylor inside the BOK Center, McCorkle’s roommate and close friend, Jeremy Fielder, called him.
“I knew he was from Tulsa, so I was watching the selection show at the gym and saw that the Aggies were playing Baylor in Tulsa,” Fielder said, who graduated from NMSU in 2015 with a master’s degree in psychology. “I called him right away and asked him that if we could save money by staying with his family, I could split gas with him and we could go in my car. It was meant to be.”
Fielder and McCorkle left Las Cruces March 16 at 3 a.m., and didn’t arrive in Skiatook until 4:30 p.m. local time. The pair beat Diane Stewart to her home and hid the car down the street. Stewart was shocked to see her grandson for the first time in almost three years.
“It had been so long since I had seen Kaleon (Kal’s given name) that I don’t remember him having a beard,” Stewart said. “It was so nice to have him back for the weekend. The basketball game was just a bonus for me.”
The trio went to the NMSU-Baylor game Friday morning, March 17, and watched the Aggies play well enough to lead the heavily-favored Bears at halftime before falling 93-71. Despite NMSU’s record-breaking season coming to an end, the opportunity to return home was a storybook ending for a kid from Oklahoma who longed to return to his hometown.