By the late 1950’s the need for a new and larger campus gynamsium at NMSU had become evident. As the school and its athletic programs grew, tiny and antiquated Williams Gymnasium had become woefully inadequate. After the new campus of Las Cruces High School opened less than one mile from NMSU’s campus in 1957 the Aggies began to play many of their home games in the high school’s new 3,000-seat gymnasium because it was significantly larger than the university’s own gym. When NMSU alumnus Lou Henson returned to the school as head coach in 1966 and quickly began building the basketball program into a perennial NCAA Tournament participant the push for a new facility began in earnest, and the next year the New Mexico State Legislature approved a $22 million capital outlay program that included provisions for a new arena at NMSU (the |same bill also funded construction of NMSU’s student union building). Construction of the arena cost $3.5 million, and the building was inaugurated on November 30, 1968 with a 95-89 victory over Colorado State. The facility’s name was suggested by a Mr. Paul Rader for its location just off Interstate 25, also known as the Pan American Highway.
The university’s investment paid quick dividends, as the Aggies won their first ten games in the new building before falling to archival New Mexico on January 29. The Aggies wouldn’t lose again on the Pan Am’s parquet floor until dropping the 1971-72 season opener to Angelo State, snapping an amazing 34-game home winning streak over the course of three seasons. During the Pan Am’s first three seasons NMSU compiled a gaudy 44-1 record within its friendly confines. The Aggies qualified for their third consecutive NCAA Tournament in the building’s inaugural year and hosted BYU in an opening round matchup at the Pan Am on March 8, 1969 – a 74-62 Aggie victory. The next year saw the most successful season in school history to date as the “Amazin’ Aggies” advanced to the NCAA Final Four before falling to eventual national champion UCLA in the national semifinal. Three days later the Aggies bounced back to defeat St. Bonaventure in the now-defunct Consolation game to finish the season third in the nation.
Although the phenomenal success enjoyed by the Aggies during the arena’s first few seasons would not continue, the Pan Am would continue to establish a reputation as an extremely difficult place to play. To date the Aggies have compiled four undefeated seasons at home, and only twice in 40 seasons has NMSU had a losing home record (1984-85 and 2004-05). Twice the Pan Am has seen home winning streaks of more than 25 games (34 games between 1968-71 and 29 games between 1989-91). Among the most memorable games in the Pan Am’s history are NMSU’s heartbreaking 91-89 overtime loss to Larry Bird’s #2-ranked Indiana State squad on February 2, 1979 (the then-undefeated Sycamores' closest call until losing to Michigan State in that year’s legendary national title game); a 72-64 win over New Mexico on December 15, 1990 that saw an all-time record 14,845 fans squeeze into the arena, a nationally televised 83-82 upset of #7-ranked eventual national champion UNLV on January 8, 1990, and the Aggies' thrilling 72-70 defeat of Utah State in the 2007 WAC Tournament Championship Game that clinched the Aggies' seventeenth NCAA Tournament appearance.
As much as the Aggies success in the building, the Pan Am is also noted for its raucous fans, dubbed the “Panamaniacs” by Dick Vitale. The NMSU student section is known for its sometimes offensive antics and chants directed at the opposing team and referees. Perhaps the best known chant, and the one that has drawn the most controversy, follows every successful opposition free throw. After making a charity shot, an opposing player is serenaded by the Panamaniacs with the chant “Nice shot, (expletive).” Although it has been a fixture of Aggie home games for nearly twenty years, the chant is still quite controversial and has reportedly caused broadcasters to shy away from televising games from the Pan Am, particularly in the post-“Wardrobe Malfunction” era. Nonetheless, ESPN2 did televise two games from the arena during the 2006-07 season, during which the chant was heard on air numerous times. Prior to the Aggies' regular-season home game against Utah State on February 22, 2007 an open letter from the athletics department was distributed announcing what the university is calling the "Bigger Man Project," in which fans are being encouraged to tone down their vulgar language while retaining the Pan Am's raucous atmosphere. During the game fans spontaneously modified the free throw chant to replace the expletive with an approximate Spanish translation. The WAC shortly thereafter released a modified version of its fan conduct policy specifically prohibiting offensive chants in both English and Spanish, which is read over the public address system before every home game. Since then, the "Nice Shot" chant has generally disappeared.
In 2005 the New Mexico State Legislature approved funding for a $23 million renovation of the Pan American Center. Included in the renovation was the construction of a new annex at the building’s south end housing new locker room facilities, athletic and special events offices, and support facilities. Additionally, the older part of the arena was thoroughly renovated, more than tripling the number of restrooms and concession facilities in the building and adding a new, larger concourse around the circumference of the arena. The renovations caused a brief throwback to the 1960’s pre-Pan Am era, as several events (most notably virtually the entire 2006 home volleyball schedule) were moved to Las Cruces High School, as NMSU lacks another facility on campus that could accommodate any significant number of fans. The LCHS arrangement proved a very beneficial one in terms of on-court success as the volleyball Aggies compiled the first undefeated home season in school history while playing all but two home matches at LCHS, including an epic 5-game upset of Hawai'i that ended Nā Wahine's eight-year WAC winning streak.
Although the renovation was scheduled for completion by the beginning of the 2006-07 basketball season construction delays caused the renovation to drag on throughout the season. Most controversially, the access tunnel linking the new locker rooms in the annex to the arena floor was not completed until February, forcing both the Aggies and the opposition, along with the referees, to enter the arena via the stands for much of the season, Due to the building’s layout, opposing teams had to enter and leave the court through the student section behind the south goal, causing several visiting teams (particularly WAC opponents) to publicly complain about the arrangement. The new tunnel was first used for the January 31 game against Boise State. The renovations were ultimately completed just in time for the start of the 2007 WAC Tournament, with finishing touches being applied in the final days before the event began.
The Pan Am hosted the 2007 WAC Men's and Women's Basketball tournaments. Although the tournament was a resounding success financially and set a new conference record for total attendance, the men's bracket was marred by a series of ugly on- and off-court incidents. A brawl nearly erupted in a quarterfinal game between Boise State and Fresno State after Fresno's Quinton Hosley elbowed Boise's Coby Karl in the head. Order was quickly restored and Hosley was ejected from the game. Incidentally, Karl's father, NBA coach George Karl, was in attendance at the game and witnessed the incident firsthand. The following night Karl was again at the center of a controversial play after he knocked NMSU's Tyrone Nelson to the floor on a breakaway dunk attempt. An incensed Reggie Theus ran onto the court to confront Karl and had to be physically restrained. Karl was charged with an intentional foul and Theus was assessed a technical foul, but order was again restored after a few minutes and the game concluded without incident. Earlier that same night, after tournament favorite Nevada was upset by Utah State in the first men's semifinal, Wolf Pack coach Mark Fox reportedly engaged in a heated confrontation with a referee in the tunnel leading to the locker rooms following the game. During the incident Fox allegedly also shoved a police officer. A police report of the incident was filed, but no criminal charges were pursued in the matter. In another bizarre incident, Nevada standout Kyle Shiloh suffered a hamstring injury in his team's quarterfinal win over Idaho after slipping on a temporary WAC Tournament logo decal at center court. Shiloh was unable to play for the rest of the tournament, but did return for Nevada's later NCAA Tournament games. The men's tournament concluded on March 10 with a hard-fought but cleanly played title game won by the host school by a 72-70 score over Utah State.
The women's tournament was probably most notable for the shocking first-round upset loss by perennial powerhouse Louisiana Tech to the seventh-seeded hosts. The loss all but assured that the Lady Techsters would miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the event's inception in 1982. Louisiana Tech had been one of only two schools (the other being Tennessee) to have participated in every NCAA Women's Tournament. The Lady Aggies' win ignited their second consecutive improbable WAC Tournament run as they advanced to the tournament's title game as a #7 seed (out of a total of 9 teams) for the second consecutive year. However, the Aggies were once again unable to complete the cinderella story as they fell to top-seeded Boise State in the championship game by a 49-46 score.
In addition to its extensive history as a collegiate basketball venue, the Pan American Center has been a prolific host to a wide variety of concerts and special events in its four decades of service. Former Special Events director Barbara Hubbard once remarked that it would be easier to compile a list of major recording acts that had not played the Pan Am than it would be to name all those that had. For many years the building was a natural stop for many concert tours as it was the largest venue along Interstate 10 between Houston and Phoenix. However, the construction of newer comparably sized venues in El Paso and Tucson, combined with New Mexico's gross receipts tax on concerts and special events, has led to a significant decline in the number of events scheduled at the arena. The 2006-07 renovation and a new state law exempting the Pan Am from the gross receipts tax were both approved in part to help the arena once again become more competitive in booking major acts.
Beyond its prolific concert resume, the Pan Am has seen a wide variety of other events, from bull riding events to professional wrestling and boxing matches. Among the more notable events held in the arena are the 1996 Miss Teen USA pageant, presidential speeches (most recently a campaign stop by George W. Bush in 2004), and the annual Las Cruces International Mariachi Conference. The arena also hosts the university's annual fall and spring commencement ceremonies as well as those of several area high schools. The arena has also occasionally hosted the New Mexico State High School Basketball Tournament when the event's usual venue in Albuquerque was unavailable due to scheduling conflicts.