The unprecedented success of sixth-ranked San Diego State has whipped the once-feeble fan base into a frenzy. And it's not even March yet
San Diego State senior point guard D.J. Gay can't decide which was more surprising: being hugged by a stranger in the parking lot of a Red Robin in Torrey Pines in December—"You're having a great season," the man gushed. "I'm cheering for you!"—or being chased down by a professor on campus a few weeks ago. After breathlessly shaking Gay's hand, the prof sighed and said, "Now I can tell my husband I've met you!"
It's not just the starters for the sixth-ranked, 27--1 Aztecs who are getting the hero treatment from suddenly hoops-mad San Diegans. When 6'11" senior reserve center Brian Carlwell walked into the State Street Grill on campus to grab a bite after scoring 10 points in an 85--53 blowout of Utah on Feb. 8, diners put down their forks and gave him a standing ovation. "You wouldn't believe some of the crazy things that have happened this season," says Carlwell.
Consider one December afternoon game at the Aztecs' home, Viejas Arena, atop Montezuma Mesa. The 12,414 seats were sold out; the student section was rocking. Not all that unusual, perhaps, for a team enjoying its first-ever climb up the national polls. Except it was New Year's Eve. The students were in the middle of winter break. And the opponent was Division III Occidental College. "That really tells you what's going on here," says longtime Aztecs radio play-by-play announcer Ted Leitner. "That would never have happened in the past."
Of course, no San Diego State team of the past combined a rock-solid backcourt (led by team captain Gay) with a well-balanced offense (six players have led the team in scoring) and a man-to-man defense that's one of the stingiest in the country (the Aztecs were allowing 58.6 points per game through Sunday, seventh fewest in the nation). Most notably, the team has a terrific front line anchored by likely NBA first-rounder Kawhi (kuh-WHY) Leonard, a 6'7", 225-pound sophomore with such freakishly long arms and huge hands that his teammates have nicknamed him the Human Avatar. "He's the best rebounder I've ever seen," says San Diego State coach Steve Fisher of Leonard, who at week's end was averaging 10.7 boards along with 15.2 points. "He has hands that are so big and strong that if he touches the ball, he's going to get it."
Led by Leonard, the Aztecs are in the Top 25 for the first time ever, they are one 43-point explosion by BYU guard Jimmer Fredette from being unbeaten through mid-February, and they are positioned for their first single-digit NCAA seed, which could be as high as a No. 1 (page 58). That could well lead to their first March Madness victory, though few hoopheads expect the school's run to end at one. Already some are throwing around the ultimate mid-major comparison: Butler—only with a longer and more athletic front line.
San Diego State has sold out 13 games at Viejas, compared with eight in the previous 13 years. The students have camped out to claim their one allotted free ticket—even for games against lowly Mountain West foes TCU and Wyoming. When No. 7 BYU comes to town for a nationally televised game on Saturday, the line will again form the night before. Those who get one of the precious 2,500 ducats become part of the Show, which is rapidly eclipsing all student sections in volume and randomness. At the appropriate time, several dozen students in the front rows along one baseline—their costumed numbers usually include a banana, an elf, a gecko and what appears to be an escapee from the '80s band Devo—hold up giant cutout heads of the likes of David Hasselhoff, Justin Bieber, Woody from Toy Story, Miley Cyrus and assorted others (is that Kim Jong-il?) with the goal of distracting a free throw shooting opponent with B-list celebrity overload. Did we mention that they are also really, really loud? A well-traveled ref working a recent Aztecs home game told the coaching staff that the only arena environment that compares with San Diego State's right now is Kansas's.
The man behind all the Mesa madness is Fisher, the professorial, 65-year-old Midwesterner who was last in the national spotlight in 1997, at the end of a storied run at Michigan that included the 1989 NCAA title and Final Four appearances in '92 and '93 with the Fab Five class of Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Jalen Rose, Jimmy King and Ray Jackson. Fisher's tenure in Ann Arbor had started unexpectedly on the eve of the '89 NCAA tournament, when he was named the interim replacement for Bill Frieder, who was ousted after accepting the Arizona State job. It ended just as abruptly in October 1997, when he was fired in the midst of the school's investigation into booster Ed Martin's relationship with Wolverines players. Martin told a subsequent federal probe that he had given a total of $616,000 to four of Fisher's players, with $280,000 going to Webber. (Webber denied receiving the money, but in July 2003 he pleaded guilty to criminal contempt charges, admitting that he lied to a Detroit grand jury about repaying a $38,200 loan to Martin.) NCAA sanctions handed down in '03 included the forfeiture of 113 games and the removal of the '92 and '93 Final Four banners from Crisler Arena. The NCAA found no direct evidence that Fisher was involved with the payments, and he has steadfastly denied that he was aware of them. Firing him, he says now, "was the easy thing to do. There was enough there that [the administration] could justify saying, Even if he didn't know, he should have known. The irony is that nobody knew."
Fisher took a year off, then spent the next season as an assistant with the Sacramento Kings. In March 1999 he was offered a seven-year deal at San Diego State, a program of such modest tradition that its most celebrated alum, former point guard Tony Gwynn, earned his fame in another sport, baseball. (He's still the school's alltime assist leader.) Of the 14 previous seasons 13 had been losing ones, and two-year-old Viejas Arena had drawn average crowds of only 3,700. "The place was a basketball graveyard," says Leitner.
One of the people who advised Fisher to take the job was Frieder, who was by then out of coaching and planning to move to Del Mar. "I knew that Steve would make the program a lot better than it was," says Frieder, who is now an analyst for Westwood One Radio. "But I don't think anybody could have imagined what's happening now."
As his first team struggled through a 5--23 season during which home crowds dwindled to 2,600, Fisher spoke at scores of functions, from coffee klatches to Rotary Club gatherings. He walked around campus giving away tickets. He got to know Southern California high school and AAU coaches, and he sold what he had to recruits: nice weather, nice arena, his NCAA title, the Fab Five and playing time.
"We were everywhere," says Fisher. "We made home visits with guys like Tyson Chandler [a standout in Compton, Calif., who went straight to the NBA out of Dominguez High]. The Fab Five got us in front of the uncles and fathers."
Fisher's first two classes yielded a handful of credibility-building recruits, including junior college transfer Randy Holcomb, a Chicago native who is the only Fisher-coached Aztec to play in the NBA; Tony Bland, an L.A.-area high school All-America who transferred from Syracuse; and Chris Walton, the youngest son of San Diego's most famous hoopster, Bill. The Aztecs made the NCAA tournament in Fisher's third year, in 2002, but it would be four years until their next appearance and four more years before he assembled a breakthrough squad.
In many respects, this year's team, which has eight holdovers from a season that included 25 wins and a near upset of Tennessee in the first round of the NCAAs, is like most of Fisher's: It's composed of a few junior college and D-I transfers as well as a core of four-year players who were overlooked by bigger programs. All but three players are Californians. But having a future pro in their ranks—and a humble, team-oriented one, at that—represents a significant upgrade.
Leonard, from Riverside, Calif., didn't start playing high school or AAU ball until 10th grade at Canyon Springs High. He had played in youth leagues as a kid but gave up basketball in middle school to focus on football, the sport his father, Mark, loved. Kawhi lived with his mother, Kim Robertson, a sales agent for Amtrak, but he spent a lot of time with his dad, who owned a car wash in Compton, an hour away. He credits both his parents for helping him succeed. But it was Mark, who was murdered three years ago in a case that remains unsolved, who reinforced the idea that extra work was the key to improvement. "We ran hills together, we worked on speed, cutting, doing the little things that helped me get better," says Kawhi. "My dad still motivates me today."
After transferring to King High for his junior year, Leonard led the Wolves to the Southern California Regional Division I semifinals at Taft High in L.A., which is where Aztecs assistant Justin Hutson first saw Leonard play. Hutson was struck most by Leonard's versatility and toughness. "He shot the ball from deep, handled the ball, made nice passes, played inside, played a little outside," says Hutson. "He played tough on the defensive end, and he was a man on the boards."
Some recruiters viewed Leonard as a tweener: He didn't have the perimeter skills to be a small forward, and he wasn't big enough to be a power forward. What recruiters overlooked was his work ethic. "Kawhi is a gym rat," says Fisher. "He's a lot better now than he was as a freshman. And he'll be a lot better five years from now. That attitude and desire is what will allow him to come close to maximizing his talent, and he has a lot of that."
Leonard, the 2010 Mountain West Freshman of the Year, is surrounded by experienced hands, including 6'9" senior forward Malcolm Thomas, a San Diego native who arrived by way of Pepperdine and San Diego City College and was averaging 11.6 points and 8.2 rebounds through Sunday; do-everything senior forward Billy White, a Las Vegan who earned conference Freshman of the Year honors in 2008; Chase Tapley, a 6'2" sophomore guard from Sacramento who scores 8.4 points a game; and the sure-handed Gay (his 3.03 assist-to-turnover ratio at week's end ranked eighth in the nation), whom Fisher calls the Aztecs' "most important" player.
"These guys have been around the block," says Fisher. "They are used to stress, they are used to altitude"—six of the Aztecs' conference road games are at elevations between 4,300 and 7,200 feet—"and they are used to winning. I think that's been the most important ingredient, coupled with a genuine liking for one another and a willingness to not get selfish when parents and girlfriends are saying, 'You should be starting; you should be getting more shots.' They remain true to the team."
Gay recognized the unusual bond among the Aztecs after one practice last spring. The players had all agreed to go out to dinner together afterward, but he and forward Tim Shelton were so ravenous, they got food on their own. When their teammates learned that Gay and Shelton had broken ranks, "they all got mad at us," says Gay, chuckling. "So we had a team meeting in the parking lot to talk about it."
The players' natural ease with one another is no doubt boosted by Fisher's offensive open-mindedness, which he calls "freedom within framework," and his even-keeled demeanor. "He has to be the most laid-back coach in America," says Thomas. "No matter what happens, he's not going to lose his cool. I think that really helps us."
With all five starters returning this year, the Aztecs couldn't find many teams willing to play at Viejas, and the athletic department doesn't have the budget to pay more than a few teams to visit. (It also can't afford to charter flights.) So San Diego State played eight nonconference games away from home—the most of any Top 25 team except BYU—and won them all, including a 79--76 thriller over then No. 11 Gonzaga, which had lost just four games out of 81 at the McCarthey Center, and a 77--57 thumping of Cal, the Aztecs' first win on a Pac-10 floor in 28 years.
"When you return everybody from a team that won 25 games, it's harder to schedule games," says assistant Brian Dutcher. "Maybe that's why, in the end, we'll have the kind of year we want to have, because we got tested."
The biggest test still awaits. "I know every program is measured on, Did you win in the tournament?" says Fisher. "If we don't, this will still have been a great year. But if we want the city of San Diego talking about the 2010--11 team 10 years from now, we have to win in the tournament."
It will be a surprise if the Aztecs don't. After they destroyed his team on Feb. 8, Utah coach Jim Boylen called them "a Final Four team."
The thought of that possibility, and the recognition that there are no truly dominant teams this season, momentarily tilts Fisher off-keel. "Why not us?" he asks, sitting in his spacious sun-soaked office. "Really, why not us?"
On Montezuma Mesa, crazier things have already happened.
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LEONARD HAS SUCH FREAKISHLY LONG ARMS AND HUGE HANDS THAT HIS TEAMMATES HAVE NICKNAMED HIM THE HUMAN AVATAR.
STUDENTS IN THE FRONT ROWS HOLD UP GIANT CUTOUT HEADS, HOPING TO DISTRACT OPPOSING FOUL SHOOTERS WITH A B-LIST CELEBRITY OVERLOAD.
Photographs by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
STEADY HANDS The 65-year-old Fisher (near right) has guided a balanced, experienced and defensive-minded squad that includes seniors White (32) and Gay (23) to a 27--1 start.
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
LEAPIN' LEONARD! The sophomore—a first-round NBA prospect whom Fisher calls the best rebounder he's ever seen—averages a double double.
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE When he's not patrolling the paint, Thomas turns up the already high volume at Viejas.
ROBERT BECK (FANS)
[See caption above]