College basketball’s quietest kingdom has everything except its due attention

College basketball’s quietest kingdom has everything except its due attention

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 1

SAN DIEGO — If somehow you remain unimpressed with the basketball kingdom that has hatched and blossomed across the young century in this photogenic corner of the American landmass, then you must have committed East-Central bias or Los Angeles bias or conference bias, or have been afflicted with chronic obliviousness or bad vibes.

“Pretty impressive, huh?” retired coach Steve Fisher said.

“A diamond tucked here at the corner of the continental landscape,” San Diego State graduate and to-the-marrow fan John Paul Hernandez said.

“A rolling ball, gathering moss, growing, growing,” longtime pep band member, sometime pep band director and full-time season ticket holder Sarah Eishen said.

All refer to a San Diego State Aztecs men’s basketball program with at least 20 wins in 18 of the past 19 seasons and 19 wins in the other, a record of 128-30 since fall 2019 and 20-7 this season, and something still more magical. It has recalibrated the sports tenor of a big city that lost its Chargers — and its Clippers and Rockets long before that — and has redecorated something as elemental as people’s attire. It has amassed lore until topping the whole thing last spring with what longtime play-by-play man Ted Leitner calls “kismet.” It uprooted No. 1 overall seed Alabama from March Madness and barged clear to the national title game.

For those elsewhere still oblivious — and they do exist, as note Aztecs fans who double as careful students of weekly polls — there are options. Hearing What the hell is wrong with you? could be one. Visiting 12,000-seat Viejas Arena could be another.

“People that have never been in our arena that come in there now, they are blown away,” said Fisher, who helmed the team from 1999 to 2017.

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This fresh member on the list of Buildings College Basketball Fans Really Should Experience brims with appeal. For one, it’s built into a hillside canyon, a distinction less feasible in, say, Kansas. For another, it’s in San Diego. It’s a campus gem that holds its noise: vertical, steep of stands, with red seats and fan attire massively black. Also, it’s in San Diego. It’s earthy, free of gross luxury suites, and the fight song twice contains the proper noun “Montezuma.” Further, it’s in San Diego.

It has banners for 2011 and 2014 Sweet 16 teams, showing a welcome lack of huffiness, and its banner for the 2023 Final Four hangs flanked by those for the great Kawhi Leonard (2009-11), the exemplary Michael Cage (1980-84) and two players of local reverence, Judy Porter (1980-83) and Milton “Milky” Phelps (1938-41). Viejas provides the occasional sighting of a Tony Gwynn basketball jersey (No. 24), an enchanting reminder that the late Hall of Fame baseball player still holds Aztecs basketball assist records. And it has a student section called “The Show,” noted for delirium, chants, costumes and large cardboard heads of the famous and infamous. Might “The Show” have room for some locally famed grandmas? “The Show” has room for some locally famed grandmas, Leila McCoy and Bette Boucher.

Let the galloping record show that Viejas hosted an electric week in mid-February 2024. It saw the Aztecs construct arguably the best second half of any team all season, a 40-11 push through Colorado State (19-5). And it saw the Aztecs fend off New Mexico (20-5) as the Lobos’ willing villain, Jaelen House, kept egging on “The Show” and vice versa, making it rather a pleasure for the audience when Final Four hero Lamont Butler made a pivotal steal-and-score from House, plus when sophomore Elijah Saunders capped his eight straight points with a thunderous one-handed jam from a little Miles Byrd lob on the break.

Quotations from the two nights included the majestic 6-foot-9 Jaedon LeDee saying, “The energy in the crowd gave us a lot of energy,” and Butler saying, “I could barely hear what was going on,” and seventh-season coach Brian Dutcher, in his 25th season here, saying, “We’re in the shape that we’re in because we have a great home-court advantage and we’ve taken advantage of it.”

They’re 69-5 at home since 2019-20 and, as a bonus, when everybody departs, they’re in San Diego.

Two veins of the moment help distinguish the moment: the deepened ethic of the culture (gym rats over stars, defense over all other endeavors) and the apparent lack of any metastasizing entitlement. Said Leitner, the play-by-play man who hails from New York, spent college in Oklahoma and worked in Philadelphia: “They travel well, they appreciate it, it’s a novelty, they love it, and they’re not spoiled. They haven’t become entitled, to, ‘Okay, you did that; now what do you have for us?’ And I love them for that.”

“I never hear ’em boo,” Dutcher said — an observation pertaining not, of course, to officials.

Many, after all, recollect the barrenness.

Around 1999, three students walked a campus sidewalk and spotted up ahead a famous man who had coached Michigan in three Final Fours, had coached the Fab Five and had won the 1989 national title in loud succession of the ousted Bill Frieder. Yet Hernandez remembers his buddies saying, “Ah, he’s going to bug us for tickets,” and then peeling off to escape.

They knew Fisher intended to bug them by giving them tickets. “I went to every dormitory, sorority, fraternity,” Fisher said, in trying to construct an atmosphere “brick by brick.” Hernandez remained, Fisher approached and, “He gets that big ol’ smile of his, and he reached into his jacket.”

When athletic director Rick Bay hired Fisher after Rick Majerus declined in March 1999, the Associated Press reported Fisher arriving at “lowly” San Diego State. Introducing Fisher in then-new Viejas, Bay said of the crowd, “This is more than we normally have at basketball games.” They had averaged 3,189 in the 4-22 season gone by.

“You could have thrown a grenade into the stands and you wouldn’t have harmed anybody,” said Hernandez, who had attended games as a freshman. Further back, Eishen had joined the pep band in 1987 and continued after graduating in 1990 because student musicians lacked the interest to fill the slots. “Oh, gosh,” she said. “There was one game in the [former home] Sports Arena, it was like New Year’s Eve, and our local radio guy, Ted Leitner, he was calling the game and said something about how many fans were in the building — and ‘that includes the band.’ ” Fisher, facing what he calls “apathy at best,” began his 5-23 first season with a 73-57 win over UC Riverside and an attendance of 2,697, a number he calls “embellished,” because, “My wife said afterward: ‘I counted. There were more auxiliary people here than fans.’ ”

Hernandez, a fourth-grade teacher residing in neighboring Riverside County, grew up in Compton, near UCLA and USC, and as a little brother who actually factored San Diego State’s little-brother status into his college decision. He joined “The Show” when it was “just a sprinkle.”

Even his college roommates found it eccentric when he would play an NCAA video game and fashion the Aztecs as a dynasty with gaudy recruits. “That was fantasy,” he said.

All this ennui figured in a city seen as too beautiful for urgency. That great coach and observer of life Al McGuire once visited, Leitner said, “And people asked him, ‘How come they can’t build a college basketball program here?’ He said, ‘It’s that bell.’ ‘What bell?’ ‘Ding-ding. Go down by the water. Ding-ding-ding. The boats. Ding-ding-ding. Look at this. It’s too beautiful.’” Said Leitner, “And too many other things to do, which is what they always say in San Diego.” The city sat forever in two attention deficits: far from the East and just beneath Los Angeles, that ultimate attention hog.

Yet here came another century, even one in which the Chargers would leave in 2016 in what Leitner calls “a death in the family.” Gradually the Aztecs people began gobbling up too many highlights to cram into a head: the No. 5 seed that up and won the conference tournament and an NCAA bid in 2002 … the rising teams of 2000s players such as Brandon Heath and Marcus Slaughter … the Leonard-led team that wen 34-3 and the loud, camp-for-tickets, all-top-seven BYU game of 2010-11 … the win over UCLA in Anaheim in 2012 that felt like an Aztecs home game … the perennial tournament berths and narrow Sweet 16 losses in 2011 (to champion Connecticut) and 2014 (to Arizona) … the priceless continuity of Dutcher succeeding Fisher after 18 seasons assisting him … the crushing covid cancellation of March Madness 2020 that left that year’s Aztecs forever 30-2 … and then last spring.

Then, Hernandez took his 6-year-old daughter, Lily, already an Aztecs swooner who knows all the proper chants, to Louisville for the Sweet 16, walking downtown and holding her hand and turning the corner to the arena and weeping some. They sat in the second row among Kentuckians et al. as their program beat Alabama and got bluer of blood. “As we’re going up the stands [to the concessions], people are saying, ‘Congratulations,’ congratulating me and my 6-year-old daughter!” he said. And with the pep band long since luring enough eager students to fill it, Eishen attended all three tournament stops as a fan who sometimes still fills in as director or trombonist.

As if the delight could not stop outdoing itself, Butler became the only player to make a game-winning buzzer-beater for a trailing team in a men’s Final Four. The Aztecs contingent in Houston boomed and bustled across its stadium quadrant, seemingly outnumbering all other tribes. Back home, a scattered crowd at the Padres’ Petco Park exulted at the video of Butler’s shot. Where Fisher had begun in 1999 hoping “to put more San Diego State sweatshirts and T-shirts in the city than there are USC and UCLA,” he concludes by now, “We’ve blown that out of the water.”

Yet as Dutcher remains irrevocably down-to-earth, and as assistants resist offers from elsewhere because they realize they’re in a realm of fulfillment, fans have worries or they wouldn’t be fans. Some have barked that the media has made a bigger darling of Florida Atlantic, the upstart that Butler’s shot vanquished. The transfer of Keshad Johnson to name, image and likeness riches at Arizona brought Aztecs fans into the national fold of worry over NIL-era viability. Even in a heady year for the Mountain West, with its harsh travel and altitudes, the conference still imports slights from the haughty. And the polls …

The polls irritate some even if Dutcher says they shouldn’t and even as the latest one raised the Aztecs from nowhere to No. 19. Sometimes Leitner spots some old aristocrat out there losing but barely dropping and catches himself saying: “It’s wrong. That poll is wrong.” Hernandez hits refresh on Mondays for the poll and says: “I get it. It’s a beauty pageant. But it still means a lot to Aztec fans and to me because of that national respect.”

Meanwhile, when his wife, Michelle, had successful transplant surgery amid 2022, Hernandez ran into Fisher all those years later, in a hospital elevator around 1 a.m., prompting yet another meaningful conversation between fan and Fisher. Fisher never expected to leave the Midwest, with his firing at Michigan in 1997 seeming “the greatest disappointment” but enabling “the greatest blessing,” this: “I feel very much a part of this community.” And Hernandez said, “He’s given thousands and thousands of Aztecs fans hope, and he’s put us out of the shadow of big brother.”

Also: “He’s a saint.”

“It is so, so special,” Eishen said of the evolution she has witnessed, “and I know it, and I just absolutely thank my lucky stars every day.”

“It’s just a pleasure,” Leitner said of the Aztecs, “a pleasure to see.”

They’re having a moment, a moment chockablock with the best things in sports, and damned if they don’t get to have it in San Diego.

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