"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."