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.