Basketball is now The Show at SDSU
SAN DIEGO -- Two years ago, Beau Bearden decided he needed an alter ego, so he went to a costume shop and settled on a green getup that would mask his identity yet show his personality.
He decided to be a gecko. Because, of course, beating deep inside every college student is the heart of a gecko.
"Yeah, my parents were proud," Bearden said.
Except here, on the days the otherwise unassuming Bearden becomes Geckshow, no one pays him much attention.
A few rows up is a dude dressed like Buddy, the oversized gnome from "Elf" made famous by Will Ferrell; to the right is the guy in the full hazmat suit, complete with yellow rubber gloves; down on the first row is the girl in a red sparkly tutu with matching red and black sparkly Converse sneakers; and not far from her is the guy who smuggled in a hair pick so he can turn his natural curls into a retro afro.
Someone has an oversized cardboard cutout head of Woody from "Toy Story" and one preteen is dressed like a banana.
A gecko? Please.
Welcome to The Show, the nonsensical, whimsical, illogical student section at San Diego State, where no costume is deemed too strange.
The name is the unintended brainchild of an outraged alum who, upon spying the goofy antics in the stands, complained, "You guys think you're the show."
Naturally the irreverent and amused students decided to tweak the angry graduate even more by running with his criticism and calling themselves The Show.
For many a year, The Show was more off-Broadway than Tony-eligible, a smattering of dedicated students who took a two-hour sabbatical from the sunshine of San Diego to park inside the Viejas Arena and cheer on the irrelevant Aztecs.
"You could walk up 15 minutes before a game, pick up your ticket and sit in the front row," said senior Gina Abbamonte, who wants you to know that she is "not a bandwagon fan." She's been coming to games for four years. "That was last year."
Now? Tickets to The Show are harder to come by than those for a red-carpet Hollywood premiere.
The Show is no longer in the stands. The Show is on the court, where San Diego State is 27-1, ranked No. 4 in the country and doing the impossible: birthing a basketball legacy in the 21st century.
"I'm old enough to know that we need to appreciate this," head coach Steve Fisher said. "This sort of thing doesn't come around very often. I tell my guys all the time to take a moment and look around and look at what you've created. I'm not sure they understand how hard it is to do. I know I do."
Twelve years ago, San Diego State's basketball history read more like a short story than an encyclopedia. In nearly 30 years as a Division I program, the Aztecs had made three NCAA tournament appearances and won not a single game.
Only 17 players parlayed their basketball success at SDSU into an NBA draft pick and only one -- Michael Cage in 1984 -- earned a first-round selection.
Coaches came and coaches went and nothing changed.
And then 12 years ago, former athletic director Rick Bay made a call to Sacramento.
Steve Fisher was, in the eyes of many, damaged goods. Once a fairy-tale story, the first interim coach to lead a team to a national championship, he had become a cautionary tale, the coach who found immediate success and immediate consequences.
A federal investigation revealed that four of his players received more than $600,000 from a bookmaker.
Michigan forfeited 113 wins and the dreaded asterisk now appears next to the Wolverines' name in the 1992 and 1993 record books, their run to those Final Fours vacated.
Fisher was never implicated by the NCAA, but the stain of the investigation cost him his job and to many, his reputation.
"I never worried he'd get another chance," said Brian Dutcher, who spent 10 years alongside Fisher at Michigan and is now his assistant head coach at San Diego State. "But it's hard to change people's opinions."
Fisher never really tried.
He does not waste a lot of breath or time trying to convince people of his innocence. You either believe him or you don't.
Nor does he shy away from his Michigan years. His sun-splattered office in San Diego is stuffed with Wolverines memorabilia and before he sits down for an interview, he takes a call.
"Hey Jalen," is overheard before he shuts the door.
"It's part of my legacy, part of who I am," Fisher said. "I am very comfortable in my own skin. People who know me know that I've never been dishonest. I've never been unethical or behaved in an unethical manner. I'm proud of what I've done, but this is all part of who I am."
Fisher never worried that he'd get another chance, never thought he would be blackballed from the profession. Part of it, maybe, was naïveté -- "I never had a résumé," he admits. "I thought they'd be naming a building after me at Michigan."
But part of it was the immediate jingling of his phone. A week after he was fired, two schools that he declines to name -- one mid-major, one major -- called and offered him positions.
He declined both.
It's part of my legacy, part of who I am.” -- Steve Fisher on his Michigan tenure
He wasn't ready.
Instead he went to Sacramento, took a job on the Kings' bench as an assistant. His family stayed back in Ann Arbor. His eldest son, Mark, was at the university and his youngest, Jay, was a sixth-grader. He wasn't going to move them until he was certain he was staying.
And then Bay called.
To some, he would seem the least likely athletic director to reach out to Fisher. Bay is a Michigan man, a one-time All-American wrestler and football player for the Wolverines.
Though both had extensive careers in Ann Arbor -- Bay was a coach and an administrator there for 20 years and Fisher served on Bill Frieder's staff for seven before being tabbed as head coach -- they never met one another officially.
Bay was looking for a splash, a name that would have some instant impact. The Viejas Arena, an open-concourse beauty that seats 12,414, was just two years old and Bay knew, when hitched to the proper coach, the arena could help turn things around.
He had reached out to Rick Majerus, then at Utah, but the Utes were still in the midst of the NCAA tournament and Bay doubted Majerus would leave.
Frieder, who had since relocated to Del Mar, Calif., suggested Bay give Fisher a try.
He did and when Majerus ultimately backed out, Bay immediately offered Fisher a seven-year contract.
"I knew a little about the controversy at Michigan but people that I knew and trusted there told me they thought Steve had gotten a bad deal," said Bay, who resigned from San Diego State in 2003 after a dispute with the university over an internal audit stemming from an investigation of the equipment room. "When I offered him the job, I told him I had to be able to stand up in front of a press conference and be able to say that I had looked into the allegations. He understood that. It was a little awkward for both of us, but I did look into it.
"Looking back on it, Steve I'm sure wanted back into college coaching. I think I needed him and he needed he us."
This was never going to be a retirement gig.
For starters, Fisher doesn't golf, which would seem borderline illegal here.
And retirement implies leisure. There was nothing leisurely about the San Diego State job. Before Fisher arrived, the Aztecs had one winning season in 14 years, with 29 victories in the three seasons that preceded him, including all of four the season before he arrived.
Maybe it was the sunshine that blinded him to the basketball blight, but somehow Fisher looked around a place where success never took root and saw potential.
"We were selling a dream initially," Fisher admitted.
Some of the dream was visible in the arena, a place so nice the NCAA agreed to use it as a tournament site before it was even built.
But most of it, most of the Aztecs' sale, was built around Fisher.
"I think he wanted to build something again, maybe subliminally even felt like he had something to prove," Bay said. "This was an opportunity, a great challenge to do that. The program could only go up and with that championship ring on his finger, he gave us instant credibility."
In his first season, Fisher spoke at 75 different events (he wrote it down), from coffee houses to rotary clubs. He knocked on the doors of the fraternity houses to talk about his team and stumped in the student cafeterias.
The reward? The Aztecs won one more game -- five -- than the season previous.
There are plenty of things places like San Diego State don't have compared with places like Michigan, but there is one luxury SDSU did offer Fisher: time.
When four wins became just five, no one blinked.
No one demanded that Fisher win immediately because frankly, no one expected it. When your basketball tradition and legacy don't really exist, there aren't exactly standards to live up to.
And so Fisher grew a program slowly. He's a coach and so naturally he wanted success, but he is no spring chicken. He knew that success rarely happens overnight and when it does, it tends to be fleeting.
If his university could be patient, so could he.
"I knew this would be hard because I knew the people who were here before me and they were all very good coaches," Fisher said. "We had to convince high school coaches and AAU coaches to give us a chance. I knew this job wasn't going to be instant gratification."
When an NCAA bid and a 21-win season in Year 3 was followed by a slide to 16, 14 and then 11 wins in the next three seasons, no one demanded Fisher's ouster.
Eventually everyone's patience was rewarded. In the 2005-06 season, San Diego State won 24 games, beginning a now six-year run of 20-win seasons.
And now this, a magical season Fisher rightly described as a "phenomenon."
At the beginning of the season, longtime Associated Press reporter Jim O'Connell called Fisher to tell him his team was ranked in the AP poll for the first time in school history.
"He told me he called only two people, me and Mike Krzyzewski," Fisher said. "I said, 'Well here's the thing. I think right now I might be able to win a governor's race for being ranked 25th and I could definitely be mayor. If Mike is ranked 25th, he's getting fired."
There are those who will never buy Fisher, now 65, as a feel-good story. But even his most ardent critics would have a hard time arguing he is cooking the books at San Diego State. His is a team of vagabonds, of junior college kids and players no one else knew quite what to do with.
Malcolm Thomas bounced from Pepperdine to San Diego City College before landing in the San Diego State frontcourt. He averages 11.6 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
D.J. Gay, the point guard, finished his senior season fifth in the state of California in scoring and 21st nationally. That merited him a handful of looks from West Coast universities. He now scores 12.1 per game, dishes out 3.5 assists and commits just 1.1 turnovers.
Kawhi Leonard, about to become a wealthy man come the NBA draft in June, was labeled a tweener and despite being named California player of the year as a senior, was rated only 56th in the nation. The double-double machine is at 15.2 points and 10.7 rebounds.
Whatever eyeball test they failed to pass individually, together they look awfully pretty. They have all of the parts a college basketball team needs -- the reliable point guard in Gay; the strong inside presence in Thomas, Billy White and Brian Carlwell; 3-point threats in Gay and James Rahon; and a future NBA player in Leonard. San Diego State thrives on defense, allowing only 58.6 points per game, seventh-best in the nation.
The Aztecs' lone blemish is a road loss to rival BYU, a game San Diego State will try to avenge on Saturday at home.
"I thought we'd have a chance to do something special, but no, I never imagined this," admitted Gay.
In home game No. 12 against Utah this season, San Diego State set the record for single-season attendance at the school. The previous mark took 18 games to set.
Sellouts are commonplace, so much so that there wasn't a ticket to be had for the game against Division III Occidental College. On New Year's Eve.
There are scalpers outside of the arena on game day trying to score tickets and the administration has had to institute a new policy for student ticket distribution.
Last year, the university exercised its option and extended Fisher's contract through 2012-13. Athletic director Jim Sterk expects they'll have another extension agreement soon, in addition to better deals for the assistant coaches in order to retain them.
Plus, the school once forced to schedule games wherever and whenever it could, is now in the position of the shoppers. Sterk has increased the program's budget to allow for more guaranteed games.
"We have good problems," Sterk said.
Lost in all of the fun and hoopla is this frightening little nugget of truth: San Diego State has never won an NCAA tournament game in its history, 0 for 6.
Likely to score at worst a 2-seed, the Aztecs will now be expected to win multiple games, which is like going from zero to 60 in a Yugo.
"It's pressure, but what's life without pressure?" Leonard said simply.
The last thing anyone wants is for such a special season to end with a monster-sized March egg.
It would be unfair to say it would undo all the good San Diego State has done. There is a foundation here that didn't exist before, the first steady bricks of a legacy that can be built on and sold to the next generation.
But in the short-term memory world of college athletics, March success tends to leave more of a mark than November through February.
"People will remember this team here no matter how this thing finishes," Fisher said. "This is the first time we've had so much success at the national level. That won't be forgotten. But I want the exclamation point after it."
The lines started forming just after lunchtime, one at the front entrance to the Viejas Arena, the other around the side. Matt Bishop scored a spot around 1 p.m. in one line, and Abbamonte, at 12:20 in the other.
Fisher remembered the first time he saw the pregame line. He thought the fans must have confused the tip-off time for 5 p.m. instead of the typical 7:30.
They hadn't. They just wanted the best seats in The Show for The Show.
This isn't normal. Not here. Camping out for tickets, staking up residence in Krzyzewskiville, is a rite of passage at Duke.
Not at San Diego State. Heck, not in Southern California, where the euphemism for sports apathy is that there is always something better to do.
Sophomore Vaughn Leuzinger sheepishly admitted he had never attended a game until this season. Now he's missed only two and dons one of those full-body neon-colored unitards for the occasion.
He's more rule than exception.
School spirit is soaring and Aztec pride is off the charts.
"I saw some guy walking around campus the other day in an Ohio State T-shirt," senior Natalie Rowan said. "That pissed me off."
It all will hit fever pitch on Saturday when BYU comes to town. Students recite derisive chants toward the Cougars even when BYU isn't the opponent and with so much at stake and Jimmer Fredette on the court, you can expect this campus to be on the edge of bedlam.
Nearly three weeks before the game, students already were laying out their game plan. Tickets are available for pickup on Thursday, necessitating a Wednesday night campout, and the doors open for Saturday's 11 a.m. Pacific tip at 9:30.
"We'll just move out of the line to get tickets and into the line to get in," Bishop said. "Basically we'll camp out Wednesday until Saturday."
The university didn't expect all of this and is sort of making up the rules for the campouts as it goes along.
Right now, tents, couches (some fraternity brothers hauled them out from the nearby houses once this season) and other luxuries of home and dorm are prohibited.
This is San Diego, not Syracuse, so these kids aren't exactly roughing it.
Still, there are an awful lot of hours to kill and so they will pack decks of cards, board games, cell phones, iPods, sleeping bags, lawn chairs, markers, and of course, their imaginations.
No doubt some new game-time creatures and costumes will be born on the macadam outside the arena.
The Show must go on.
Besides insurance advertising, where else can a gecko find work?
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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