'Beautiful to see:' San Diego State assistant Mark Fisher, living with ALS, helps team at Final Four

The assistant who uses a wheelchair helps explain the makeup of the men’s Final Four.

More specifically, to understand how fifth-seeded San Diego State earned the school’s first trip to the Final Four and a spot in the national title game Monday against Connecticut, it helps to know Mark Fisher, who serves as an assistant to Aztecs coach Brian Dutcher.

He is the son of Steve Fisher, the retired basketball coach who won a national championship with Michigan in 1989 and took the school back to the Final Four in 1992 and 1993 with the celebrated "Fab Five."

More importantly, Mark Fisher, 44, has no use of his arms and legs.

"He’s everything we stand for," said Dave Velasquez, the team’s top assistant coach.


"He’s been everything," Dutcher said.

San Diego State players huddle before the start of their game against Stanford at Maples Pavilion, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022.
San Diego State players huddle before the start of their game against Stanford at Maples Pavilion, Tuesday, Nov. 15, 2022.

In the spring of 2011, Mark Fisher was an assistant coach on his dad's staff at San Diego State when he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). It is a neurodegenerative disease that causes a person to lose the ability to walk, talk, eat, and eventually breathe, according to The ALS Alliance, which says the average lifespan after diagnosis is two to five years.

Months after his diagnosis, Mark Fisher married his then-girlfriend, Jill. Because as Matt Soria, San Diego State’s director of operations, recalled, Mark Fisher "wanted to walk her down the aisle before he couldn’t."

Giving thanks

Mark Fisher has declined to talk to the media about life after his diagnosis. His actions speak volumes.

In 2013, as he began to develop a limp and grow uncharacteristically fatigued, his wife gave birth to a son, Max.

As the disease progressed and compromised his mobility, new technology helped Mark Fisher break down game film and take care of other tasks.

The years passed. Life got more challenging.

Steve Fisher retired as San Diego State's head coach in 2017, in part to help take care of Mark, who had moved to an off-court role as an assistant to Dutcher in 2013. One night Steve Fisher was at his son’s house when Mark and Jill were putting Max to bed.

What was everybody thankful for that day, Mark Fisher asked.

He answered first. Jill went next. Then Max.

"They’re thankful for the day rather than complain," Steve Fisher said. "It’s neat to watch."

It's a nightly ritual.

Following Mark's advice

To hear it from those close to Mark Fisher, he's clearly thankful for the love of his wife and son. Thankful his father drives him to home games. Thankful he kept his seat on the team’s bench.

And thankful for the phone calls he gets from Velasquez at halftime of San Diego State’s road games when Mark Fisher stopped traveling with the team more than two years ago.

"Coach Dutcher, one of the first things he always asks me at halftime is what did Mark say?" Velasquez said. "Every single time. It’s what we do."

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At halftime of San Diego’s Midwest Regional final against Creighton, Velasquez said, Mark Fisher reinforced the coaching staff’s belief that on offense the Aztecs needed to work hard to get the ball in the middle of the floor.

On the final play of the game, Darrion Trammell, a senior guard for San Diego State, drove into the middle of the lane and drew a foul. Then made the free throw that clinched San Diego State’s 57-56 victory and secured the school’s first berth in the Final Four.

Making the Final Four trip to Houston

Velasquez said Mark Fisher also provided analysis before the season that helped lead to signing Trammel, who played his first two seasons at Seattle University before entering the transfer portal.

"He’s a bright coach," Dutcher said.

Said Velasquez, "He’s the epitome of strength."

The COVID-19 pandemic made it riskier for Mark Fisher to leave his house. ALS made it more taxing. He has continued to attend practices about once a week.

He has resisted traveling with the team for more than two years.

"He didn’t want to be a burden," his father said.

Then came the victory over Creighton. A potential trip to the Final Four.

It would require special ramps and lifts to get on and off the team’s charter plane. The use of a borrowed wheelchair and handicapped-accessible van and coordination between the ALS Association chapters in Greater San Diego and Texas. It would require assistance from his 73-year-old father and longtime close friend, Mike Kelleher.

It would be grueling at times. So was the Aztecs' season. On Tuesday, the team left for Houston.

Mark was sitting in the front row of the plane.

Helping San Diego State prep for the Final Four

Mark Fisher brought his wife and son, now a 9-year-old third grader.

"Right now Max and my son Dillon are hanging out at the hotel," said Soria, who’s been on the coaching staff with Mark for almost two decades. "He hasn’t let the diagnosis change his life or (dedication) for family and his joy and love for basketball."

Since the team’s arrival in Houston, Mark has attended all of the coaches' meetings and practices.

"We know what he’s going through and what he’s battling,'' said Aguek Arop, a senior forward for San Diego State. "But he never complains. He’s always picking us up. He’s still coaching, he still helps us out.

"So it’s beautiful to see him here."

What Arop and his teammates see is not Mark Fisher dying of ALS.

He's living with it. With a fight that helps define the team he helps coach.

Contributing: Dan Wolken, Brent Schrotenboer

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mark Fisher helps San Diego State on Final Four run while fighting ALS