SAN DIEGO — Tom Ables has grown so accustomed to sparse crowds during his 65 years attending San Diego State home games that he could hardly believe the scene before the Aztecs' New Year's Eve matchup with Division III Occidental.
Parking garages overflowed with cars. Students went to the game instead of the beach. And inside Viejas Arena, there were no empty seats.
The same school that once struggled to give away free tickets attracted 12,414 paying customers for a non-conference tune-up against an opponent known more for its rigorous curriculum than its basketball program. That's as many fans as UCLA and USC drew combined the same day for marquee matchups against Washington and Washington State.
"It was a throwaway game against a Division III team on New Year's Eve, and it was a sellout for gosh sakes," Ables said. "That's an indication that this community has really jumped on board. Even for me, it's a shock to realize the interest is at that high a level."
Although coach Steve Fisher has led his once-moribund program to a 19-0 record and its first-ever national ranking this season, his greatest accomplishment may be transforming San Diego into a rabid college basketball town. Excitement among San Diego State fans has reached unprecedented levels with the sixth-ranked Aztecs one of only three undefeated teams in the nation after back-to-back impressive wins over UNLV and New Mexico last week.
San Diego State will sell out at least 11 of 15 home games this season, three more than the previous 13 years combined. Aztecs basketball jerseys and t-shirts are flying off the shelves at a record pace, the director of a San Diego-based chain of retail shops reports. The Mountain West favorites have even loosened the Padres and Chargers' stranglehold on local sports talk radio.
"Aztec basketball is the thing to do in San Diego right now, and our kids are proud of that," Fisher said. "San Diego, people say, is an event city, and this is an event now. I told our players last year if they endeared themselves to this crowd by diving on the floor, not getting selfish and playing as hard as they can, it will be appreciated. Obviously winning has set the tone, but our fans appreciate how hard our kids play."
Standing-room-only crowds and talk radio buzz may be everyday events at Kentucky or North Carolina, but this is new for San Diego State. After all, this is a school that has never won an NCAA tournament game, that endured 13 losing seasons in 14 years prior to Fisher's arrival and that until 1997 played many of its games in a gym better suited for high school basketball.
An undersized, aging relic with cramped locker rooms, pullout bleachers and a layer of cement beneath its wooden floor, Peterson Gym was so obsolete by the 1980s that San Diego State coaches avoided showing it to recruits whenever possible.
Its lone concession stand consisted of a card table outside one of the doors and its press row was a temporary table set up four rows up the bleachers at mid-court. Decades of San Diego State players had to share lockers with physical education students who also used the facility.
"Between recruiting to it and practicing there, you've got to be kidding me," recalled forward Steve Copp, who played at San Diego State from 1972 to 76. "If you flew in hard on a layup or dunk, you hit the wall behind the basket. That was a real drawback. And then practicing on that floor every day was really tough on your legs."
Even after its new arena finally opened in 1997, San Diego State didn't receive the instant jolt in recruiting or attendance that other programs typically do. Following a 4-22 season in the new arena's second year, then-athletic director Rick Bay decided he had no choice but to cut ties with fifth-year coach Fred Trenkle and search for a splashy replacement capable of revitalizing the lifeless program.
"Fred did as good a job as you could ever hope for given the situation he inherited, but I thought with the new facility, it was really important to get a name coach, somebody who could bring instant credibility to the program," Bay said. "I didn't know if I could get it done or not because our record was what it was, we didn't have a lot of money to spend and we didn't have any players really, but I was definitely going to go after a well-known head coach."
After a failed attempt to lure Rick Majerus from Utah and some preliminary conversations with fired St. John's coach Fran Fraschilla, Bay learned from a mutual friend that Fisher had interest in the job.
The ex-Michigan coach appealed to Bay immediately because he brought instant credibility yet his controversial departure from Ann Arbor made him affordable. Michigan fired Fisher in 1997 after an investigation into program improprieties even though he'd led the Wolverines to a national title in 1989 and then taken the Fab Five teams to back-to-back Final Fours in 1992 and 93.
"We needed each other is how I would say it," Bay said. "Steve wanted to get back into coaching in the worst way, but I think he knew it was going to be a political battle for an athletic director to hire him. I think he knew his opportunities were limited."
To say that Fisher was an instant success would be a gross overstatement. Not only did the undermanned Aztecs suffer through a 5-23 season in Fisher's first year at San Diego State, fan support was also so negligible that the new coach would often stuff his pockets full of tickets and give them away on campus the day before a home game.
Desperate to fill their spacious new arena and get greater return on their lucrative investment, San Diego State administrators gradually increased the men's basketball budget for recruiting and assistant coaching salaries to a level competitive with other programs. In return, Fisher made San Diego State into a destination for elite transfers, landing forward Randy Holcomb from Fresno State and guards Tony Bland and Al Faux from Syracuse and Shoreline Community College.
Many thought Fisher would leave for a more high-profile job after that trio helped snap San Diego State's 17-year NCAA tournament drought in 2002, but the Aztecs coach proved them wrong. Fisher endured three more middling seasons before the program truly got rolling behind the likes of Marcus Slaughter, Brandon Heath and Lorenzo Wade, winning the Mountain West in 2006 and posting five straight 20-win seasons entering this year.
"I wouldn't have taken the job if I didn't feel we could win here," Fisher said. "A lot of people said to recruits, ‘Why would you go there because if you win he's going to be gone?' But never, ever have I had a job that I didn't feel would be my last job, this one included. When I got this job, I had a seven-year contract, there was stability for me and my family and I thought it would be fun to see if I could leave my mark."
The way Fisher assembled this year's powerhouse team is no different than any of his previous squads at San Diego State. It's a team of overlooked high school prospects and transfers, all but three of whom hail from California.
Late-blooming forward Malcolm Thomas is a Pepperdine transfer who didn't play organized basketball until his junior year at San Diego's Crawford High. Lightly recruited combo guard D.J. Gay drew minimal interest from Pac-10 schools because he was only 6-feet tall. And forward Billy White was passed over by top programs because of a high school knee injury and concerns he wouldn't qualify academically.
What makes this year's team a cut above previous Aztecs squads is the presence of a potential NBA first-round pick.
Many Pac-10 schools feared that Kawhi Leonard was too small to play the post in college yet not a consistent enough ball handler or perimeter shooter from the wing, but the sophomore forward has validated San Diego State's unwavering faith in him. The 6-foot-7 Leonard has showcased a quick first step to the rim, impressive defensive versatility and an incredible knack for rebounding, earning Mountain West freshman of the year honors last season and averaging 16 points and 10.3 rebounds this year.
"Kawhi Leonard is a big-time player, Gay does a tremendous job running the show and their complementary players have size, quickness and athleticism," New Mexico coach Steve Alford said. "We're talking about a team that won 25 games last year in a very good league. Last year our league was as good as it's ever been in its 10-year history, and this year it may be even better. San Diego State has been able to do this when the league's been at a high level."
As San Diego State piles up win after win, interest continues to mushroom. Five of the Aztecs' remaining seven home games are already sold out and only a limited number of tickets remain for a Feb. 8 matchup with Utah and a Feb. 16 date against New Mexico.
The enthusiasm reached its peak last Wednesday night when San Diego State hosted UNLV in a key matchup of Mountain West contenders. Among the frenzied towel-waving crowd were a handful of San Diego-area celebrities including former Aztecs running back Marshall Faulk and Padres manager Bud Black
Four members of the student section arrived dressed as a banana, a gecko, an orange crayon and a gingerbread man. Others waved homemade signs and cardboard cutouts of celebrity faces to distract UNLV free throw shooters. They all participated in a raucous "I believe that we will win" chant just before tipoff and belted out the chorus to Muse's "Uprising" when the pep band played it during a second-half TV timeout.
Once San Diego State finished off a hard-fought 55-49 victory over UNLV, each of the players made a beeline for the student section, clapping, posing for pictures and exchanging high-fives with the fans who offered such fervent support.
"That's our sixth man. That's where our energy comes from," Thomas said. "As soon as we came out before the game and saw everybody waving their towels, we were already energized."
Can a city with as little basketball pedigree as San Diego really become a hoops hotbed? Believe it.