In the rush-to-tomorrow generation we now live in, Wednesday brought a ponder-and-cherish-yesterday respite.
The presence of Steve Fisher as the appropriate keynoter of that was rich with coincidence and time-healing.
When Fisher took his turn to speak at the annual Los Angeles Athletic Club preseason luncheon for Southern California’s major college basketball coaches — from San Luis Obispo to San Diego — he was one of the old hands. This will be his 14th season as San Diego State’s coach. At 67, he has not only found happiness and job security, but life perspective.
Several coaches sent assistants instead of themselves. On each table was a picture of the reason they should never do that, barring emergency. The photo was of the late John Wooden, godfather of college basketball, certainly of Southern California college basketball. This luncheon is a tipoff to a season that will end with an award given, in Wooden’s name, to the nation’s top player.
Bob Williams of UC Santa Barbara, also a veteran of this event, took a nice jab at his no-show colleagues.
“My assistant coaches send their regrets that they couldn’t be here today,” Williams said.
UCLA’s Ben Howland and USC’s Kevin O’Neill also gave proper nods to Wooden. But it was Fisher, with a fascinating back story and reason to do less than embrace the college basketball world in which he has existed much of his adult life, who was especially passionate about the luncheon’s significance.
“Anything that speaks the name Wooden, I want to be a part of,” he said.
Afterward, he elaborated.
“We came here after the ’93 season, right after Chris Webber had called the bad timeout in the championship game,” Fisher said. “He knew he wasn’t going to win the Wooden Award, and his head was down. John sought him out, took him into a quiet room and they talked. Chris was a different person after they came out. That meant so much to him.
“That was how John affected people. These days, everybody does things for show. John was just the opposite. I’m sure he was hoping nobody noticed.”
Webber was one of the Fab Five of Michigan fame. He was the star of an era that made Fisher famous and also was marked with an asterisk.
In the last week of the 1989 regular season, Michigan Coach Bill Frieder announced he had accepted a job for the next season as coach at Arizona State. Frieder said he would finish the tournament season with the Wolverines. Michigan’s athletic director at the time, the ever-bashful, soft-spoken Bo Schembechler, had a different view.
“A Michigan man will coach Michigan,” Schembechler said, indicating that Frieder should not let the door hit him in the back as he exited. Immediately.
Assistant coach Fisher took over. Which would have been a nice story in itself, but Fisher tagged on an even nicer ending. He coached the Wolverines to the NCAA title.
That got him a long-term contract, and soon he had five superstar recruits who would put him and the Wolverines in the national spotlight for the foreseeable future. Along with Webber came Jalen Rose, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King and Juwan Howard. In 1992, as freshmen, the Fab Five lost the NCAA final to Duke. In 1993, they got to the final again, against North Carolina, when Webber, with 11 seconds left, called a timeout Michigan didn’t have. That brought a costly technical and another loss in the final.
Several years later, the first smell of scandal came forth. Webber and several teammates had hung around with, and taken money from, a Wolverines booster who was also a known gambler. The odor lingered through years of NCAA investigations and Michigan eventually forfeited 112 games, including the NCAA runner-up finishes in ’92 and ’93, plus $450,000. Michigan also self-imposed a no-postseason penalty in 2003.
Even though he said he knew nothing about what the booster was doing and maintains that to this day, Fisher left under a cloud. He was an assistant for a season with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings, and then, in 1999, took over a San Diego State program that had won four games the previous season and had gone less than .500 in 13 of its last 14 seasons.
Now, he returns most of his players from a team that won 26 games last season — San Diego State won 34 the season before that — and spent much of the time nationally ranked. Last season’s Aztecs had 13 games settled in the last possession, and they won 10 of those. Most basketball experts would see coaching expertise there.
“The first year I came to this luncheon,” Fisher said, “I announced that the good news was I had four players back from the previous season. I said that was also the bad news.”
There is mostly good news now at San Diego State. All 12,414 seats have been sold for all home games. The Aztecs will play USC in the regular season and UCLA in the Wooden Classic in Anaheim on Dec. 1. They will also play Syracuse on the deck of the aircraft carrier Midway in San Diego on Nov. 9.
“I’m having fun. This still doesn’t feel like work,” says Fisher, who Pete Hamill of the New York Times once described as “a grandfatherly team-builder.”
Fisher has exorcised his ghost of boosters past, as even Wooden had to do with Sam Gilbert.
And who knows? Nine more NCAA titles for Fisher and they’ll be putting his picture alongside Wooden’s on the luncheon tables.