Yesterday, on a whim, I decided to drive up to Fullerton to watch San Diego State take on Creighton in the Wooden Legacy semifinals.
I knew that if I didn’t go I’d regret it. And I already had a rental car reserved for the weekend to go to the finals on Sunday night. Plus, with free parking and $20 tickets it was to good to pass up.
So… at 1:30 I started the drive. Driving up I-5 is always a reminder of how awesome it is to live in San Diego. Rolling hills up the 805 quickly give way to gorgeous vistas of Torrey Pines, Del Mar, and eventually Camp Pendleton.
Immersed in sports talk radio I exited the freeway and drove towards the campus of Cal State Fullerton. I parked the car and walked over to the gym just as the late afternoon game was starting, Miami versus Fullerton. Grabbing a ticket from the little booth and dinner from a food truck, I wedged myself between some Aztec fans and Hurricane faithful.
Miami is terrible. I mean that nicely. At least 10 times in the game their players ran into themselves. They dribbled the ball off their toes and knees. Their point guard had to look at the ball when he dribbled with his off hand. They didn’t know the plays. They couldn’t shoot. They couldn’t do anything. They were bad enough that a far inferior Fullerton team hung around and hung around. In the end, Fullerton couldn’t hit the game winner and fell just short.
As is the case at all sporting events. Eventually a neutral crowd will cheer for a surging underdog. A win for Fullerton, even at the hands of a hapless, windless Hurricane team, would be huge.
That session ended and the gym emptied to discover a line had formed outside for the marquise game of the night… San Diego State against Creighton. There were 300-400 people in the gym for the previous game. 90 minutes before the tip there were more than 1,000 Aztec fans lined up to get in.
I scored a ticket from a fellow Aztec fan. In a fun coincidence, it was the same person I bought tickets from a year ago when Paul, my dad, and I went to USC to see the basketball team eviscerate the Trojans on their home court. (This same gentleman bought my 2 extra tickets for tomorrows finale at the Honda Center)
Red & Black Pre-Game
An hour before the tip they opened the gates… and people went running for seats faster than a $49 flatscreen at Wal-Mart just 12 hours before.
Knowing a thing or two about how people move at events with open seating… the crowd went one way, all fighting for the closest seats nearest the door they were let in… I just walked over to the other side and sat down in the front row, right behind the Aztecs bench.
I looked up at the clock: 59:00 minutes until game time.
Not long after I sat down a family came and sat next to me. That’s when I looked around… for some reason my little row wasn’t reserved but every seat around me was reserved for players family members, Aztec alumni, and coaches families. The family that sat next to me? Starting point guard and court general, Xavier Thames. We all made small talk, booed when Creighton did anything, cheered for our team, and waited.
This is Our House
There’s something magical about basketball in a gym. Normally we play in a 12,000 seat arena. But the intimacy of playing somewhere with a few thousand is amazing. I was in the front row… literally 2 steps from the Aztec bench. I could hear the players talking, the coaches discussing strategy, and Coach in the huddle teaching.
As the game wore on, as it became more clear that this would be an Aztec victory over a ranked opponent who broke our hearts two years ago, the more I started to appreciate the awesomeness of the night.
- San Diego State, a perennial commuter school and doormat… has emerged as a West Coast force. Several thousand red & black clad fans completely dominated a gym 2 hours from home. The previous games in the day were as quiet as church. But this game was loud, louder, and rafter-shaking-loudest from 60 minutes before tip off to the very end.
- Basketball families of all levels are the same. Supportive, loving, smart, and savvy. I love that Steve Fisher doesn’t just recruit anyone, he recruits players from families.
- I loved the respect shown to Mark Fisher, long-time Aztec assistant and son of Steve. Mark went public with his battle with ALS earlier this fall, stepping down as an assistant while still remaining with the team. And it was amazing to see coaches from all the schools come and spend time with Mark, sit down next to him, and love on him.
- Even more impressive were how many times Steve turned to Mark during the game to have a conversation about what he was seeing. Mark has a brilliant strategic mind himself… it was beyond touching to see Steve consistently, naturally take his sons input and feed that information to his players.
- I love how mutual and fun the games fans were to one another. The Show can be PG-13… sometimes even Rated R. But there was a lot of respect for Creighton’s fans shown throughout the game. While the Jays were outnumbers 10×1 they made their precense known. I had a great, 20 minute conversation with a father & son who’d come from Omaha for the tourney. I love that passion and can’t wait for the Aztecs to travel like that.
- I loved the passion our players brought to the game. They responded to an early onslaught from Creighton. I loved that they turned their frustration on the calls going against them into energy. I loved that red-shirt freshmen Matt Shringley knocked down some shots and turned to the crowd, already fully lathered, to pump them up more.
- And I loved how the Aztecs looked defeat in the face and fought back. The refs did their best with 2-3 last minute phantom calls, to give the game to Creighton. It was a mockery that Creighton’s coach decried his little boy not getting a foul in his favor late in the game when there were 5-6 times when fouls were called on SDSU where there wasn’t even contact. I loved that this team didn’t flinch, didn’t give ESPN what they so desperately wanted… a signature moment for their player of the year hopeful… and stole the win.
I drove home a happy Aztec fan.
I’m so glad I went to the game. And I’m looking forward to more away games this season.