By Ernie McCray
When San Diego State’s men’s gifted basketball players showed up at Allen Fieldhouse in Lawrence, Kansas and rose from the 21st rated team to number 13 after destroying the Jayhawks’ dream of stretching a 68 game winning streak against non-Big XII teams to 69 – I couldn’t help but think, at the time, of how lucky those young athletes are in having Steve Fisher as their guide on this wonderful ride.
The man is clearly a wonderful coach, a master teacher if there ever was one. He knows how to connect with folks who are counting on him for guidance.
I know. I’m an educator by nature, in a way. I decided on teaching after my very first day in kindergarten (as much as a five year old can consider such a thing), thinking that there must be a better way to teach somebody than taking a yardstick and whacking their knuckles to Maricopa County. I was sold on teaching in a humanistic way right away. Steve Fisher’s way of molding young round-ballers into fine athletes and men is certainly, from all I’ve seen, based on respecting them as individuals and showing them how to work together for the team (their community). That’s what it’s all about it seems to me.
My favorite teachers were those who treated us kids like human beings. Those who let us know who they were as human beings. Those who didn’t freak out if you suddenly burst out laughing at a lively fart or Ollie Lee’s silly ass haircut. Those who listened to you and responded to what they were listening to. Those who acted as though they were glad to see you when you bumped into them at Jim’s Market. Those who had lessons that sung. Those who let you have a little fun. Those who let you be yourself and tried to help you be the best self you could be at that place and time.
That approach sure worked for me when I began earning a living teaching in this society. And it’s sure worked for Steve, one of the greatest hires in San Diego State’s history, considering all that he has contributed to our fair city.
He’s the epitome of an educator, one who shows that he cares about those he has to teach by being sensible enough to let them shine as who they are and helping them refine who that person happens to be.
He showed that when he put the Great Fab Five, a freshman five, on the courts as the starting five at the University of Michigan back in the 90’s. I remember wondering how is this man going to deal with these young “brothers” who came off the streets, so to speak, legends in high school, tall-tale like players who were like men among boys? They could bring egos and attitudes galore.
I still have an image of them in their restless “Let’s get this show on the road” glares and stances, sporting baggy shorts that flopped and black socks that knocked the socks off basketball purists who, pretty much, acted as though criminals had been set loose in the hallowed world of the Big Ten Conference. Some Michigan alums were besides themselves, almost hysterically glum, crying about the Fab Five’s trash talking and loud Hip-Hop music in tones that resonated nationwide.
So many fans could hardly put their hatred for these teenagers, these kids, these unbelievably skilled basketball playing specialists, aside. They derided these, as it turns out, decent American citizens, as thugs and spoke of them as though they were sent to Michigan by The Wicked Witch of the West to ruin the very game of basketball. Oh, they were all that was wrong with college sports if one believed in fairy and tall tales. All the hullabaloo didn’t, however, jeopardize the tons of sales of the merchandise inspired by the Fab Five.
But, when they hit the floor, they were about the most disciplined unselfish group of basketball players I have ever seen considering their combined amazing hoops skills. If one of them got open the ball was on its way in an array of fashions, no-look-behind- the-back passes, precision bounce passes delivered and caught in stride, lobs that seemed to soar in the stratosphere and pause above the rim before it was slammed down by one of them. They snatched rebounds and fired outlet passes with accuracy and pizzazz, executing fast-breaks at breakneck speed and they juked and spun, on the run and if a three-pointer was needed it was done. Get lazy or sloppy on offense and these dudes would pick your pocket and run. In a spirit of focused determination and a whole lot of fun. High fives all around for everyone. Sign of new times.
It took quite a coach and teacher and leader to put the pieces together for the success he and that squad had. There was no way a team like that could have been assembled and made to work by someone with an old school screaming and hollering and foaming at the mouth style of leading young men. That wouldn’t have gotten anybody anywhere if their goal was to win a lot of basketball games. What Steve Fisher did revealed that he was an understanding warmhearted human being who had as much confidence, with or without “swag,” in himself as those whom he had to lead.
He knew better than to stifle the enthusiasm that those unique and gifted athletes brought to his program. I can see him at the beginning of the relationship with them, at a practice session, saying something like “Okay, pull those black socks up and put your shorts on tight, ready to fight! Let’s work hard every day and night and, at the same time, have a lot of fun and make a run, game by game, for something our school has already done, won a championship ring! We’re a team! We’re the Wolverines! If we stick together there’s no telling what we can do. I’ve got a plan but it can’t happen without you… Okay, who cut one? Give me ten laps! Let’s go, guys!”
The man who has inspired our Aztecs to pursue greatness as basketball players, enabling them to win a game in a fabled sports venue where very few teams are successful, is able to get teams to perform at such high levels because he, simply, accepts players for who they are and he gets them to buy into his ideas in ways that make sense to them.
What if all educators, like Steve Fisher does with his teams (at every level, grade school, junior and senior high, college and beyond, in academic or athletic settings) took what students and jocks brought to them book-wise and skill-wise and then from that base provided ways and means for them to become better, more learned, more polished and sophisticated, ready to make their way in the world?
We’d simply have a much better world, one where people knew how to get along and work together for the betterment of all humankind. I can’t think of those who promote such togetherness without Coach Steve Fisher coming to mind. We’re so lucky to have such a true gentleman in our midst. Go! Aztecs!
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