SAN DIEGO — The game came together at the last minute, not long before the start of the men’s college basketball season. Michigan had an opening because its plans to host Kentucky had fallen through, and San Diego State Coach Brian Dutcher called his Wolverines counterpart, Juwan Howard, to offer to fill the gap.
Normally, this isn’t the way scheduling works. Matchups are set long in advance, marquee schools like Michigan with late openings often look to add easy wins before conference play begins and San Diego State boasts a sturdy-enough program that it usually demands home-and-home contests and rejects “buy” games in which bigger schools traditionally pay underdogs for a one-time visit instead of also agreeing to a future game at the opponent’s arena.
But in what will be one of the more emotional and meaningful early-season games, there is nothing normal about San Diego State visiting Michigan.
Dutcher will step into the Crisler Center for the first time since March 1998, when he unceremoniously left the season after Michigan fired Coach Steve Fisher.
Dutcher was the lead recruiter who brought Howard to Michigan three decades ago as the first brick in the foundation that became the storied Fab Five, a group some still call the best freshman class ever. Dutcher once watched Howard play for 28 or more consecutive days in July 1990 — depending on who’s counting — while wooing him and, over time, they grew quite close.
Watching with a full heart will be the retired Fisher, whose own tentative first steps back after an estrangement from Michigan came just two years ago, when he was coaxed back for a 30-year reunion of the 1989 champions — the only team to win a men’s basketball national championship for the university. (Fisher also took the team to title games in 1992 and 1993.)
“I was anxious,” said Fisher, 76, for whom San Diego State’s home court is named. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to go or should go. But then I heard from all the players and I said you know, I should go, I need to go, and I went. I saw the people I wanted to see and needed to see. It was a wonderful weekend. Lots of memories I had there.”
Sports often are fueled by memories and imaginations more than wins and losses. And the reverberations from one of college basketball’s most storied chapters still echo like the sound of a basketball bouncing inside an empty gym.
“It really is a wonderful thing to think about the nexus of how Juwan, Coach Dutcher and Coach Fisher are coming together in this game,” said Rob Pelinka, the Los Angeles Lakers’ general manager and the only man in Michigan history to play in three Final Fours.
“It’s wild to think of the turns life takes, and coach Dutcher now is coaching against them in an incredible game,” Pelinka continued.
A game, it should also be noted, that is more than simply a trip down memory lane.
“With them being the team they’re going to be this year, if we go in and happen to catch lightning in a bottle and get a win, it could put us in the tournament,” Dutcher said. “It could get us that at-large bid. So it’s worth the gamble to go in there and not have a return game, just go in for a one-off game and build our résumé.”
What should have been a story for the ages instead ended bitterly. Fisher was fired on the eve of the 1997-98 season — long after the Fab Five departed — following an investigation that revealed a booster named Ed Martin had given hundreds of thousands of dollars to four Michigan basketball players over many years. Martin died in 2003. The N.C.A.A. found no direct evidence of wrongdoing by Fisher. Michigan self-imposed penalties that included forfeiting victories and removing the arena banners celebrating the team’s run to the national final in 1992 and ’93.
Following a season as an assistant coach with the N.B.A.’s Sacramento Kings, Fisher took over a historically moribund San Diego State program in 1999. He made one of his first calls to Dutcher. At the time, Dutcher was on a one-year hiatus from basketball, working in investing with his father, Jim, who was also a college basketball coach.
“Coach Fisher said, ‘I’m taking San Diego State tomorrow and I want you to come with me. Promise me you’ll stay three years,’” Dutcher said. “That’s what he made every assistant promise, he wanted you to help build a program, he didn’t want you jumping jobs. And 23 years later, here I sit.”
San Diego State was coming off losing seasons in 13 of the previous 14 years. But it also had a recently opened on-campus arena. Fisher identified the potential, led the Aztecs to the N.C.A.A. tournament in his third season and won 26 games, a school record at the time, in 2009. Dutcher’s recruiting magic continued with, among others, Kawhi Leonard. Dutcher, who was named head coach in-waiting in 2011, was Fisher’s assistant for 27 seasons before taking over the program in April 2017. He has led them to 20-win seasons in each of his first four years, including a 30-2 mark and No. 6 national ranking in 2019-20. But that season’s sky-high hopes were shattered when the N.C.A.A. tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“I was waiting for something I helped build,” Dutcher, 62, said, explaining his decision to decline other opportunities. “And it wasn’t hard to stay here. Obviously, this is a destination city. People save up all year to spend one week here, and I get to live here. My family gets to live here.”
In his office are framed pictures of himself with Howard, now 48, from those Michigan glory days, as well as photos of his now-adult daughters — Erin and Liza — with Howard when they were little. The affinity between the families is real. The years have deepened the roots.
Howard, raised in Chicago by his grandmother, still remembers Dutcher, Fisher and another assistant, Mike Boyd, eating his grandmother’s “famous greens” during a home visit.
“That was very known as a personal dish in the Howard household,” said Howard, whose grandmother abruptly died of a heart attack hours after he announced he would attend Michigan in November 1990.
Dutcher remembers he thought Howard “was so important to the program that I spent every day that July watching him. Wherever he was, I was. So if he wasn’t at a camp or an event and was just home at the park, I’d go to the park to watch him play. Just to be with him, because I felt he was that important to our success at Michigan. Now, to have him as the head coach at the University of Michigan is just the greatest thing in the world.”
That is particularly true in a time when the ice, ever so slowly, has begun to melt from the past to the present. Fisher had only been back to Ann Arbor twice before that 2019 championship reunion, to attend the funerals of the former football coach Bo Schembechler and the longtime Michigan basketball office manager Karen Beeman. On neither occasion did he visit the campus.
John Beilein, Howard’s predecessor, took the lead in talking Fisher back to the school, with assistance from Pelinka, Mark Hughes, a co-captain of the championship team who now is an assistant general manager of the Los Angeles Clippers, and others.
Beilein had developed a relationship with Fisher over the years as he went from coaching jobs at Canisius, Richmond and West Virginia, and made it a goal upon going to Michigan to bring him back.
“When I went to Michigan he was one of the first guys to call and tell me what a great place it is,” said Beilein, now senior player development adviser for the Detroit Pistons. “He was so genuine and authentic with me every time we’ve been together. When I left the Cavaliers two years ago he called just to see how I was doing.
“I don’t like that guy, I love him.”
His return to the Crisler Center went so well that Fisher, who spoke to the basketball alumni and team during the weekend, both called Beilein and wrote him a letter of gratitude afterward.
“Time is a friend of truth and it’s all working out right now,” Beilein said.
The hope among many is that one day the Fab Five again will be officially recognized and the banners will appear back in the rafters. Especially, as Beilein said, with the N.C.A.A. updating its rules and perhaps realizing it should have done more for student-athletes in the past.
Meantime, while Howard, Dutcher and others lobby for Fisher’s induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame, the modest retiree now stays involved with San Diego State and enjoys his family. He knows what he has done — and what he hasn’t. Perhaps one day the Final Four banners will re-emerge and the final bits of ice will melt away completely.
“It would be nice if that could happen, but whether it does or doesn’t, I’m a people person and I pull for Juwan,” said Fisher, who will not be with the Aztecs on Saturday because personal reasons are precluding him from traveling. “But I won’t pull for him on the fourth. I’ll hope it’s a tie and we play forever.”