Kawhi Leonard brought the crowd at Viejas Arena to its feet once again.
Nine years after leading San Diego State to its greatest season, the NBA superstar stood on Steve Fisher Court and watched as his No. 15 SDSU jersey was unveiled in the rafters.
It could not have been more fitting that Leonard became the first former Aztecs player to be immortalized by having his jersey retired in the midst of another special season.
Saturday night’s ceremony was a salute to a legacy that is resonating this season, when the Aztecs are the nation’s only undefeated team at 23-0 and ranked No. 4, and will for years to come.
Anchored by the rowdy student section “The Show,” the stands were packed with 12,414 fans, just as they were when Leonard was the big star on Montezuma Mesa.
Standing near one free-throw line were Leonard’s Los Angeles Clippers teammates, plus coach Doc Rivers and owner Steve Ballmer. The Clippers flew down on Ballmer’s private jet after beating the Timberwolves earlier in the day at STAPLES Center, when Leonard scored 31 points. During the ceremony, Ballmer applauded just as hard as any Aztecs fans did.
The only thing hanging in the balance was whether the current Aztecs would remain undefeated. The fans put aside their worries about an 8-point halftime deficit to Utah State and cheered wildly once again for Leonard.
After some heartfelt comments by Fisher, who retired three seasons ago, Leonard’s jersey was unveiled high above the north stands.
Leonard, normally a man of few words, took the microphone and addressed the crowd.
“Man, thank you everybody for coming. You know, it’s a dream come true. I wanted to make a name for myself, I wanted to put San Diego State on the map. I want to thank the coaching staff, Coach Fisher, for recruiting me, recruiting me hard, just wanting me to come to the school. This is why I’m the player I am today. And my great group of teammates, coming in here, trusting a freshman, passing me the ball, just wanting me to lead the team, I just thank them as well.”
“Also my family, my support, all the hours in the gym I put in, they allowed me to do that with no complaints. They know my passion for the game. I want to thank them as well.”
And then he turned and acknowledged “The Show,” which has revived its raucous ways first made famous during Leonard’s two seasons on Montezuma Mesa. And he gave a shoutout to his Clippers teammates.
“The Aztecs are doing great this year,” Leonard said in closing. “So thanks for coming and seeing the jersey get revealed, but we’ve got another half to go.”
That was classic Leonard. Fisher and current SDSU coach Brian Dutcher, who was Fisher’s top assistant for 18 years, recall that all Leonard was concerned with was winning, and putting in the required work and then some.
Fisher was eloquent in his opening remarks. He put his left arm around Leonard’s waist while Leonard put his right arm around Fisher’s shoulder. The former coach turned the Aztecs from laughingstocks to perennial NCAA Tournament participants.
“This is going to be like the senior night we never got to have with you,” Fisher said. Leonard left SDSU after his sophomore season and went on to win NBA championships with San Antonio and Toronto. He also won Finals MVP both times. “Kawhi, this is your legacy, my friend. Look around this building,” the former coach added.
Fisher thanked Leonard’s mother for trusting the staff and telling them that SDSU was the best program for her son. He said to Leonard’s uncle, Dennis: “When you cosigned it, it sealed the deal. If I’m on my own, I’m still waiting for him to tell me he’s coming.”
Fisher put into perspective what Leonard has meant to the program and the school.
“When you think of Kawhi Leonard, one word jumps out at you: winner. When people say, ‘Oh, you’re from San Diego State,’ the first thing they say: Kawhi Leonard. We have a wall dedicated to Kawhi. And in there, there’s a quote that says, ‘Kawhi is the elite of the elite in terms of his competitiveness.’ There’s no one more concerned with improving his own game more so than Kawhi. A lot of people talk a good game. Kawhi doesn’t talk a good game, he plays a good game.”
It was easily the biggest night in SDSU basketball since Feb. 26, 2011 when Leonard was still in uniform. The No. 6 Aztecs lost to Jimmer Fredette and the No. 7 BYU Cougars at a packed, frenzied Viejas Arena.
Fast-forward nine years and the love for Leonard is as strong as ever.
SDSU led Utah State 22-17 when Leonard walked to his seat on the baseline near the Aztecs’ basket. He came out to a loud ovation during a timeout with 10:34 to go in the first half. Matt Mitchell — who like Leonard is from Riverside — hit a jumper to make it 24-17. The Aztecs then went cold.
It was almost like the Aztecs had sudden stage fright playing in front of the biggest star in program history. SDSU didn’t score for seven minutes. Guard Malachi Flynn, one of three transfers who are fueling SDSU’s impressive season, air-balled two straight 3-pointers.
The Aztecs couldn’t possibly lose on the night they were honoring their greatest star, could they?
After the retirement ceremony, Leonard shook hands with the Aztecs players as they came out for the second half.
Dutcher, who told his players not to overreact to the deficit, had a lighthearted moment with Leonard.
“Kawhi was near the bench at the start of the second half and I said, ‘Go get a uniform on, Kawhi, we might need you,’” Dutcher said. “And he told me, ‘Hey, just win the game.’ And I said, ‘Yes sir. OK, we’re going to win the game.’”
Again, it was pure Leonard.
In the span of 13 minutes, the Aztecs turned a 10-point deficit into a 10-point lead. Mitchell hit three straight 3-pointers to help bring them back. He recorded 24 of his season-high 28 points in the second half.
“What a great night for an Inland Empire kid to have a great game, Kawhi Leonard jersey hanging,” Dutcher said. “Matt stepped up and did it with Kawhi sitting there courtside watching him play.”
Mitchell spent one season at Riverside’s King High — Leonard’s alma mater — before transferring.
“There’s definitely significance there,” said Mitchell, a junior forward. “Me having a big night and Kawhi’s big night, I feel like that’s very special and I’m happy I was able to show up tonight. At the same time, it’s a team sport and my teammates found me tonight, and on another night it would be another one of my teammates.”
Sound familiar? This Aztecs team is doing it with a defense-first mentality that feeds an offense where sharing the ball is important. This is similar to when Leonard was at SDSU.
While the current Aztecs want to forge their own identity, it’s been impossible not to compare them to Leonard’s 2010-11 team. SDSU matched the 20-0 start of Leonard’s team when it won at home against Wyoming on Jan. 21. They then eclipsed the record with a win at UNLV. The 23-game winning streak is the longest in the nation and in school history.
The current Aztecs, who are also getting major contributions from transfers KJ Feagin and Yanni Wetzell, still have a lot of work to do. Leonard led SDSU to its first Sweet 16 appearance in 2010-11, and the best record in school history, 34-3.
Earlier Saturday, Fisher, who led Michigan to the 1989 national championship before recruiting the Fab Five, reflected on Leonard’s impact at SDSU.
“He helped us to many first-time-evers, which is a hard thing to do. We had a program when he came, which is one reason why he came, but he also came knowing he could help us become a better program, a consistent program and do some things that hadn’t been accomplished.”
During the breakout 2010-11 season, Leonard led the Aztecs into The Associated Press Top 25 for the first time. He spurred them to a 20-0 start. Leonard also helped them claim their first victory in the NCAA Tournament, and a Sweet 16 berth.
“He said it with his actions. ‘Yes we can,’ and we did,” Fisher said. “He set the table for us believing that we could do it again and again and again. He did it the way he’s doing it now, where the team was the most important thing and winning was the only thing that mattered.”