Nine years after Kawhi Leonard helped lead San Diego State to national prominence, the Aztecs honored the greatest player in program history by hoisting his No. 15 jersey into the rafters at Viejas Arena, high above Steve Fisher Court.
Leonard’s jersey was retired at halftime against defending Mountain West champion Utah State on Saturday night, as the No. 4 Aztecs (22-0, 11-0 MWC) tried to remain the nation’s only undefeated team.
Leonard, whose Los Angeles Clippers had an afternoon game at Staples Center, participated along with Fisher, who turned SDSU into a perennial NCAA Tournament team.
With all the parallels between this year’s SDSU team and the 2010-11 squad led by Leonard, it’s fitting that Leonard became the first former Aztecs player to have his jersey retired.
“It’s a great honor,” Leonard said earlier this week at a Clippers practice. “It’s exciting. I put a lot of hard work there. Those coaches gave me an opportunity to play young as a freshman. They trusted me. I had great teammates and that’s why I was able to succeed.”
Leonard’s “The Claw” logo — a replica of one of his huge hands — is already prominently displayed on one wall at SDSU’s practice gym. Leonard often works out there in the summer.
Coach Brian Dutcher, who was Fisher’s top assistant when Leonard was starring on Montezuma Mesa, has made it clear Leonard was being honored for his contributions to SDSU, not because he became an NBA superstar.
“I'd like to say it’s for what he did at San Diego State,” Dutcher said. “We all know what he did beyond here — MVP of two NBA Finals, two-time NBA champion. But he led us to a 34-3 record, a Sweet 16 appearance, a Mountain West Conference title and was arguably the best player on maybe the best Aztec team. A well-deserved honor.”
This Aztecs team, led by transfers Malachi Flynn, KJ Feagin and Yanni Wetzell, is on the hottest start in school history after eclipsing the 20-0 start by Leonard’s 2010-11 team. That team was the first in school history to reach the Sweet 16.
Leonard’s impact at SDSU gives the Aztecs credibility during recruiting.
“When you recruit a young man, they all feel they want to have a chance to play in the NBA,” Dutcher said. “So you bring them here and you show them the conference titles we win at the highest level, show them the quality education they can get here at San Diego State — second-most applied-to school in the country — you show them we’ve been to the NCAA Tournament seven out of 10 years, and they want to know, can they reach their ultimate dream, play in the NBA. And you point to Kawhi Leonard and say, not only can you get there from here, you can arguably be best player in the NBA from San Diego State.”
Dutcher said Leonard was willing to do whatever it took to win during his two seasons at SDSU.
“He put his hard hat on and went to work,” the coach said.
Dutcher raves about Leonard’s summer workouts on campus. “If you go in there, you have to say he’s the hardest worker you’ve ever seen. He's the dream. He’s got God-given ability, and a work ethic to match that ability. That rarely happens, where you’re that talented, yet you have a work ethic that goes beyond your talent. And that’s what Kawhi has."
Junior forward Matt Mitchell feels a connection with Leonard because he spent one season at Riverside’s King High — Leonard’s alma mater — before transferring. Mitchell said he’s seen Leonard work out twice.
“It’s kind of surreal,” Mitchell said. “You just see the repetition and consistency. ... I didn’t see him smile once. Just head down, all business.”
Feagin, a graduate transfer from Santa Clara, said “The Claw” on the practice gym’s wall “is just a little symbolic of hard work and knowing that one day if you keep your head down, you can look up and maybe my logo will be in the gym. It’s just a testament to what he’s done and the commitment to his work and his craft. All props to him and I’m glad we’re able to give him his flowers while he can smell them, and retire his jersey while he’s at the peak of his career.”
SDSU won 77-68 at Utah State on Jan. 4, but Dutcher knows the Aggies can be dangerous. With all the Leonard hoopla, he’ll be trying to keep his players focused on playing tough defense and sharing the ball.
“I think it will be one of the best environments we’ve ever had here ... I think it's going to be electric in the building,” Dutcher said.
AP Sports Writer Beth Harris in Los Angeles contributed.