LONG BEACH, Calif. — So here’s this high school senior named Steve Fisher, an apple-cheeked guard with a bum knee and no place to play college ball. It’s late. It’s June. It’s 1963. He gets in the car with his father and drives around the state, stopping at different colleges, introducing himself to coaches. All he has from these places are applications. No scholarship offers. No weekend tours.

It’s like a Hope-Crosby picture. Fisher and Dad, on the road, looking for a future. He stops at Western Illinois, Eastern Illinois, and the last place he sees is a school named Illinois State. It’s in a town called Normal. If you know anything about Steve Fisher, you know this is gonna work. Normal. Perfect. The knee heals, he makes the team, gets $36.50 in scholarship money, per semester. A career is born. Not a real fancy career, mind you. . . .

“Were you a starter?” I ask now, 27 years later.

“Three games,” he says.

“You ever dunk?”

“I used to be able to touch the rim.”

“What was your greatest moment?”

He crosses his legs and thinks for a minute. His young son Mark, who is sitting on the couch, listening to all this, can’t hold it in anymore.
“Probably the night you scored seven points, right, Dad?” he says, rolling his eyes with sarcasm. “That was really unbelievable.”

Fisher laughs. We are on a high floor in a California hotel, two blocks from the beach, awaiting the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s a long way from 1963. A long way from scoring seven points. A long way, except that, of all the teams in all the gyms in all the nation, guess who Fisher’s mighty Michigan Wolverines, 1989 national champions, take on tonight in the first round?

His alma mater. The boys from Normal.

Sometimes the past just won’t leave you alone. Remember when? . . . Nope

“Steve was a real good shooter,” says 68-year-old Jim Collie. “Had a nice set shot. Wasn’t real quick, you know, but that could have been because of the knee. . . . “

Collie, who coached Fisher at Illinois State — “a long, long time ago”
— is talking to me over the phone. This is not the first call he has gotten. Suddenly, reporters around the country want to ask him about a bench player from the early ’60s who scored all of 56 points — in his career. What was he like? What did you think when you first met him?

“I have to be honest,” Collie says. “I can’t remember meeting Steve.”

“Do you recall any games he starred in?”

“Not particularly.”

“Did he get a lot of playing time?”

“Well, you see, we had these other two guards that were really excellent, they went on to be All-Americans. And so, unfortunately for Steve. . . .”

I make another phone call. A guy named Bob Rush. He was a teammate of Fisher’s. Runs a bank now in their home state.

“What do you remember most?” I ask.

“Steve and I were good friends. We used to play cards on the bus together.”

“But basketball. Didn’t he have one great game?”

“Well, one night the other team was playing a zone. We needed somebody to work the ball around and occasionally take a shot. Steve came off the bench and did a good job.”

“That’s it?”

That’s it. The truth is, young Fisher did not set any records. ISU did not retire his number. Actually, people there don’t really remember what number he wore. Fisher himself can hardly remember. Was it 23? Was it 31? No, 32. It was 32? Whatever.

“Let’s put it this way,” he says now, laughing, “if there are any pictures of me hanging in the gym there, they’re team shots.” Valuable lessons learned

But remember, college isn’t always about what you do, but rather what you learn. And as a small-college backup, Fisher learned a lot for his future career as coach. He learned to analyze from the bench. He learned a sensitivity for second- stringers. He learned about the formations other teams used — because in practice, he was usually simulating a player on the other team.

He learned about money, because he had to wash dishes at a high school to pay for room and board. He learned about grades, because he needed them for a degree and a job. And through it all, he never lost his jump shot. Word is, it’s still pretty good — a little unorthodox, but accurate enough to beat Sean Higgins last year in a few games of H-O-R-S-E.

Besides, there’s one thing everybody seems to remember about Fisher, even back there at Illinois State. He got along with people. He understood them. Starters. Coaches. Everyone. What better trait for a future coach?

“You know, in my senior year, we also went to the Final Four, the one for small schools,” Fisher recalls. “It was in Evansville, Ind. Very exciting.”

“Did you play?”

“Nope. Not a single minute.”

He laughs. Why not? It’s a great story. And it continues. Last year, Fisher made history as the first head coach to start his career in the tournament and win the whole thing. Tonight, the man who once drove from school to school looking for a home could make history again.

The first coach to know both teams’ fight songs.

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