San Diego State’s first family of fandom doesn’t take Aztecs’ success for granted

Tribune Content Agency

It is human nature that something special becomes routine when experienced often enough.

The SDSU men’s basketball team now makes almost annual appearances in the NCAA Tournament. Friday’s game against top-seeded Alabama marks the Aztecs’ third trip to the Sweet 16 in just more than a decade.

But Ken Ables has been around San Diego State athletics long enough to appreciate success and not be spoiled by it.

“As a lifelong Aztec fan and a basketball fan in the 1980s and 1990s, I sometimes still can’t believe it,” said Ables, a 1980 SDSU graduate who began attending SDSU games as a child. “The winning, the experience, the games. Everything.”

SDSU’s first year of Division I basketball was the 1970-71 season. The Aztecs reached the NCAA Tournament only three times over the next four decades before Steve Fisher arrived; the former Michigan coach, with Brian Dutcher alongside him, pointed the program in the right direction.

“I really appreciate what they’ve done, and it’s not easy what Brian Dutcher has done to take over for Coach Fisher,” Ables said. “Yeah, he was on the staff, he’s been here since 1999, but that’s not easy to do to follow a legend and keep it going without, really, any hiccups.”

Ables is a member of SDSU’s first family of fandom, his devotion to Aztecs athletics developing as a child going to games with father, Tom.

Tom Ables attended nearly 800 SDSU football games — including 600 in a row — over seven decades. Tom also attended more than 1,000 SDSU basketball games before his death in 2017.

Ken Ables has carried on the family tradition, attending more than 450 football games and some 750 basketball games since the early 1960s.

He was a boy when coach George Ziegenfuss took the 1966-67 Aztecs to the NCAA Division II quarterfinals, where they lost in triple-overtime to an Illinois State team that included a senior guard named Steve Fisher. Small world.

Ziegenfuss (316 victories from 1948-69) was the winningest coach in Aztecs history before Fisher (386 victories from 199-2017) passed him.

In between, coaches came and went with modest — at best — success.

“Tim Vezie (1974-79) had some good years,” Ables said of the coach who took the Aztecs to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1975 and again a year later. “This was back when expectations were low. …

“Smokey Gaines (1979-87) came in and he had some good years. Went to the tournament and brought in some great players, like Michael Cage and Anthony Watson and those guys.”

Gaines took only his 1985 team to the NCAA Tournament after winning the Western Athletic Conference.

“They had some up and down years,” Ables said. “After Smokey left, things kind of went downhill. Jim Brandenburg (1987-91) couldn’t do it.”

Neither could Tony Fuller (1992-94). Nor Fred Trenkle (1994-99).

“Basketball just hadn’t caught the city’s attention,” Ables said. “At the San Diego Sports Arena a good night, was when they drew 4,000 people. But it was usually around 2,000.

“It wasn’t bad. It was pretty good basketball, but it took the combination of the on-campus arena and Steve Fisher.”

SDSU’s 2002 Mountain West Tournament victory over UNLV signaled the program’s arrival.

“It was almost like the two programs passing in the night,” Ables said. “Vegas may have been good after that, but …”

But it was now the Aztecs’ time. Has been ever since.

“It really started building then,” Ables said. “Some growing pains up through 2005. A couple of hiccups.

“But it started becoming a thing. The Show started (in the student section). It was evident there was no NBA ever coming back. That’s when I think it really captured this city.”

There have been several sellout crowds of 12,414 at Viejas Arena since then, but Ables points to one gathering in particular as being another milestone.

“A game on New Year’s Eve against Occidental during the 2010-11 season with Kawhi Leonard,” he said. “It was an afternoon game, and it sold out.”

He remembers looking at his father and both of them thinking “people were coming to see the Aztecs and not the opponent.”

“It’s been like that for the most part ever since,” Ables said. “That was Kawhi’s second season when things really, really took off.”

The team was special in more ways than one.

Young Aztecs fans may not realize that SDSU didn’t have a Division I postseason win until beating UC Santa Barbara in 2003.

And that was in the NIT.

The Aztecs didn’t earn their first NCAA Tournament win until 2011, when they beat Northern Colorado during their first Sweet 16 run.

As great as that team was, Ables believes this Aztecs team may be even more special.

“It’s the depth of this year’s team and the overall athleticism,” Ables said. “Nine deep, and you wear people down.

“That (2011) team with Kawhi and Billy White and DJ Gay and Chase Tapley, that was a good team, but it didn’t go nine deep.

“There’s no Kawhi on this team, but there’s a lot of guys who can play really well and they’re really buying into the defense and all that.”

A good deal of Ables’ appreciation is that Fisher and Dutcher have developed a winning program, not just a winning team.

“I had a buddy who went to Oregon State,” Ables said. “Two years ago they made it to the Elite Eight and he was all excited about it. The next year they went like 3-28.

“We’ve had a great run of 12 or 13 years. Maybe we didn’t get to the Elite Eight (yet), but, my god, I’ve enjoyed going to the games. It’s been great basketball and fun to watch.”