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Tuesday, March 13, 2007 | Ten or 20 years from now, San Diego State will likely stage a reunion for players from the Aztecs’ 2005-06 basketball season during a game at Cox Arena.

By then, post-season appearances by SDSU and big crowds at Cox may have become part of the San Diego college basketball fabric. Fans, remembering when it was still a program on the rise, will salute the first SDSU team to sweep the Mountain West Conference regular-season and tournament titles.

When Marcus Slaughter is introduced, there will be a polite golf clap.

When Brandon Heath is introduced, there will be a sustained roar. There will always be a louder and warmer welcome for Heath whether it’s 10 years from now or 20.

The difference in receptions for the two stars will be as it should be. Heath has earned that attachment with his alma mater.

Slaughter left school early with unrealistic visions of grandeur. He showed us he saw college as a steppingstone to pro basketball and didn’t learn from his college experience.

He wakes up these days half a world away playing in Turkey’s pro basketball league. He lives the daily grind of a job, even if it is playing basketball.

Heath will leave SDSU as a legitimate student-athlete with a realistic view of life and how to prepare for his future. He arrived on campus as an academic risk from Westchester High in Los Angeles, but he proved he could achieve.

He has his degree and will have used up his college eligibility. He wakes up these days soaking up college life for one last year.

Sure, Heath might have first stepped on SDSU’s campus thinking college basketball was a steppingstone to the NBA, but he educated himself in a learning environment. He rationally sized up his draft opportunities and decided he would be wise to return to college for his senior year.

Heath also has the opportunity to write another post-season chapter at SDSU, although the Aztecs are playing in the NIT Wednesday at Missouri State instead of achieving their preseason expectations of a return to the NCAA tournament.

But the disappointment didn’t make Heath regret returning to SDSU for his senior year.

Did you see how emotional Heath was when he played his final home game at Cox Arena on March 3 at Cox Arena? He had to wipe the tears from his face to compose himself.

“It was very emotional for me,” Heath said. “I’ve been here the longest. My time here has been great. I couldn’t have picked a better place than San Diego State. I enjoyed every bit of it. It went by so fast, but I’m happy with every decision that I made.”

Heath is a gifted athlete, but he made us feel he’s one of us by staying in school. He enjoyed college for an experience that only comes around once and is gone before we know it.

We can grasp college life again no easier than we can catch the wind.

Maybe Heath’s final chapter will include a run by the Aztecs in the NIT. That would salve some of the wound of missing the NCAA tournament, where SDSU likely would have lost in the first round.

Heath finishes his SDSU career as an MWC Player of the Year as a junior and repeat first-team pick as a senior. He is SDSU’s career scoring leader and the MWC’s career scoring leader. As an honorable mention All-American as a junior, he was the first SDSU player to earn All-American honors since Michael Cage in 1984.

He leaves SDSU better prepared for a shot at pro basketball. And he leaves SDSU with the Aztecs better prepared for life after Brandon Heath.

“Brandon is the face of our program,” SDSU coach Steve Fisher said. “He’s opened doors everywhere, especially in the city of Los Angeles for me because of performance on the court and off the court. If there ever was a guy the president should take in and say, ‘Be like this guy,’ it would be Brandon Heath.”

He won’t be forgotten, whether its 10 years from now or 20.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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