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SDSU Memorial Day: Milton “Milky” Phelps—The First All-Time Aztec

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Today we honor all of our beloved servicemen and servicewomen who perished while serving in the United States armed forces. To some, Memorial Day has evolved in our country’s culture to turn anything military or USA related, into a celebration of sorts.

Some will flock to the theaters to reminisce of their teenage lives in the latest cinematic thriller sequel of the 80’s. Those of us in San Diego know why. The need for speed of Top Gun holds a special place in the landmarks and recent history of America’s finest city.

Others will search for bargains, deals and special one day only sales online, at their neighborhood malls or at car dealerships. These types of marketing tactics have ultimately become, well, the American way.

But in the truest of definitions, Memorial Day has long stood not as a “happy” or holiday full of joy & cheer. It was intended as a day of mourning. A day to pause, be thankful and reflect upon those who sacrificed all—for all of this nation.

The recent creation of our Kiss The Rings–Aztecs Basketball episodes at the Sons of Montezuma Podcast, fueled us to take a deeper and more meaningful look at SDSU Basketball that has ever been done before. Our most recent episode interviewing assistant coach Michael Brunker, gave a tremendous insight to the fascinating decade of the 1980’s Head coach Smokey Gaines era at SDSU.

Listen to our full Milky Phelps Podcast above and watch the video presentation of the podcast below!

Like every good coach, Michael Brunker challenged us. He challenged us to dig deep and honor all those SDSU basketball greats who at one point in their lives put on the Red & Black. So Sons of Montezuma is creating graphic images on all our social media outlets and dedicating podcast episodes to our ranking of players who we call ALL-TIME AZTECS of basketball. We start today.

With it being Memorial Day it is only fitting that we begin with this one man. When talking about All-Time Aztecs, you must look no further than to honor this man on this very exclusive list.

Milton Milky Phelps: The First All-Time Aztec

Atwell Milton “Milky” Phelps was the captain of the then called “San Diego State College” 1941 NAIA National Champion Aztec team. 

A 5 foot 11 inch forward/center, Milky was a hometown San Diegan and Hoover High graduate before his time at SDSU.

His achievements include becoming the first First-Team All-American in school history, leading the Aztecs to three NAIA National Championship game appearances and winning one, was a (3) time winner of the Paul W. Mott Trophy, which was formerly given to the team’s most valuable player, and is a member of the Aztec 1000 point club (1,043) in an era where three-pointers and the shot clock were non-existent. Phelps was inducted into the SDSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 1988.

According to SDSU Magazine’s Seth Mallios in his BASKETBALL MANIA AND HARDWOOD LEGACIES article published in June of 2020:

“The earliest Aztec team to make national headlines was the 1939 men’s basketball team, which lost in the finals of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championships. The 1940 team also made it to the finals, only to fall short again. Motivated by the slogan, “the third time is the charm,” the 1941 team claimed the NAIA crown. Throngs of supporters greeted the victors at the downtown Santa Fe Depot and carried player Atwell Milton “Milky” Phelps (’43) on their shoulders from their train.”

The starting five for the 1941 men’s basketball team, from left: Kenny Hale, Bill Patterson, Milton “Milky” Phelps, Harry Hodgetts and Dick Mitchell. The NAIA tournament where they earned their crown was a 32-team, five-round championship, much more grueling than the 1941 NCAA Division I tournament, which included only eight teams.

James D. Newland, wrote an account of that championship team and was later updated in the La Mesa History Center Gems article.

It was then that Phelps, the team’s best free throw shooter and sure ball-handler, was pressured. He then deftly fed Patterson again to slip through for another basket. Patterson repeated with another basket to give State a 35-30 lead with less than a minute to go. Phelps added a free throw, his fifth of the game. Murray State added two meaningless baskets in the last few seconds, but it was too late as the Aztecs held on for the 36-34 victory—and the National Championship.

Several thousand fans and students greeted the Aztecs upon their return to the Santa Fe Depot. Phelps exited first with the championship trophy held high. He, followed by the others were then lifted to the shoulders of admirers and carried to the temporary platform for a welcome from San Diego Mayor Percy Benbough, SDSC President Walter Hepner and ASB representative J.O. Miller. Hailed as civic heroes, the Chamber of Commerce honored the Aztec “casaba-men” with a dinner a few nights later.

The Aztec, March 18, 1941. “Cagers” was a popular term for basketball players because games were played in a cage at the time. You can eerily see the foreshadowing of WW2 with an SBD Dauntless Divebomber pictured on the front page.

Looking back on those championship Aztecs of the past is special. In a time that we all call those then young Americans the greatest generation, Milky lived up to the meaning of that distinction.

Just a short 9 months after winning the national championship, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Each member of the 1941 team, a manager, and a coach went on to serve in the second world war. Three of them didn’t return home, including Phelps. 

On November 12th, 1942, Phelps perished in a Navy aviation training exercise in Texas. The news of the national champion’s early death was published across the country in the New York Times. He made the ultimate sacrifice for our country during the most pivotal war in human history. Phelps should be honored with his #22 jersey displayed for being one of the greatest Aztecs ever, but also for being an American hero.

According to the Aztec Newsletter on November 20, 1942, the legend and American hero was the first SDSU alumnus to die during America’s involvement in WW2. With San Diego being a military community, it makes sense to honor Phelps for both his stellar play and service to our country. In addition to his jersey retirement, SDSU faculty voted to award Phelps his degree posthumously.

(Not to be forgotten from that era of SDSU basketball were one-time teammates of Milky Phelps; Paul Fern and Mason Harris. More to come very soon on these two individuals)

Since Phelp’s passing, there have been hundreds of SDSU basketball players to wear the red & black. Many have suited up for the Aztecs in games on the Montezuma Mesa and some off campus. Some have achieved far greater stats, numbers and bigger moments on bigger stages. Many have gone on to perform at higher levels and be world-famous to basketball fans and beyond. But none have ever made the Aztecs jersey, SDSU community, and the United States of America more proud.

Atwell Milton “Milky” Phelps 1919 – 1942

Stay tuned to sonsofmontezuma.com and all of our social media outlets in the coming days and weeks. We will be counting down each day with a new All-Time Aztec basketball player with a new graphic image. And this week we will be featuring more in depth coverage about Milky Phelps and the latest on Nathan Mensah’s decision to return to SDSU, all on our Sons of Montezuma Podcast.

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