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Aztec starters Malcolm Thomas, D.J. Gay, Tim Shelton & Billy White
Aztec starters Malcolm Thomas, D.J. Gay, Tim Shelton & Billy White
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They are the heart of the men’s basketball program; the players with the most invested in San Diego State—a cumulative 10 years and more than 300 games among them.

Now, in their last season together as Aztecs, seniors D.J. Gay, Billy White, Malcolm Thomas and junior Tim Shelton front a team that could be the most successful in San Diego State history.

Led by Coach Steve Fisher, the squad includes All-MWC first team sophomore Kawhi Leonard, shooting ace Chase Tapley and a slate of talent whose 25-9 record last season is the second best in Aztec record books.

Fisher's team opened the season with its first ranking ever in the Associated Press Top 25 and is now ranked 17 in that poll with an 8-0 record.

At home, the Aztecs' fan base is exploding. With season ticket sales surpassing all previous numbers, the men’s team is attracting record attendance, including two sellout crowds in December.

Basketball fever

Not since 1941 has excitement been so high at the start of an Aztec basketball season. That was the year a core of mostly upperclassmen headed to the national finals for the third consecutive time and won it all.

In the semifinals of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), the Aztecs played the No. 1 seed, West Texas State. Texas had the height, but San Diego had the speed to take them 43-40, and go on to defeat Murray Teachers College of Kentucky, 36-34, in a tense final.

The Aztecs were coached by Morris Gross, a legend at State, who won six conference basketball titles in addition to serving as assistant football coach and athletics director.
1941 Aztec Basketball Team
1941 NAIA National Champions

“He was an outstanding individual and very clever in handling his players,” recalled Harry Hodgetts, ’41, a leader of the championship team. “There was never any shouting.”

A Hoover High School graduate, Hodgetts was the team’s defensive lynchpin, assigned to guard Jackie Robinson in the Aztecs’ 1941 win over UCLA. He made NAIA second team All-American along with teammate Dick Mitchell, who later competed for the U.S. in badminton, and was inducted into the national Badminton Hall of Fame.

The 1941 team also laid claim to a pair of first team All-Americans—Kenny Hale and Milton “Milky” Phelps. Hale led the Aztecs in scoring three times in five tournament games. He left San Diego State to join the Navy in WWII, but returned to graduate in 1947 and earn a master’s degree in 1952.

Among his teammates, Phelps is the tragic hero. A three-time MVP, he was the first Aztec athlete to achieve first-team major college NAIA All-America honors. After graduation, Phelps played for a brief time with the Consolidated Aircraft (Consair) quintet in San Diego before enlisting as a naval aviation cadet. Twenty months after State won the national title, he died in a training accident in Corpus Christi, Texas.

A benevolent shadow

For decades after their national victory, the 1941 team had no rivals among Aztec hoopsters. Their record of 24 wins in a single season held fast, until Fisher’s squad bested it by 2 in 2008-09. But the former NAIA champions continue to loom large in Aztec history, casting a benevolent shadow on the men’s team through Hodgetts’ philanthropic support and his friendship with Fisher.

“When I came here, people focused on what hadn’t been done,” Fisher recalled. “But every time I had an opportunity to talk to Harry Hodgetts, he found something complimentary to say about our team. It made me feel good that a guy who had been part of a national championship would say, ‘I really like how your team is progressing.’”

Under Fisher, the Aztecs have progressed until now, in his 12th season, SDSU men’s basketball is once again in the national spotlight.

“We’re getting more talk this season than we have since I’ve been here,” Fisher said. “This year, we will get most people’s ‘A’ games, and we have not always had that. People know that we’re supposed to be good.”

People know, too, that the Aztec men don’t take victory for granted. Talented teams excite fans, but hardworking teams inspire them. Veteran players like Gay, Shelton, White and Thomas exemplify the collaborative spirit Fisher fosters.

“There are no selfish players on this team,” said Jack Goodall, ’60, an occasional guest coach in the Aztec locker room and one of the trio of alumni whose gift named the Parma Payne Goodall Alumni Center.

Selfish, maybe not; but if the Aztecs have their way this season, they won’t be sharing Mountain West Conference honors with anyone.
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MULTIMEDIA

"I Believe" 30 second spot
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Shot throughout San Diego County, the spot features various community members repeating parts of the "I Believe That We Will Win" chant. Along the way, energy builds as the chant is joined by famous Aztecs such as Ralph Rubio and Mayor Jerry Sanders.

also inside 360 Magazine

Spring 2012 360 Magazine
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