Basketball Mania and Hardwood Legacies
A brief history of SDSU men’s hoops
By Seth Mallios
June 15, 2020
NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard stood solemnly at center court, taking in the thundering standing ovation in a sold-out Viejas Arena on Feb. 1. “This is your legacy, my friend—look around this building,” his former coach Steve Fisher said.
Leonard was back at Viejas, where he swished and slammed his way through two seasons in 2009 to 2011 before going pro, to witness his No. 15 jersey being retired to the rafters. The ceremony took place during halftime as the undefeated SDSU men’s basketball team took on Utah State. The spectacular accomplishments of the two-time NBA champion and NBA Finals MVP—along with the historic run of this year’s team—had whipped the Aztec Nation into a frenzy. Their achievements are inextricably tied to scores of student athletes who represented San Diego State for more than a century.
The men’s basketball program debuted in 1910 with a disappointing start, losing nearly every game that season. Furthermore, the players suffered the indignity of playing in heavy baseball uniforms—the only functional athletic garments the fledgling institution could find at the time. Following this inauspicious beginning, basketball was suspended until 1914 and would not be officially recognized as a school sport until 1921.
A decade later, the program began making strides. Captained by future radio and TV personality Art Linkletter (’34), the men’s team won the conference championship in 1932 and 1934. And basketball became the first integrated sport on the Mesa when Robert Clinton Moss, Sr. (’35) became the first African American to play on a San Diego State team.
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 local community was devastated the following year when Phelps, one of the most decorated San Diego State College student athletes of all time, died in a Navy aerial training accident in Texas.
The team experienced many ups and downs during the second half of the twentieth century, but the program had bottomed out by the time Fisher was hired in 1999. The climb back to national prominence culminated with SDSU’s first ever NCAA tournament win in 2011, a team that Fisher and Leonard led all the way to the Sweet Sixteen, before falling to eventual champion University of Connecticut. Since Leonard first donned an Aztecs jersey, the team has won more than 75 percent of its games, including this year’s unprecedented 26-game undefeated start.
No discussion of San Diego State men’s basketball is complete without acknowledgement of Michael Cage (’84), the program’s career rebounding leader, or Major League Baseball Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn, who still holds the basketball team record for assists in a season. Or of the many accomplishments of the women’s basketball program, which included a trio of Sweet Sixteen runs in 1984, 2011 and 2014. Likewise, the recent raising of Leonard’s jersey recalls the previous honorary retirements of Phelps’ #22, Cage’s #44 and women’s all-time leading scorer Judy Porter’s #33.
All players, past and present, contributed to this year’s fervor, succeeding in what former SDSU Athletic Director Fred Miller foresaw nearly four decades ago: Waking the sleeping giant that is San Diego State athletics required talent, passion and—above all—community.
About the Author
Professor of Anthropology Seth Mallios is the university history curator and director of the South Coastal Information Center at SDSU. He is the author of 10 books, including Born a Slave, Died a Pioneer: Nathan Harrison and the Historical Archaeology of Legend.