Hearing DePaul athletic alumni tell "their" DePaul story is clearly the favorite part of my job. I have had the great honor to meet many of DePaul's athletic alumni. One of my favorite alums has been Jack Phelan, and his most touching story helped me to appreciate the true meaning of the term "Hero."
Phelan played men's basketball at DePaul from 1943-46 and 1947-49. He was part of the 1946 NIT National Championship. Our visits in Sarasota are always filled with great tales of DePaul legends since he played alongside hoops legend George Mikan at DePaul and against Mikan in the NBA. Phelan also played for Hall of Fame Coach Ray Meyer during the advent of his illustrious career.
Phelan's stories are unfailingly humble in nature and rarely focused on him or his exploits. He can tell stories of games in Madison Square Garden, the early days of the NBA as a Sheboygan Redskin or a Waterloo Hawk or even tales of the early days travelling and playing against the great Harlem Globetrotters. There's the anecdote of Coach Ray having Jack's sister dance with George Mikan to improve the big fellow's clumsy footwork.
But I'll never forget the time Phelan led me down the path to the story of Jack Dean. During a visit two years ago, I had noticed a trophy that was tucked away above his refrigerator. When asked about it, Jack smiled and said: "That's the Jack Dean Award for Sportsmanship. I earned it my senior year. Of all the trophies I have earned, this is the one that I kept. It means a lot to me."
I may not have dug more deeply into the Jack Dean story, but one day last winter men's basketball alum and women's basketball coach Doug Bruno asked me what I knew of Dean. He had heard stories from some St. Ignatius guys and wanted to know more.
The search for Jack Dean began....
Jack Dean came to DePaul to play basketball at age 17 in 1943-44 because he wasn't old enough to enlist in the military. Instead of enlisting, he signed up for duty with the Blue Demons and Ray Meyer. The St. Ignatius prep came in well-prepared and made an immediate impact. He would finish the 1943-44 season as DePaul's third-leading scorer behind All-Americans Mikan and Dick Triptow.
"He was a good player and a great-looking guy," said teammate Dick Triptow. "He really added a lot to our team."
"I owe playing at DePaul to Jack," said Blue Demon Hall of Famer Eugene Stump. "I was sitting on the South Side waiting to get old enough to enlist when Jack told me I should go up with him for some basketball at DePaul one afternoon. We went, and a couple of weeks later, Coach Ray Meyer offered us both scholarships to play for the Blue Demons. For me, that really changed everything."
Dean was the leading scorer in DePaul's semifinal victory over Oklahoma A&M in Madison Square Garden. With Mikan on the bench in foul trouble, the freshman stood tall and knocked down several shots in the Blue Demons' come-from-behind victory.
The following game, the referees got the best of DePaul in the Garden. By most newspaper accounts, St. John's and storied coach Joe Lapchick benefited some home cooking. Both Mikan and Dean fouled out early in DePaul's 47-39 loss to the St. John's Indians (as they were known back then).
Teammate Bill McNabola mentioned in some notes a copy of the March 27, 1944 New York Times article: "Referees were brutal on Mikan and Dean. They were ticky-tack fouls."
The calls were apparently so bad that Meyer wanted to pull the team from the floor---but was advised by priests that would be wrong. DePaul finished as the NIT runner-up.
As the season closed, so did Dean's time as a Blue Demon. Now that he was 18, he enlisted in the Navy. On the advice of Meyer, and after some phone calls by the legendary coach, Dean was assigned to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago. Instead of being shipped out, the Blue Demon forward was assigned to work at the Naval Station and play for the base's basketball team.
Great Lakes had a fine athletics program for basketball and baseball. The 1942 baseball team was managed by Mickey Cochrane and featured Major Leaguers like Johnny Mize, Bob Feller and Billy Herman. The talent on the basketball and football teams was comparable. For more information, check out this link regarding Roger Gogan's book.
Gogan's book documents that Dean had some ultimately irreparable issues with the coach and was set to be shipped out to San Diego, and then overseas. Apparently Dean's reputation as a player preceded him, and before he was shipped abroad, he was assigned to play for the Naval Training Station in San Diego. Unfortunately, Dean got crossed up with the coach and ultimately was sent overseas.
Dean served aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis as an S2. In July of 1945 the Indianapolis received orders to make a special delivery to Tinian Island. The Indianapolis was to transport a top-secret cargo, the uranium for the atomic bomb "Little Boy" which subsequently would be dropped on Hiroshima. Travelling alone, the Indianapolis would reach Tinian on July 26 and then onto Guam before continuing to Okinawa, Japan to rejoin other ships. On July 30, the Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine.
The tragedy is best described by the U.S.S. Indianapolis website (http://www.ussindianapolis.org/)
At 12:14 a.m. on July 30, 1945, the USS Indianapolis was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Philippine Sea and sank in 12 minutes. Of 1,196 men on board, approximately 300 went down with the ship. The remainders, about 900 men, were left floating in shark-infested waters with no lifeboats and most with no food or water. The ship was never missed, and by the time the survivors were spotted by accident four days later, only 316 men were still alive.
The sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the deaths that followed led to the greatest single loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy. A generation of movie fans best knows the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis from the dramatic scene from JAWS. Click HERE for link.
"I met a guy who found out I played at DePaul," said Phelan. "He said he swam beside Jack for three days. He said he just couldn't hang on."
On my last trip to see Phelan, we talked more about Jack Dean and his story. As our visit closed, he again showed me the trophy, and this time pulled it down and handed it to me. He then asked me if I would bring it back home to DePaul. I told him I was touched, and that I would make sure it was prominently displayed so DePaul fans everywhere would know Jack Dean's story.
It is the story of a young man who made an immediate impact on DePaul. Though it would have been easy to bask in the glory of hoops fame, instead he remained steadfast in his desire to serve his country. He made the ultimate sacrifice so that we can all have the freedom we hold so dear.
Jack Dean never will be listed among DePaul's scoring or rebounding greats---his 268 career points have faded anonymously into the past.
But hopefully through Jack Phelan's storytelling and the Jack Dean Trophy placed in our Hall of Fame Foyer Trophy Case, DePaul athletics can always remember the true meaning of Hero.
PRO DEO ET PATRIA
- entry from the November 1945 DePaul University Alumni News
Jack Dean, standout forward of the 1943 Demon quintet who served abroad the heavy cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis, has been reported missing ever since that ship was sunk July 30 in the Philippine sea with heavy loss of life.
Enrolling in DePaul's School of Commerce after graduating from St. Ignatius High, where he captained the basketball squad in his senior year, young Jack developed as one of the finest freshmen cagers in the country. In his one season as a Demon, he totaled 268 points to trail only Dick Triptow and George Mikan who gained All-American recognition.
Before leaving for Great Lakes in April of 1944, Dean admitted his greatest hard-court thrill was scoring 21 points against Notre Dame to spearhead the victory over the Irish.
U.S.S. Indianapolis Links