It is with a heavy heart I share the news that Jack Phelan passed away over the weekend after a long bout with cancer. It was just under a year ago now I had the distinct honor of being able to interview him and share just a small part of his full and amazing life story with you all. If you haven’t had a chance to listen to episode 48, I encourage you to do so in the coming days.
While he was not a former member of the Nebraska Cornhuskers, my Great-Uncle Jack Phelan was kind enough to come on the show anyways and regale us with some truly great stories of his time playing basketball at both the college and professional level. He was born in Chicago in 1925 and went on to attend DePaul University. There as a freshman he was recruited by legendary and longtime DePaul Blue Demons head coach Ray Meyer in the eventual Hall of Fame inductee’s first year of his career. Uncle Jack’s time with the Blue Demons included winning the national championship in his sophomore season.
Overall in his hoops career, he played for the DePaul Blue Demons from 1943-44 and 1944-45 seasons before leaving for the US Navy. He returned to the team from 1947-1949 and continued on to a career in the NBA playing for the Waterloo Hawks and Sheboygan Red Skins.
Uncle Jack also played for a host of other teams including the Fort Wayne Pistons who would later move to Detroit and become the franchise we are all familiar with by that mascot today. During his playing career he was a forward, and in college he played as a back-up center to legendary player George Mikan as they went to New York City and won the 1945 NIT Championship.
Mikan would live out the rest of his life with a scar on his elbow courtesy of practicing with Uncle Jack prior to the team’s departure for New York City in 1945, but you have to listen to the episode and hear him tell the story firsthand because he did it far greater justice than I can myself.
At the time of their title, the NIT title was considered the more prestigious title than the NCAA tournament title. Overall the Blue Demons made the NIT three of his four seasons playing, making it to at least the semi-finals each time. After his NBA career ended following the 1950 season, Uncle Jack also played as a fill-in against the Harlem Globetrotters from 1951-1955. His overall experiences included some truly unique events that offer a fascinating insight into what sports looked like over half a century ago.
Following his playing days, Jack Phelan spent a short stint selling Fox De Luxe Beer in Chicago, before spending the rest of his career as a salesman, manager and eventual Vice President with the Nalco Chemical Company. He lived throughout the Midwest in Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Chicago before eventually retiring to Sarasota, Florida with his wife, Helen in 1986.
Jack was involved in a number of youth programs in the area, especially focused on sports, in conjunction with other individuals such as ESPN announcer Dick Vitale and was an avid golfer perfecting his golf game in his retirement (I fondly remember rides in his golf cart when I was a child visiting). After the death of Helen, he later moved to Freedom Village in Bradenton where he lived the remainder of his life. He will be remembered by his many friends as a bigger than life presence that will be sorely missed.
I hope you enjoy listening to my talk with Jack Phelan as much as I did getting the opportunity to record this episode and share it with everyone. We were able to talk about his time playing during war-time, the early days of Madison Square Garden, what it was like traveling for NBA games as a player, and even some of the evolution of the college game over time. Mostly, though, it will be a treasured memory for me of just a tiny glimpse into the life of one of the more amazing people I’ve had the privilege of knowing in my life. I hope you can enjoy that small but fascinating glimpse, too.