Last week, some friends and I were in Scottsdale for spring training baseball, but one afternoon, I confess, we were actually watching basketball in a bar in Scottsdale. And while 99.9 percent of the people in Arizona watching basketball in a bar were watching the University of Arizona Wildcats on their run to the Final Four, we were in a bar in Scottsdale watching the University of Wyoming inflict narcolepsy on favored San Diego State by playing basketball at the sun-dazed tempo of spring-training baseball.
That Mountain West tournament upset win got the Cowboys into the NCAA “March Madness” tournament. By the time you read this, the Cowboys will likely be out of the NCAA “March Madness” tournament, since their first-round game (in Seattle) is against Northern Iowa, one of the few teams that might conceivably be able to beat the semi-pro University of Kentucky team in the final. But even if, by the time you read this, the Cowboys are off whale-watching or something, we have plenty to celebrate. In that Scottsdale bar there were a few wet eyes at the end of the victory against San Diego, when Wyoming coach Larry Shyatt, one of the sweetest guys in the game, hugged his wife like he couldn’t let go.
Tuesday, a couple of us were filling out our March Madness brackets and sending the Cowboys to the Final Four. (The “brackets” I’m referring to are an attempt to predict which of 64 NCAA men’s basketball teams are going to win over the next two weeks…there’s some money involved, but it’s not gambling…it’s religion.) It was easier to pick Wyoming after an afternoon drinking beer in the Arizona sun at a Colorado Rockies game. Why not dream? Because it can happen. Really.
Back in 1943, Kenny Sailors and his teammates from Laramie took a train trip to the East Coast, further from Wyoming than most of them had ever been, and won the national title twice. First they won the NCAA crown, beating Georgetown in the final. But back then, the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was a bigger deal — now it’s the lesser tournament — so the Cowboys challenged the NIT winner, St. John’s, and whipped them in a charity game at Madison Square Garden. (Both those colleges are in the tournament this year, too, by the way, though the only way they’ll trade hoops with Wyoming would be in the Final Four.)
There’s much more to say about Sailors. He is often mentioned as the “inventor of the jump shot.” Seventy years ago, basketball was a game of lumbering big guys (mostly white, I should probably note) who shot the basketball by standing flat-footed and pushing the orb toward the basket with two hands, similar to the swimming pool aerobics that geriatrics do today. But Kenny was a wiry little runt, and to shoot the ball over his big brother Bud, he’d begun jumping in the air before he released the ball. It was revolutionary. Today, everyone does it.
Sailors was also the kind of pesky, always-in-motion guard that could penetrate defense and dish. Again, ahead of his time.
But there’s so much more to this guy. Days after bombing St. John’s, he was facing real bombs in the Pacific, serving his country in World War II. He would come back to Laramie after the war and play one more year, making his third All-America team. He played in the nation’s first professional league, the precursor of the NBA, and then he and his beloved wife Marilynne lived an adventurous life as outfitters in the Jackson area and Alaska. Even there, he was coaching Native American high school basketball teams to state glory. A devoutly religious man, he also tried his hand at politics, serving in the Wyoming legislature and running for the U.S. House of Representatives.
It’s a great life story.
Larry Shyatt loves Kenny Sailors, and used to invite him to say a few words to his young teams at the start of the season. I don’t know if that practice has continued — I haven’t seen Sailors or Shyatt in a couple of years, and, funny, Shyatt isn’t coming to the phone right now, about 20 hours before game time. Nor is Bill Schrage of Laramie, a devoted friend to Sailors who has campaigned to get him into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. I’d like to think that means they’re on a plane to Seattle….
Maybe not, at 94 years old. But the Cowboys need to give Kenny Sailors a moment of thought before they go on the court. His modesty, his hard work, his brains, his principles — those are things that turn underdogs into winners. And even if that doesn’t win you a championship — as it often won’t — it can bring you an adventurous, original life.
And, finally, remember what Sailors’ coach, Everett Shelton, told his country boys when he took them onto a strange court in front of huge roaring crowds who were ready to laugh at the rubes from Wyoming. Said Shelton: “These basketball courts are the same size, the goal is 10 feet off the floor, the free throw line is the same distance to the end line that it is on any court.”
“If you’re beating them,” said Shelton, “they’re going to boo you…They never boo a bum.”