Kenny Sailors was captured in Life Magazine executing his signature move — the jumpshot — for the University of Wyoming basketball team. (Courtesy Bill Schrage)

Since Kenny Sailors’ glory days as a basketball player occurred more than 60 years ago, there would not seem to be much updating necessary for a story I wrote much more recently about his transformative role in the history of basketball. He took a bunch of ranch kids from the University of Wyoming to a national championship and “invented” the jump shot. It was long ago, and even Sailors had moved on: he told his good friend, Bill Schrage, in 2010 that his “final four” important things were God, husband, father and the U.S. Marines. Basketball perhaps gets elevated to the pantheon of life’s accomplishments only by bachelor pacifist atheists.

Still, with Kenny’s passing on January 30 – peacefully, at the age of 95, in Laramie – I found myself trolling back through the interviews I did for WyoFile and a Wyoming PBS documentary about him. He and I talked indeed about God, and about his love of the outdoors, his wife and family, and his wartime experience (see the story below) – but we talked about the jump shot, too. And on that topic, there IS a reason for an update.

Jim Brandenburg, a Sailors booster who coached the University of Wyoming’s stellar men’s teams in the 1980s, described Kenny’s shot to me this way: “He was the first guy that came off of two feet, and came up and released the ball with one hand. And he did that because he could get his bigger brother moving and then just quickly get in the air and shoot the ball.”

Sailor boosters, who often get caught up the tiresome debate over whether he or someone else first went airborne from outside the key, miss Bandenburg’s salient point: Sailors’ quickness. Since I wrote the story for WyoFile, Steph Curry has led the Golden State Warriors to an NBA championship with a long-range shot just like Brandenburg describes, with a release so quick that big defenders can’t get a hand up. My guess is Curry watched some film of Sailors back in the 1940s. Players are still catching up with Kenny.

That’s our update.

But what I think about most, with Kenny’s passing, is what it means to have a life well-lived. This was a man of many passions. If I could have chosen a sojourn with the younger Kenny Sailors, I probably wouldn’t have asked to be on the court with him (that would have been embarrassing) – I would have gone hunting with him in Alaska, where he guided for 34 years. If he could guide me through the winding road of religious faith and loving marriage, I’d take that trip too.

But, okay, I love basketball, and Kenny did too. So let’s beat that drum one last time.

He won a national championship on his first trip out of Wyoming; he was a college all-star before and after serving in the Pacific in World War II; he was an all-star in the early days of pro basketball. It wasn’t for the fame of it: in his middle years, he coached a team of Alaskan Native American girls to a championship, and made their lives bigger and richer.

Kenny Sailors told me it didn’t matter to him that he wasn’t in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. And it probably didn’t. But it matters to me. When my kids and grandkids are looking for basketball heroes, I want them to find Kenny.

UW’s Gift to the Final Four: Kenny Sailors’ Magical Jump Shot

by Geoff O’Gara
(originally published April 1, 2010)

The late great Ray Meyer was only 29 when he coached DePaul University to the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament in 1943. That was the season, playing against the University of Wyoming at Chicago Stadium, that he saw the future of basketball: a wiry guard dribbling into the key and elevating high off the floor to release a one-handed jump-shot.

Sailors' contributions to college basketball are still recognized today by students of the game. (Courtesy of Bill Schrage)
Sailors’ contributions to college basketball are still recognized today by students of the game. (Courtesy of Bill Schrage)

You see it all the time today. It’s been prominently on display in this year’s national championship tournament—who can forget Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh draining an uncontested 3 to sink mighty Kansas?

But back then, it was as rare on court as a tattoo, or a black man. Players stood rooted like redwoods and pushed the ball at the basket with two hands. When Meyer saw this Wyoming kid, he thought of one other shooter who used one hand – a Minnesota player who’d dislocated his shoulder in football and had his busted wing strapped to his body. And that fellow didn’t jump.

Many years later, Meyer wrote a letter to the kid from Wyoming: “Kenny, you were the first one I saw who really had a one handed jump shot.”

Kenny Sailors, 89 nine years old, keeps that letter in his small apartment in Laramie, along with a photograph of himself shooting that shot 60 plus years ago, soaring a good three feet off the ground while the other players – many of them taller than the 5’ 10” Sailors – looked up wide-eyed from terra firma. Sailors laughs. His vertical is only about three inches now – yes, he still gets on a court now and then – but his laugh elevates.

It’s a puzzle why the guy who “invented” the jump shot isn’t in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts. Or the College Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas. The jump shot alone should do it – though admittedly there are some other “inventors” in the history books – but there was more than that to Sailors.

In a sport dominated by powers in the East and Midwest, Sailors, from the basketball nowhere of Wyoming, was three times an All-American and twice national player of the year. He was the MVP of the NCAA tournament in 1943, which Wyoming won – and then took on St. John’s, the NIT champ, to become the putative “world” champions. He dribbled like a Globetrotter in an era when teams were coached to move the ball by passing it. He played defense like a coat of paint. He was among the scoring leaders when he went pro in the $7,000-per-year early days of the National Basketball Association.

But let’s not dwell on enshrinement, because Sailors doesn’t. His Laramie friend Bill Schrage says the snub is probably because he didn’t play long with the pros, didn’t hang around and coach – because, says Schrage, he “disappeared” for about 40 years. Went off the basketball radar, so that none of the guys on today’s selection committees – most of them kids under 70, after all – know who he is.

But…disappeared? He served in World War II in the Pacific. He and wife Marilynn ranched and hunted in the Teton Wilderness. He ran for Congress. They homesteaded and guided hunters in the Alaska wilderness. He taught native kids to shoot that jump shot and win ball games. He lobbied Alaska schools to start a basketball program for girls.

That’s a “disappearance” some of the hoopsters in the Halls who spent a lifetime hanging around the gym might envy.

And now Sailors is back in Laramie. Not that far from the little farm town of Hillsdale, Wyoming, where he first tried out The Shot.

It was Sailors’ brother Bud who was the basketball star in Hillsdale, a stockyard town north of Cheyenne  with only 20 or so homes  in the Depression era. Bud was 6’ 5”, and the high school’s star center – the most important position back in the day when after every basket scored you trudged back to center court for a jump ball.

Kenny Sailors, five years younger than Bud, started playing against him as a seventh grader on an outdoor hoop they’d attached to a windmill on the farm where they lived with their mother.

“Bud had a lot of fun with it, he’d just knock it down my throat every time I’d try to shoot it,” recalled Sailors. “He got such a kick out of that. I’d get mad, and he’d tease me and call me the little runt. He’d say, basketball’s not your game, it’s for a big man like me.

“And then one day I got this idea about, what the heck, if I could jump up in the air…I don’t even know how I shot, maybe I just threw it, but I got up in the air and I threw the ball over and it just went in. In those days, you don’t leave the ground, especially on defense, you don’t leave the floor. So he was setting there looking at me, and I was up above him.”

Sailors may be getting a little tired of telling the story. Since his return to Wyoming a few years ago, he’s been rediscovered and interviewed by many journalists, and his story is featured in Robert Christgau’s 1999 book, The Origins of the Jump Shot, which tells the story of eight players who got both feet off the floor early in the game’s history, one of them Sailors.

Let’s assume further that you may not want pages and pages from me about the variations in the mechanics of these early shooters – which, of course, is exactly what you must debate if you’re trying to determine which of these legendary shooter deserves the crown for bringing the jump shot into the game’s repertoire; a skip-hop runner may not be the real origin of the species when set beside Sailor’s straight up jump and clean single-hand release. And there are other biases to contend with: how can one resist a delightfully named ski jumper named Myer Skoog, or the black Indiana high school kid – Indiana always gets a leg up in this game – Gary Minor?

Sailors was a cerebral player, and he refined the jump shot over the years – and those refinements are perhaps the best reason to call him the “inventor” of the shot, molding it into what we see today. Sailors found that for all his early success with the shot, offensive fouls were sometimes called because his momentum would carry him into a stationary defender. When he got back from the war and played one more year at UW, he fixed that. “Boom, I’d stop, and put all my energy into going straight up, rather than out in front,” he recalled. “It took my awhile to develop it, but I kept thinking about it.”

Sailors doesn’t dwell much on who should get credit. He’s lives in the present, in an apartment that sits a short walk from the UW campus and the teams he follows there. He knows many of the current men and women players, and has his own ideas of how they might improve their games (Coaches Schroyer and Legerski, take note: the short jumper in the middle of the zone is an underutilized tool, it’s all three-point shots and jams. And defense –  “all you see is the belly button of that player ahead of you” – is the name of the game to Sailors.)

The former All-American would never publicly critique young players today, but he chats with them at the arena, where he’s a regular. And probably the biggest gift he could give any of them is a dose of attitude: the mind-set that catapulted a bunch of Wyoming boys – there was only one player from out-of-state on the 1943 championship team – to the marquee at Madison Square Garden.

He credits coach Everett Shelton. “I had 26 coaches, I figured it out one day. Back in my early junior high days and up through the pros. And Shelton was head and shoulders above any of them. As far as his knowledge of the game, his understanding of young people, the psychology of getting them to play.”

Shelton had only been in Laramie a year when Sailors arrived as a freshman. A cocky freshman. In those days, freshmen could not play varsity, but the youngsters gave the first-stringers – including, at the time, UW greats Bill Strannigan and Curt Gowdy – relentless needling. Shelton got so tired of it he decided to promote a freshman-varsity game. “All local boys,” recalled Sailors. “So a lot of people came to that. We played them, and we didn’t just beat them – we beat them handily. It was then (Shelton) began to realize that maybe these crazy kids from Wyoming have got something. He started treating us a little different.”

What he started doing, over the next two years, was putting them up against tougher and tougher competition. And to do that – since no reputable team wanted to travel to snowy, wind-swept Wyoming at 7,000 feet above sea level – he took them on the road.

“I’m a punk kid, 18 years old, just off the farm, never been out of state,” said Sailors, laughing. “Ride a train from here, overnight to Chicago, on that fast Zephyr. Some of the big guys, those berths are kind of hard to sleep in – I had a ball. Eating on that train, man, that was big time for me.”

More important, Shelton prepared his kids for the big time arenas, playing in front of big crowds against renowned teams on their home courts. “He’d say, ‘These basketball floors are the same size, the goal is ten feet off the floor, The free throw line is the same distance to the end line that it is on any court, and he went on.’ ”

And he got Sailors and his teammates to relish the hostility they’d sometimes encounter. “He’d say, ‘Just keep in mind, if you’re beating them, they’re going to boo you, but that should cause you to play better. They never boo a bum.”

“When you take that attitude, and you teach young players,” says Sailors today, “it was a challenge to us, we knew we could beat them. We loved it.”

Shelton would play any good team. He put the Cowboys up against the older AAU corporate sponsored teams. He got them games with Texas, with Nebraska, with Arkansas. After beating Georgetown in the NCAA final, he went to the manager of Madison Square Garden and proposed  the game against the NIT champion, St. Johns. It was his idea to make it a charity event for the Red Cross war effort. All he wanted was hotel rooms for his players.

“We played them, and we settled this business once and for all,” said Sailors. “We drew the biggest crowd they’d ever drawn there. And have you seen that big cup over at the university?”

There it is in Laramie. It’s inscribed: “Basketball’s World Champions.”

Kenny Sailor’s full story ranges far from the basketball court, and it’s been a full life.

Within days of winning the “world” championship by defeating St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, he was in the military – it was 1943, and the world was at war. He served in the Pacific – though not before playing on a few months on an undefeated Marine basketball team – in Guam and Saipan, and spent a long stint on a ship that hauled troops to and from the front.

He came out of the war for one more year of basketball eligibility at Wyoming – and his third designation as a collegiate All-American. But the NCAA looked unfavorably on war veterans who were technically graduate students – Sailors was 25 when he got out of the Marines – so Wyoming and several other universities were excluded from the playoffs.

Well, Sailors was busy. He had a wife and two children. He had married Marilynne in July 1943, a union that neither their families or the military thought was a good idea during a war. Marilynne was unwelcome in Marine quarters, and when the Sailors got to San Diego for boot camp, the two of them slept on park benches for four days before finding a room with a Palestinian family.

The usual route for quality basketball players after college then was to play for an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) team, sponsored by a large corporation, like Phillips Petroleum, or Dow Chemical. But Kenny and Marilynne were already dreaming of buying a ranch where they could hunt and fish, so he wanted to make some money. He joined the fledgling National Basketball Association, then called the Basketball Association of America, and began a less magical phase of his hoops career.

Read more…

Geoffrey O'Gara

Geoffrey O’Gara is a writer and documentary producer based in Lander, Wyoming. He works for The Content Lab, LLC and serves on WyoFile's board of directors. His column, Weed Draw, is named for a remote...

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  1. Outstanding Geoff, many thanks for some great memories. Last April, as a member of the Laramie Plains Civic Center, the Board named the North gym Kenny Sailors gymnasium. It was the gym Kenny took his first competitive jump shot as a high school player. We had speeches from UW coaches Shyatt and Legerski and Mr. Sailors talked about his time at the old Laramie High School. It was a real thrill to have him there and to be able to name the gym in his honor.