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

Formed in 1946, the league was struggling, and Sailors had the bad fortune to land with teams that would play a year, fail, and throw his name back into the hat for other teams to draw. That meant stints with the Cleveland Rebels, the Providence Steamrollers, and early versions of the Baltimore Bullets and the Denver Nuggets. Though Sailors was second-team all-pro his first season, he tired of losing, of being away from his family and of road life in general – he remembers the Denver players having to drive themselves by car to a game in Rochester, New York.

But Sailors got himself an NBA pension that continues to this day. And during the off-season, Wyoming Gov. Nels Smith set the young couple up with a gig that fit their dreams: running the Jackson Lake Lodge in Teton Valley for the Rockefeller family. Marilynne had been squirreling away some of their NBA money, and while working at the lodge they found an old Mormon couple ready to unload a ranch near Turpin Meadows. So when Sailors decided his umpteenth team, the Washington Bullets, would be the last, they moved to the Heart Six Ranch and started hosting dudes. Both of them loved fishing and hunting. But not dudes.

Basketball wasn’t the only game in Sailors’ multifaceted career. (Courtesy of Bill Schrage)

“The kids they’d bring out here, so many of them were spoiled brats, the folks never disciplined them,” said Sailors. “But we were right on the edge of the Teton Wilderness. The elk migrated right down through there. They had all kinds of game. It was good hunting.”

Smith and others saw the leadership potential in Sailors, but “I never gave a thought to politics. My friends talked me into running for the legislature.” He won, while still raising a young family in Laramie; and then gave it up to follow the outfitting dream to Jackson.

But those friends kept talking to him. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in the 1960s and almost won; two years later, in 1964, he tried for the U.S. Senate – enamored with Presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, who competed for the nomination against a candidate from the family that once employed him, Nelson Rockefeller.

After that, Kenny and Marilynne Sailors “disappeared.”

The Sailors homesteaded in the wilds 200 miles from Anchorage. They would spend 30 years plus up north, and when Kenny Sailors wasn’t hunting and fishing and guiding and catching red salmon out of the Gulkana River, he was coaching kids. He pushed hard for Alaskan schools to start a basketball program for girls, and then guided a girls team from little Glenallen – where he taught history at the high school – to a state championship.

Later, the Sailors lived on Admiralty Island, in Angoon, a village of the Tinglit tribe. “You can’t believe what a big deal basketball was to them,” Sailors remembers. “Not just the kids, but the old folks.” On training runs, the coach drove along in a pickup with a shotgun to ward off inquisitive grizzly bears. Again, he crafted winning teams.

I doubt there is anyone living in Alaska in the last decades of the 20th century who would say Kenny Sailors ever “disappeared.”

It was his beloved Marilynne’s descent into Alzheimer’s disease that brought the Sailors back to the Lower 48. “It was getting pretty hard taking care of her, people don’t know how hard it is.” They moved to Idaho, where their daughter lived.

In 2003, after Marilynne passed away, Sailors returned to Laramie. His son is a bush pilot and guide in Alaska, his daughter still lives in Idaho, and he has a tight circle of friends in Laramie who seem more devoted than he is to touting his accomplishments and getting him into the Hall of Fame. They took him back to Hillsdale last year, found the place where he lived, and nearby an old outdoor basketball court. “We’d brought a long a ball,” said Bill Schrage, “and he went over and started shooting, banking in left-handed hooks.”

Sailors says the national honors will happen in time – at a robust 89, I suppose, you have no reason to be impatient. But if you look at the basketball Hall of Fame – actually there are two of them, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA., and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City – you have to wonder: why not yesterday?

One of the enshrined players at Springfield is Hank Luisetti. Ever heard of him? Played at Stanford in the 1930s. Scored a lot of points, but didn’t win a championship. “Invented” a running, one-handed shot during the era – Sailor’s era – when all but a few players shot with two hands. Less important to the sport’s future, most experts agree, than the jump shot – but Luisetti played for a high profile program.

The hall has plenty of honorees with what can generously be called marginal qualifications. Every hear of Canny Biasone? Hey, he invented the 24-second clock. Hortensia de Fatima Marcari? Played for Brazil – won a world championship…once.

And then there are the great players who perhaps wouldn’t have been so great if they hadn’t been able to set, jump and shoot: think Walt Frazier, or Rick Barry.

The Kansas City Hall is newer, and some of its selections even odder. Let’s give a hand to Paul Endacott, the Kansas guard who won national player of the year when his team won the Helms Foundation National Championship (not sure what that is) in 1923. He ended up President of the Phillips Petroleum Company, whose AAU team got whipped by the University of Wyoming in Sailors day. Oh yeah, Sailors was player of the year too. Twice.

Dick Groat got into the Kansas City Hall too. He was another Helms National Player of the Year from another high profile program, Groat, who went on to a great career with…um…the Pittsburgh Pirates, where he was, uh, National League MVP.

Kenny Sailors would say nothing derisive about the other folks who’ve been elected to the Hall, or the others who claim some portion of fame for jumping off the floor before releasing a basketball. But there ought to be a place for him in both Halls, and it’s for more than just the jump shot, though that’s plenty. It’s for being one of the first artful dribblers in an era when most players just passed the ball. It’s for coaching those native kids on Admiralty Island into champions. It’s for playing on an unbeatable service team in San Diego before shipping out to defend his country in the Pacific. It’s for the girls teams in Alaska and the NBA drives not just to the basket but from Denver to Rochester. It’s for showing up at University of Wyoming men’s and women’s basketball, buoyant and full of ideas, at 89.

It’s for loving the game.

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.