LARAMIE — 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.
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.
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.
“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 is a Wyoming Public Television producer and former host of the influential Capitol Outlook and Wyoming Chronicle programs. He is the author of What You See in Clear Water: Indians, Whites, and a Battle Over Water in the American West (2002) and A Long Road Home, Journeys Through America’s Present in Search of America’s Past (1989) and several other books. An avid cyclist, basketballer and fly fisherman, he lives in Lander.
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