Kenny Sailors: Basketball Guru

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The man who invented the jump shot came from just outside Hillsdale, Wyoming. Kenny Sailors changed the way basketball is played — then moved to Alaska.


Sailors was born in 1921 and grew up outside the tiny town of Hillsdale, in southeastern Wyoming. He and his older, 6’ 4” brother would mess around shooting baskets into a hoop attached to a windmill after finishing their ranching chores. “The only way I could make a basket was to jump and shoot it over his head,” he told me one day over a cup of instant coffee in his snug Laramie apartment. And even though Kenny Sailors and jump shot have become synonymous in the basketball world, he is modest about being an innovator. [imgcontainer left] [img:Sailors%2C-Kenny-with-Burman_WTM1046.jpg] [source]University of Wyoming

Sailors receives an award from UW Athletics Director Tom Burman when his #4 jersey was retired.

“No one really knows who took the first jump shot. But I worked at developing the shot and made it the shot that players still use today,” he said.

Players of his day usually stood flat footed and shot the ball with two hands. Sailors’ technique called for dribbling toward the basket, elevating an estimated 36 inches off the ground (he could jump!), freezing in the air while squaring the body and cocking the elbows, then releasing the ball with a flick of the wrist. “Nobody could block it,” he recalls with pride. And it almost always went in.

After he hung up his sneakers at the end of his pro career, Sailors and his late wife, Marilynne, moved to Alaska with their three children. They worked as hunting outfitters, and he coached girls’ high school basketball. When Marilynne became ill, the family moved to Idaho. Her death marked the end of a 60-year marriage. Sailors returned to Laramie and rented an apartment in the shadow of the Arena-Auditorium, where the Cowboy basketball team now plays.

That is a convenient location for Sailors, who can walk across his parking lot to watch Cowboy basketball games and practices. He sits not far from where the oversized version of his now-retired No. 4 jersey hangs from the rafters, holding court for those who want to catch some words of basketball wisdom from this spry fellow with the flattop hairstyle. 

Even though he has plenty of coaching experience, Sailors knows he isn’t the coach of the Cowboys. “I never talk to them about how to do things or run certain plays,” he told me. “I talk to them more about what to expect and how they’ll be treated on and off the court and how to keep it from bothering them when things don’t go well.” Sailors recalls a particular game in his own pro career when he scored 42 points against the Knicks. “Everybody loved me – the fans, the girls – I really thought I was someone. Then a few weeks later I had a bad game and everyone thought I was a bum.” 

UW has named Sailors to its Intercollegiate Athletics Hall of Fame and to its 10-member All Century team. Tom Burman, UW Director of Athletics, sums up Sailors’ athletic accomplishments: “In my mind Kenny Sailors may be the most important UW student-athlete to ever wear the Cowboy or Cowgirl uniform. Mr. Sailors is credited with inventing the jump shot by many basketball historians. The jump shot changed the game of basketball in a similar fashion to how the forward pass changed the sport of football.”