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.
March is the month to be mad about college basketball, as anyone with a television set or newspaper will notice. Dominant basketball schools like Kansas and Kentucky are discussed by media and fans more during this month of the NCAA tournament than in the other 11 months of the year combined.
One team rarely mentioned during March is my beloved University of Wyoming Cowboys. But roll back the clock to 1943 and you can talk about those Cowboys, champions of the NCAA tournament. And mostly you’ll be talking about the 5’10” point guard, the man who invented the jump shot. You’ll be talking about Kenny Sailors.
Sailors was named MVP of the 1943 NCAA tournament and was unanimously selected college basketball player of the year, the year he graduated. After a stint in the U.S. Marines, he returned to UW to play out a final year of eligibility. (UW says he won player of the year honors in 1946.) . Then he went on to play basketball in the brand new National Basketball Association for five years, starting when he was 27, the age at which many players were retiring. He played for teams in Cleveland, Baltimore and Denver.
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.
“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.”
Sailors has his own Web site, and his story was featured in NPR’s Story Corps. I’m just one in a long line of writers who’ve asked for an interview and been invited into his apartment to flip through the priceless scrap books and photo albums that chronicle his career. With his modest manner and intense love of the game, Sailors seems as unrelated to pro basketball players of today as a saddle horse is to bunny-chasing greyhounds. But he’s pretty sure the NBA still knows who he is, and that their Hall of Fame will be in touch.
“It’ll happen some day,” he says. “It didn’t help me going to Alaska for 33 years where no one could find me. It doesn’t matter though. I belong to the greatest Hall of Fame that any man or woman could belong to. It’s not down here, it’s up there,” he told me, pointing toward the sky. “It only has one person on the selection committee, and that’s Jesus Christ!”
Was Sailors literally the first person ever to try a jump shot? Probably not. Was he the best at it in his day? Probably so. That’s why I try to draw lessons from him when I go to the Laramie Recreation Center gym each week to shoot baskets. I tell myself I do it to improve my eye-hand coordination as I slog through middle age. But really I do it to pretend I’m on the court making clutch shots as the clock expires. (The sad truth is if Sailors was the father of the jump shot, I’m the mother of whiffed free throws, blown layups and wedgied bank shots.)
To encourage myself I remember what he said to a local sports reporter about the Cowboys’ woes at the free throw line. Sailors diagnosed their problem: the arc of the ball was too flat. He summed up basketball, and much of life, with a few simple words. “You’ve got to give the ball a chance!”