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Kenny Sailors, former Alaskan who 'invented' the jump shot, dies at 95

  • Author: William McDonald
  • Updated: September 30, 2016
  • Published January 30, 2016

There was just one witness to the moment Kenny Sailors helped revolutionize the game of basketball — his brother, Bud — but by all accounts no one has ever doubted their story.

The moment came on a hot May day in 1934. The two were tussling, one on one, under an iron rim nailed to the side of the family's windmill, a wood-shingled, big-bladed landmark that their neighbors on the Wyoming high plains recognized for miles around the way sailors of the usual kind know a lighthouse from miles out at sea.

Kenny, a 13-year-old spring-legged featherweight, was dribbling this way and that on the hardpan, trying to drive to the basket, when Bud began taunting him, as older brothers will.

"Let's see if you can get a shot up over me," Bud said. A high school basketball standout, he had five years on his brother and, at that time, almost a foot in height.

Kenny took the challenge, doing what people at a disadvantage often do: He improvised. He squared up, planted his feet and leaped.

"I had to think of something," he said in an interview a lifetime later.

What he thought of was the jump shot, an innovation that would eventually be seen as comparable to the forward pass in football.

Kenny Sailors, who spent more than 30 years in Alaska as a coach and big-game hunting guide, died at 95 on Saturday in Laramie, Wyoming.

Sailors would never say flat out that he had invented the jump shot. No one can say for sure who did. The early 20th century produced enough far-flung claimants to that distinction to fill out a starting five and warm a decent-size bench — players like Glenn Roberts, Bud Palmer, Mouse Gonzalez, Jumpin' Joe Fulks, Hank Luisetti and Belus Van Smawley.

But people of reliable authority have said that if you had to pick the one whose prototypical jump shot was the purest, whose mechanics set in motion a scoring technique that thrilled fans and helped transform a two-handed, flat-footed, essentially earthbound affair into the vertical game it is today, giving rise, quite literally, to marksmen like Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Rick Barry, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, it would be Sailors.

Sailors developed the shot in high school, perfected it in college as a three-time All-American and was one of the few of his era to make a living off it in the professional ranks.

He did so in the face of skeptics. The game back then was all about quick passing to find the open man and shooting from the chest, with two hands, feet on the floor. Watching Sailors play, a coach told him, "You gotta get yourself a good two-hand set shot," and benched him.

But Sailors, ever the freewheeler, ignored the advice, to the delight of fans in Laramie, where, as the point guard, he led the University of Wyoming Cowboys on an improbable ride to their only NCAA championship, in 1943, making the college powerhouses of the East and the big-city reporters who covered them sit up and take notice of Western basketball.

If anyone can be said to have immortalized Sailors, it was Life magazine photographer Eric Schaal. He was courtside at Madison Square Garden in January 1946, when, in a game between Wyoming and Long Island University, his camera caught Sailors airborne.

In the picture Sailors, in black high-tops, is suspended a full yard above the hardwood and at least that much over the outstretched hand of his hapless defender. The ball is cradled above his head, elbow at 90 degrees, his right hand poised to fling the shot with a snap of the wrist that will have it backspinning to the rim along a high arc.

The photograph, appearing in one of America's widest-circulating magazines, made an impact coast to coast.

"A shot whose origins could be traced to isolated pockets across the country — from the North Woods to Ozarks, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific — was suddenly by virtue of one picture as widespread as the game itself," journalist John Christgau wrote in his book "The Origins of the Jump Shot." "Everywhere young players on basketball courts began jumping to shoot."

As the book's subtitle acknowledges — "Eight Men Who Shook the World of Basketball" — the jump shot had many fathers, all within a few years of one another, suggesting that in the long evolution of the game its time had ineluctably come. Each inventor had his own variation. Van Smawley, with his back to the basket, would corkscrew around to face the hoop before releasing the ball. Luisetti's was a running one-hander. But Christgau picked Sailors' technique as the one modern fans would recognize.

"I would say that squared up toward the basket, body hanging straight, the cocked arm, the ball over the head, the knuckles at the hairline — that's today's classic jump shot," Christgau said in an interview. "It was unblockable."

That view was echoed by Jerry Krause, research chairman of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. His own study, he told in 2015, led him to conclude that Sailors was the first player to develop and use the shot consistently.

Basketball eminences have also given Sailors their vote. Joe Lapchick, former NBA star and coach, wrote in 1965, "Sailors started the one-handed jumper, which is probably the shot of the present and the future." And Ray Meyer, the venerated coach of DePaul University, assured Sailors in a handwritten letter, "You were the first I saw with the true jump shot as we know it today."

Kenneth L. Sailors was born on Jan. 14, 1921, in Bushnell, Nebraska, (population 124), to Edward Sailors and the former Cora Belle Houtz. His mother had gone west in a covered wagon and grown up in a sod house. She gave birth to Kenny by herself. The parents divorced when the boys were young, and Ken and Bud — Barton on his birth certificate — were reared by their mother on a 320-acre farm outside Hillsdale, a stockyard town in southeastern Wyoming. An older sister, Gladys, had married and left home.

The boys helped keep the farm going through the Depression, driving to Cheyenne, the state capital, to sell potatoes, bantam sweet corn and chickens. One year they raised hogs, butchered them and sold the meat door to door from a trailer hitched to an old Chevy. As they headed for school in the morning, the boys would see their mother out in the fields, and when they came home in the afternoon, they'd see her there still.

The brothers' historic game of one on one remained vivid in Kenny Sailors' memory. "The good Lord must have put in my mind that if I'm going to get up over this big bum so I can shoot, I'm going to have to jump," he said in an interview on NPR in 2008. "It probably wasn't pretty, but I got the shot off, and it went in. And, boy, Bud says: 'You'd better develop that. That's going to be a good shot.' And I started working on it."

Bud was an All-Stater, and when he received a basketball scholarship from the University of Wyoming in Laramie, his mother sold the farm, pulled Kenny out of high school and moved there, too, opening a boardinghouse. Kenny became a champion miler and long jumper and a basketball star at Laramie High School, building leg power that would eventually give him, by his measure, a 36-inch vertical lift — an invaluable asset for a 5-foot-10 point guard.

The jump shot puzzled the Laramie coach, Floyd Norman. "Where'd you get that queer shot?" Kenny Sailors recalled him asking.

Sailors led the Laramie Plainsmen to a state championship and followed his brother to the University of Wyoming, also on a scholarship. (Early on he was a teammate of future sports broadcaster Curt Gowdy). He soon had sports writers groping to describe his jump shot. "A shot-put throw," one wrote.

Chester Nelson, a sports writer for The Rocky Mountain News in Colorado known as Red, wrote of Sailors in 1943: "His dribble is a sight to behold. He can leap with a mighty spring and get off that dazzling one-handed shot. Master Kenneth Sailors is one of the handiest hardwood artists ever to trod the boards."

In the 1942-43 season, under coach Everett Shelton, Sailors led the team to a 31-2 record and Wyoming's only national championship, defeating Georgetown, 46-34, at Madison Square Garden. Sailors was chosen the tournament's most outstanding player.

"His ability to dribble through and around any type of defense was uncanny, just as was his electrifying one-handed shot," The New York Times said.

Wyoming was anointed the nation's best college team after it defeated St. John's University, the National Invitation Tournament champion, 52-47, in overtime in a Red Cross fundraising exhibition at the Garden on April 1, 1943. "The dynamic Ken Sailors," as The Times put it, led the way again.

That year he married Marilynne Corbin, a cheerleader nicknamed Bokie, then enlisted in the Marines and served in the South Pacific, where Bud was flying B-25 bombers.

Discharged in 1945 with a Bronze Star and captain's bars, Kenny Sailors, with a year of eligibility left, rejoined the Wyoming team midseason and led it to a 22-4 record, earning his third All-America honor and a contract with the Cleveland Rebels of the Basketball Association of America.

The jump shot was still alien to the pros, and the Rebels' coach, Dutch Dehnert, was skeptical. "You'll never go in this league with that shot," he told Sailors before benching him.

But Dehnert was soon gone in a coaching change and Sailors, with his jump shot, returned to the lineup. He was named a second-team All-Pro in his rookie season.

Professional stardom eluded him, though. In three seasons in the BAA and two in its successor, the National Basketball Association, he played mostly on losing teams, like the Providence Steamrollers in Rhode Island (where he signed an endorsement deal with Bennett's Prune Juice, receiving all-you-can-drink cases of it as a bonus). He led the original Denver Nuggets in scoring one year, exploded for 37 points in a game with the Baltimore Bullets, and finished with the Boston Celtics, retiring from professional basketball at 30.

Sailors later bought a dude ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A Republican, he served a term in the Wyoming Legislature and lost two bids for the House of Representatives and another for the Senate.

With their children grown, Sailors and his wife sold the ranch to his brother in 1965, packed up and drove to Alaska, living at first in an Airstream trailer. They stayed for more than 30 years, moving to a log cabin in Gakona, overlooking the Copper River, and then to Angoon on Admiralty Island. Sailors led hunting and fishing expeditions, coached youth and high school basketball and taught high school history.

After Marilynne Sailors developed Alzheimer's disease, the couple moved to Idaho, following their daughter Linda, who had married. Marilynne died in 2002 after 59 years of marriage, after which Sailors moved back to Laramie and settled near the university as a living campus legend. Plans were afoot to erect a statue of him at the basketball arena's entrance.

To the disappointment of his fans, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, has never inducted him. But the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame did, in 2012, in a class that included Patrick Ewing, Earl Monroe and Willis Reed. Sailors joined his coach Everett Shelton among the enshrined.

Days afterward, the University of Wyoming honored Sailors with a halftime ceremony during a game against Colorado. Overhead was a familiar sight, a Gulliver-size Cowboys jersey hanging from the roof, its downy white trimmed in brown and gold and bearing Sailors' name and number, 4. It remains the only jersey suspended there, high above the court.

Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately called Sailors a former Glennallen resident. He coached in Glennallen? but lived in Gakona.