The man who changed the way basketball was played died on January 30, aged 95.
William McDonald explores the life of a man immortalised by his sport
There was just one witness to the moment Kenny Sailors helped revolutionise 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 battling, one on one, under an iron rim nailed to the side of the family’s windmill, a wood-shingled, big-bladed landmark their neighbours on the Wyoming high plains recognised 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 stand-out, 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 leapt.
“I had to think of something,” he said in an interview a lifetime later.
What he thought of was the jump shot, a basketball innovation that would eventually be seen as comparable to the forward pass in American football.
Sailors, who died at 95 on January 30th in Laramie, Wyoming, would never say flat out he had invented the shot on that day or any other. 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 if they 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 players of his era to make a living off it in the professional ranks.
He did so in the face of sceptics. 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’ve got to get yourself a good two-hand set shot,” and benched him.
But Sailors, ever the free-wheeler — one day he would guide hunters into the Alaskan wilderness — 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 N.C.A.A. championship, in 1943. Their run made 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 immortalised Sailors, it is the Life magazine photographer Eric Schaal. He was court-side 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, seen here, 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, his elbow at 90 degrees, his right hand poised to fling the shot with a snap of the wrist that would have the ball spinning along a high arc toward the rim.
The photograph, appearing in one of America’s most widely circulating magazines, made an impact from coast to coast. “A shot whose origins could be traced to isolated pockets across the country — from the North Woods to the Ozarks, from the Appalachian Mountains to the Pacific — was suddenly by virtue of one picture as widespread as the game itself,” 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 — Eight Men Who Shook the World of Basketball — acknowledges, the jump shot had many fathers, all within a few years of one another, suggesting in the long evolution of the game, the shot’s 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’s technique as the one modern fans would recognise.
“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, the research chairman of the National Association of Basketball Coaches. His own study, he told CBSSports.com last year, led him to conclude Sailors was the first player to develop and use the shot consistently. Basketball eminences have also given Sailors their vote. Joe Lapchick, a former pro basketball 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 former 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 Lloyd Sailors was born on January 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 boys’ parents divorced when they were young, and Kenny 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 Chevrolet. 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 would see her there still.
The brothers’ historic game of one-on-one remained vivid in Kenny Sailors’s 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 National Public Radio in the US 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.’ So 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 Foreman. “Where’d you get that queer shot?” 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 the future sports broadcaster Curt Gowdy.) He soon had sportswriters groping to describe his jump shot. “A shot-put throw,” one wrote.
Chester Nelson, a sportswriter 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 a championship, with a 46-34 victory over Georgetown at Madison Square Garden. He was chosen the N.C.A.A. tournament’s most outstanding player.
“His ability to dribble through and around any type of defence was uncanny, just as was his electrifying one-handed shot,” The New York Times wrote.
Wyoming was anointed the nation’s best college team after it defeated St. John’s University, the National Invitation Tournament champion, by 52-47 in overtime in a Red Cross fund-raising 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, and then enlisted in the Marines and served in the South Pacific, where Bud was flying B-25 bombers. Discharged in 1945 with captain’s bars, Sailors, with a year of eligibility left, rejoined the Wyoming team mid-season and led it to a 22-4 record, earning his third all-American honour 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 sceptical. “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 line-up.
Professional stardom eluded him, though. In three seasons in the B.A.A. and two in its successor, the National Basketball Association, Sailors 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 first incarnation of the Denver Nuggets in scoring one year and exploded for 37 points in a game with the Baltimore Bullets. He retired 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 bids for the United States House of Representatives and 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 overlooking the Copper River and then to a Tlingit village on Admiralty Island.
Sailors led hunting and fishing expeditions, coached youth 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.
Sailors’s wife died in 2002 after 59 years of marriage, and Linda Sailors Money died in 2012. Another daughter, Carie, died when she was 5.
Sailors’s death, in an assisted living centre, was announced by the University of Wyoming. He is survived by a son, Dan, as well as eight grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.
After his wife’s death, 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, never inducted him. But the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame did, in 2012, in a class that also included Patrick Ewing. Sailors joined Shelton, his coach at Wyoming, among the enshrined. Days afterwards, Wyoming honoured Sailors with a half-time ceremony during a game against Colorado. Overhead was a Gulliver-size Cowboys jersey hanging from the roof, its downy white trimmed in brown and gold and bearing Sailors’s name and number, 4.
It remains the only jersey suspended there, high above the court.
(c) New York Times
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