Stll Going Strong
89-year-old Sailors remains young at heart
by Eric Schmoldt - Casper Star-Tribune, Sunday, January 24, 2010
Laramie - Kenny Sailors walks the walk.
Talking the talk?
He'll leave that to somebody else.
"I'm pretty proud of the fact that people think highly of me," Sailors said. "Frankly, I've never thought that highly of myself. There have been plenty of other good ballplayers at Wyoming."
The Wyoming men's basketball program has produced 15 different All-Americans since 1934.
Fifteen have been drafted into the National Basketball Association in the past half century.
And 26 players, coaches or teams have been inducted into the Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame.
But Sailors is the only one who can boast an NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player Award, the only one who can point to a jersey hanging in the rafters of the Arena-Auditorium and the only one who can take credit for one of the most influential changes to the sport of basketball.
And, fresh off of turning 89 years old, he's also the only Cowboy legend that is a mainstay at UW practices and games.
"One guy, a couple of years ago, came up to me," Sailors remembered, "And he said to me, 'Sailors, why do I see you hanging around these dumb athletes? I see you at football practice, the wrestling room, soccer games, basketball games, girls, boys.
"'What gives with you anyways?'"
The multi-sport athlete used to move at a quicker pace.
Growing up in Hillsdale outside of Cheyenne, Sailors spent his days as a small but speedy defensive end known for wreaking havoc on quarterbacks.
He won track and field championships in the mile run and the broad jump.
And he started perfecting a shot that was about to change basketball forever, a jump shot derived from his desire to score on his brother, Bud, who was half a foot taller and four years his senior.
"I was the toughest 138-pound left end in the state," Sailors said. "No wonder [UW coach] Ev Shelton said, 'You either forget about football or forget about basketball, one or the other.'
"That was good advice."
And Sailors surely made the right pick.
With most everyone around him still using the two-handed set shot on offense, Sailors captured Wyoming's attention and then the nation's with an offensive move where he jumped high off the floor before shooting the ball.
Four seasons later, with a stint in the Marines breaking up his time at UW, he left for the NBA with the Cowboys' only national championship, the Most Outstanding Player Award from that 1943 tournament the Pokes won and two titles as college basketball's Most Outstanding Player -- all while dazzling basketball fans from Laramie to New York's Madison Square Garden along the way.
After a career that spanned about half a decade in the NBA, a stop on the ranch in Jackson and a long stay in Alaska -- where he revolutionized girls basketball while working as an outdoors and hunting guide -- Sailors has slowed things down.
That doesn't mean he's relegated himself to his small apartment just steps away from War Memorial Stadium.
Instead, he still spends a good portion of his days once again roaming UW's athletic facilities.
"Four trips up and down the bike path is a mile," Sailors said. "And five laps around the Arena-Auditorium is a mile."
When the weather is nice, it's not unusual to see him taking a break from one of those walks while watching a UW football practice.
This time of year, many days he's found taking in a basketball practice from high atop a perch in the Double-A.
"He's a legend here and that he's just two doors down is just kind of surreal," said Cowgirls sophomore Hillary Carlson, who spent some time with her neighbor this summer when she was locked out. "It's really cool that he's still involved. He's really active for how old he is and is doing great. I see him walking on that path next to the [War Memorial] dirt lot all the time."
Last year, Sailors often spent some time rebounding for Carlson's roommate and teammate Jade Kennedy.
And an exercise bike sits covered on his porch, begging for warmer weather.
Still, Sailors rarely finds himself with a dull moment.
"I think that's kind of why he's the only one that's got his jersey up there," Cowboys sophomore Arthur Bouedo said. "He's a tough guy and he's accomplished a lot of things in his life and he's not ready to go. It'll be great to see him in this arena for some time, hopefully. This is kind of his arena."
After lunch earlier this month, Sailors is stopped at a local restaurant by a fan hoping to get a snapshot with the Laramie legend and his baby daughter.
The next day, young fans line up hoping to spend a moment with the national champion who sits across from the giant jersey bearing the number four and Sailors' name.
The demand for Sailors has never been higher and he welcomes all visitors at a feverish pace.
"I think everyone can learn a lot from him," UW men's basketball coach Heath Schroyer said. "He's active, he keeps his mind sharp, he walks around the arena almost every day. He's just a quality human being."
Sailors credits his attitude of humility to his Christianity, a religion he fully prescribed to half a lifetime ago.
His ability to teach, especially mentoring athletes, comes from decades as a player and coach.
"When he's around, he makes me feel like I'm on the same level as him," said Bouedo, who spends five minutes with Sailors every chance he gets. "But the really good thing is to think that he's been in the same spot where I am now and he's become a legend.
"I just take every advice he'll give me."
And every once in a while, if they don't search him out, Sailors hunts a player down.
"He saw me after the game the other day and said I get more ornery every day," Carlson said. "He chased after me. It was funny."
It's been nearly 70 years since Kenny Sailors used his crazy jump shot to lead the Cowboys to the program's only national championship.
He's obviously not the spry 138-pounder of yesteryear, but it's not keeping him out of the gym.
And that's why, when others that are nearing his same age ask him what in the world he's doing hanging out with the athletes surrounding him in Laramie, he's ready with a simple, succinct, yet humble answer.
"I are one."
Kenny Sailors laughs at a joke from some Wyoming fans sitting nearby during the Cowgirls' basketball game against BYU on Tuesday night in Laramie. (Tim Kupsick/Star-Tribune)
Kenny Sailors dribbles the ball during a game with the Denver Nuggets in the 1950s.
(photo courtesy Kenny Sailors)