Wyoming's Gift to the Final Four

by Geoffrey O'Gara, Wyoming Tribune Eagle, Saturday, April 3, 2010

Former University of Wyoming basketball player Kenny Sailors (4) dribbles past a St. John's
defender during the 1943 "world championship" for college basketball in a game at Madison
Square Garden in New York. The Cowboys were the 1943 NCAA Champions and
St. John's had won the 1943 National Invitational Tournament.


The late great Ray Meyer was only 29 when he coached DePaul University to the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament in 1943. That was the season, playing against the University of Wyoming at Chicago Stadium, that he saw the future of basketball: a wiry guard dribbling into the key and elevating high off the floor to release a one-handed jump-shot.

You see it all the time today. It’s been prominently on display in this year’s national championship tournament—who can forget Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh draining an uncontested 3 to sink mighty Kansas?

But back then, it was as rare on court as a tattoo, or a black man. Players stood rooted like redwoods and pushed the ball at the basket with two hands. When Meyer saw this Wyoming kid, he thought of one other shooter who used one hand – a Minnesota player who’d dislocated his shoulder in football and had his busted wing strapped to his body. And that fellow didn’t jump.

Many years later, Meyer wrote a letter to the kid from Wyoming: "Kenny, you were the first one I saw who really had a one handed jump shot."

Kenny Sailors, 89 nine years old, keeps that letter in his small apartment in Laramie, along with a photograph of himself shooting that shot 60 plus years ago, soaring a good three feet off the ground while the other players – many of them taller than the 5’ 10" Sailors – looked up wide-eyed from terra firma. Sailors laughs. His vertical is only about three inches now – yes, he still gets on a court now and then – but his laugh elevates.

It’s a puzzle why the guy who "invented" the jump shot isn’t in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts. Or the College Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas. The jump shot alone should do it – though admittedly there are some other "inventors" in the history books – but there was more than that to Sailors.

In a sport dominated by powers in the East and Midwest, Sailors, from the basketball nowhere of Wyoming, was three times an All-American and twice national player of the year. He was the MVP of the NCAA tournament in 1943, which Wyoming won – and then took on St. John’s, the NIT champ, to become the putative "world" champions. He dribbled like a Globetrotter in an era when teams were coached to move the ball by passing it. He played defense like a coat of paint. He was among the scoring leaders when he went pro in the $7,000-per-year early days of the National Basketball Association.

But let’s not dwell on enshrinement, because Sailors doesn’t. His Laramie friend Bill Schrage says the snub is probably because he didn’t play long with the pros, didn’t hang around and coach – because, says Schrage, he "disappeared" for about 40 years. Went off the basketball radar, so that none of the guys on today’s selection committees – most of them kids under 70, after all – know who he is.

But...disappeared? He served in World War II in the Pacific. He and wife Marilynn ranched and hunted in the Teton Wilderness. He ran for Congress. They homesteaded and guided hunters in the Alaska wilderness. He taught native kids to shoot that jump shot and win ball games. He lobbied Alaska schools to start a basketball program for girls.

That’s a "disappearance" some of the hoopsters in the Halls who spent a lifetime hanging around the gym might envy.

And now Sailors is back in Laramie. Not that far from the little farm town of Hillsdale, where he first tried out The Shot.

Kenny Sailor’s full story ranges far from the basketball court, and it’s been a full life.

Within days of winning the "world" championship by defeating St. John’s at Madison Square Garden, he was in the military – it was 1943, and the world was at war. He served in the Pacific – though not before playing on a few months on an undefeated Marine basketball team – in Guam and Saipan, and spent a long stint on a ship that hauled troops to and from the front.

He came out of the war for one more year of basketball eligibility at Wyoming – and his third designation as a collegiate All-American. But the NCAA looked unfavorably on war veterans who were technically graduate students – Sailors was 25 when he got out of the Marines – so Wyoming and several other universities were excluded from the playoffs.

Well, Sailors was busy. He had a wife and two children. He had married Marilynne in July 1943, a union that neither their families or the military thought was a good idea during a war. He joined the fledgling National Basketball Association, then called the Basketball Association of America, and began a less magical phase of his hoops career.

Formed in 1946, the league was struggling, and Sailors had the bad fortune to land with teams that would play a year, fail, and throw his name back into the hat for other teams to draw. That meant stints with the Cleveland Rebels, the Providence Steamrollers, and early versions of the Baltimore Bullets and the Denver Nuggets. Though Sailors was second-team all-pro his first season, he tired of losing, of being away from his family and of road life in general – he remembers the Denver players having to drive themselves by car to a game in Rochester, New York.

Eventually moving to Alaska, the Sailors homesteaded in the wilds 200 miles from Anchorage. They would spend 30 years plus up north, and when Kenny Sailors wasn’t hunting and fishing and guiding and catching red salmon out of the Gulkana River, he was coaching kids. He pushed hard for Alaskan schools to start a basketball program for girls, and then guided a girls team from little Glenallen – where he taught history at the high school – to a state championship.

Later, the Sailors lived on Admiralty Island, in Angoon, a village of the Tinglit tribe. "You can’t believe what a big deal basketball was to them," Sailors remembers. "Not just the kids, but the old folks." On training runs, the coach drove along in a pickup with a shotgun to ward off inquisitive grizzly bears. Again, he crafted winning teams.

I doubt there is anyone living in Alaska in the last decades of the 20th century who would say Kenny Sailors ever "disappeared."

In 2003, after Marilynne passed away, Sailors returned to Laramie. He has a tight circle of friends in Laramie who seem more devoted than he is to touting his accomplishments and getting him into the Hall of Fame.

Sailors says the national honors will happen in time – at a robust 89, I suppose, you have no reason to be impatient. But if you look at the basketball Hall of Fame – actually there are two of them, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, MA., and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City – you have to wonder: why not yesterday?