Why did Kenny Sailors Play for So Many Pro Basketball Teams?

The answer to this question is, really, two answers: 1) the unstable state of the emerging professional basketball leagues right after World War II, and 2) that Kenny had the misfortune of playing for some losing teams and a few which went out of business.

But, first, Kenny played for, or belonged to, seven teams in five seasons (1946-1951). These were the: 1) Cleveland Rebels, 1946-47; 2) Chicago Stags, 1947; 3) Philadelphia Warriors, 1947; 4) Providence Steamrollers, 1947-49; 5) Denver Nuggets, 1949-50; 6) Boston Celtics, 1950; and 7) Baltimore Bullets, 1950-51.

What happened? Well, here's some background.  In the few years after World War II, and before the NBA was formed (1949), professional basketball was pretty new and had to compete with the well-established and popular AAU teams for the best post-collegiate players. The AAU teams represented all kinds of American companies, could offer steady jobs in these organizations, were better than most college teams, and were as good as or better than the professional teams. Moreover, playing for an AAU team allowed a player to remain an “amateur” and to be eligible for the Olympics – a very prestigious honor in that era.

In those years many professional teams were not well-capitalized, played in inadequate arenas, and had a hard time attracting and keeping fans. A few teams started and folded in a short time – sometimes in just one year. Others stayed on but struggled financially. The professional teams usually couldn’t offer as much money nor jobs as stable as the AAU teams’ sponsors. They also wouldn’t guarantee their contracts, and sometimes pro players didn’t get paid. Furthermore, some very good players wanted to keep their “amateur” status. Amateur athletes were held in high esteem in that era. As a result, many good college players didn’t “go pro” and went to the AAU, instead.

In this context, Kenny decided to turn professional, anyway, after using up his college eligibility at Wyoming in 1946. He wanted to be independent, to live in the “out-of doors,” and to not be tied to a particular job, company, or place away from Wyoming. His wife’s health also played a role in his decision. He was invited to play AAU basketball, remain an amateur, be eligible for the Olympic team, and to have a steady job with a good company. Instead, he opted to play professional ball for a few years, make as much money as he could, earn a small pension, and then quit and settle as a dude rancher, guide, and outfitter in his home state. Kenny decided that playing AAU basketball was simply too confining.

Kenny was playing for three pro teams when they folded: 1) Cleveland, 2) Providence, and 3) Denver. He had had very good seasons with each team.

In those days, when a team folded, the usual case was that its players were put into a lottery to be dispersed among the rest of the league’s teams. The players caught up in this limbo were, temporarily, the property of the league. Sometimes a dispersed player was kept by the first team picking him. Other times, the team chose him as “trade bait,” and he soon was traded or sold to another club. Big men were generally worth the most. Kenny didn’t fit into this category, but as a talented backcourt man he still was valuable as “trade bait.” A team which owned Kenny could keep him, trade him for some good value in a player or players they needed, or just sell him to another team. There were several good guards in the professional leagues at that time, and some teams already had more than one at the time of the lotteries. Therefore, Kenny occasionally was moved around until a team in need of a player of his ability found a spot for him and kept him.

In summary, the fact that Kenny played for seven teams in five seasons is not a negative reflection on his ability as a basketball player in the late 1940s. His statistical accomplishments show otherwise. It was just fate he landed with the teams that he did. In those days a player wasn’t free to leave a team whenever he chose or to be a “free agent.” The league and/or its teams’ owners were in control of the players’ destinies even when teams disbanded.

Following is the sequence and timing of Kenny’s moves:

  • July 27, 1947 – Drafted by the Chicago Stags from the Cleveland Rebels in the dispersal draft when Cleveland folded
  • November 1947 – Sold by Chicago to the Philadelphia Warriors
  • December 1, 1947 – Sold by Philadelphia to the Providence Steamrollers
  • July 16, 1949 – Signed by the Denver Nuggets as Providence folded when the BAA merged into the new NBA
  • June 22, 1950 – Sold by Denver to the Boston Celtics as Denver folded
  • December 1, 1950 – Traded by Boston to the Baltimore Bullets where Kenny retired after one season and finished his professional career