Kenny Sailors The Master Dribbler (Dribblemeister)

It may be hard to believe - but over the course of Kenny Sailors’ playing days in the 1940s and early 50s more was written about his skills at ball-handling and – especially - dribbling a basketball than about his jump shot.

This was an era when fans and sportswriters knew good dribbling when they saw it. Ball-handling was a much-admired skill and had been for a generation. There was no shot clock. A man who could stall with his dribble and/or take his time setting up a play - while bouncing the ball and keeping an opponent from stealing it - was a very valuable player.


Also, a good dribbler could:

  1. break a press by himself,
  2. more easily get in position for his shot – including using a stutter-dribble,*
  3. more easily penetrate to feed an open teammate for a closer shot or,
  4. be fouled in the process.

And, until the early 1950s, there was a rule which allowed a team fouled to waive the free throw and take the ball out at mid-court, thereby renewing the opportunity for the offense to take its time.


Kenny polished his dribbling skills while in 5th grade at the small country school in Hillsdale, Wyoming. When the bus arrived at school before classes began in the morning the basketball coach would get out a ball and Kenny and his friends would play a game of “keep away” until first period. One boy would dribble and could keep the ball until another either swatted it away or stole it. Kenny says usually eight or nine boys participated – all of them chasing the dribbler around the gym floor. There were rules to prevent unfair contact. Kenny’s natural speed usually enabled him to keep his dribble. He said this contest went on into junior high school and, eventually, paid dividends for him in high school, college, and even as a professional.



When Kenny played at the University of Wyoming he got the key to Half-Acre Gym after hours and set up a long, single row of chairs, several feet apart, and practiced dribbling among them at top speed. He switched from right hand to left hand back-and-forth, in and out among the chairs, until he had run the gauntlet as fast as he could while keeping control of his dribble. Once he had mastered that spacing he moved the chairs closer together and did it all over again.



Kenny says that during his years at Wyoming - when an opponent would put on a full-court press - Coach Everett Shelton would tell his players to “get out of Kenny’s way” and let him bring the ball up the court by himself. Kenny had the dribbling skills to do it. They couldn’t catch him without fouling.



Here is a Shelton quote about Kenny’s dribbling skills. It was the result of a deliberate stall to close out a game with a one-point lead vs. the national AAU champions – Phillips 66 Oilers. Later, the coach told a reporter:

“In one game we played with the Phillips 66 Oilers – remember this is THE Phillips 66 Oilers – he controlled the ball himself for one minute and twenty-six seconds and they couldn’t do anything about it.” [Source: “Ace Basketeer Ranch Product,” by W.C. Heinz, New York Times, Jan. 3, 1946]


Note: The stutter-dribble referred to on p. 1 is defined by USA Basketball as one of the simplest but most effective moves in basketball because the ball stays in the same hand during the move. The beauty of the “stutter-step” is that a good defensive player must honor the move by momentarily freezing his body. He does not want to risk making the wrong guess re: which way the dribbler is going and get burned. Simply speaking, the dribbler is penalizing the defender for playing good defense, a rare opportunity to take advantage of somebody who is responding as he should. One of the keys to effectiveness is not to stutter for too long. If you do the defender will regain his bearings and be ready for the dribbler’s next move.


For more details look for the USA Basketball explanation on the Internet.


Written by Kenny’s friend and archivist
Bill Schrage, May 2015