Kenny Sailors invented the jump shot and should be in the Hall of Fame – Dick Vitale.
The jump shot changed everything. A shot so bold in its imagination, so revolutionary in its impact, the jumper is comparable to the wheel or airplane. Invented by Kenny Sailors, it was later mastered by Hall of Fame practitioners like Jerry West, Michael Jordan and Steph Curry.
In May 1934, Sailors fashioned his jump shot in order to shoot over his taller brother, Bud, at an improvised hoop nailed to a windmill on their family farm on the high plains of Wyoming. Bud was five years older than Ken and, at six-foot-five, an imposing player to score on. “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,” Sailors recalled over six decades later. “It wasn’t pretty, but I got the shot off, and it went in.”
In the 1930s, two-handed set shots were the norm. Then, Stanford’s Hank Luisetti introduced the one-handed set shot and used it to lead the NCAA in scoring in 1936 and 1937. Sailors copied the one-handed release but added the jump. A good dribbler with a 36-inch vertical jump, Sailors would leap as high as he could before shooting the basketball. He squared his hips and shoulders, then elevated. Suspended in the air, Sailors’ legs hung loose beneath him. A right-hander, his shooting elbow formed a perfect 90-degree angle while the ball rested atop his palm like a waiter’s tray. Sailors released the ball from his fingertips at the apex of his jump.
Born in Bushnell, Nebraska, January 14, 1921, Kenneth Lloyd Sailors grew up on a farm south of Hillsdale, in southeastern Wyoming. When Bud was offered a basketball scholarship to the University of Wyoming, the family moved to Laramie. A gifted athlete, Sailors was All-State in both football and basketball at Laramie High and was state champion in the long jump and the mile.
“The Naismith Hall of Fame has failed to acknowledge the man who in my lifetime has done more to raise the sport to the level of popularity that he did.” – Bob Knight.
Kenny Sailors followed in his brother’s footsteps and attended Wyoming. A 175-pound point guard, he blossomed into a two-time All-American and was twice named National Player of the Year. Wyoming became the college basketball story of the year in 1943. After winning the Mountain States Conference title, the Cowboys went to New York City to face Georgetown for the NCAA title in Madison Square Garden.
In the championship game, the Cowboys trailed by five with five minutes to go when Sailor caught fire. He finished with 16 points as Wyoming rallied for an easy 46-34 victory. UW finished 31-2 and became the first team from the Rockies to win the NCAA tournament.
Sailors, who was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, became a celebrity as he mesmerized the East Coast media and fans with his newfangled jump shot. “His ability to dribble through and around any type of defense was uncanny,” wrote the New York Times the morning after UW won the national title, “just as was his electrifying one-handed shot.” DePaul coach Ray Meyer, whose Blue Demons were beaten by Georgetown in the 1943 NCAA semifinal game, was so impressed with Sailors that he wrote him a letter glowing with admiration following the tournament.
Suddenly, everyone was copying Kenny Sailors’ invention.
“I saw Kenny Sailors play in the 1946 AAU tournament. I was mesmerized by his shot and footwork. That shot changed the game of basketball.” Former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote.
Founded in 1938, the National Invitation Tournament considered itself college basketball’s premier championship tournament. Long before it morphed into March Madness, the NCAA tournament came along one year later. The 1943 NIT winner was St. John’s, which claimed the eight-team NIT was a better tournament and that they were the best team in the land. St. John’s and Wyoming decided to stage a showdown in a Red Cross benefit at Madison Square Garden for the war effort. Two days after winning the NCAA, Wyoming beat the Redmen 52-47 in overtime.
“Wyoming came into the Garden with a kid named Kenny Sailors, who unveiled a new weapon – the jump shot,” said legendary St. John’s coach Joe Lapchick. “The one-hand jump shot is the most popular shot in the history of the game.”
After Wyoming’s national championship season in 1943, Sailors spent two years as a Marine Corps officer during World War II, rising to the rank of captain before being honorably discharged. He returned for a final collegiate season in 1945-46, winning All-American honors for a third time as he led Wyoming to a 22-4 record.
From 1946 to 1951, Sailors played with seven teams in the early days of the BAA and NBA. His finest season came with the original Denver Nuggets in 1949-50, where he averaged 17.3 points per game. He scored 3,480 points as a pro. Sailors ventured into the dude ranch business in Jackson, Wyoming, after retiring from the Baltimore Bullets. He served one term in the Wyoming legislature but was unsuccessful in several bids for Congress.
In 1965, he moved to Alaska and lived in a log cabin 200 miles north of Anchorage, where he guided hunting and fishing trips and coached basketball. Sailors then moved to Idaho before returning to Wyoming nearly 35 years later.
“Nothing has ever changed a sport like the jump shot changed basketball,” said Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight. “He didn’t give the United States a game, the son of a gun gave the world a game.”
Mr. Sailors, who delivered the only NCAA basketball title in school history, was inducted into the University of Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame in 1993. His number 4 jersey is the UW’s only retired number and two statues have been erected in Laramie in Sailors’ honor. One dominates the entryway of the newly-remodeled UW Arena-Auditorium, while a second sculpture was unveiled in June 2018 near the basketball courts in Washington Park. Mr. Sailors was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012. He has yet to gain admission to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, his sport’s foremost shrine.
Ken Sailors was married to the former Marilynne Corbin for 59 years before she died in 2002. Mr. Sailors died in Laramie on January 30, 2016, sixteen days after his 95th birthday of complications from a heart attack he suffered in December 2015. The omission of the great Ken Sailors in Springfield is one of the most glaring injustices in basketball history.