Issue 19: Cool Cats: How Sailors Changed the Game of Basketball Forever

Welcome to the latest installment of our “Cool Cats” series, where we check out a player that’s just as interesting off the court as he is on it. Today’s Cool Cat: former guard Kenny Sailors.

If this name doesn’t ring a bell, don’t feel bad. Ken Sailors isn’t a household name like your LeBron Jameses, your Steph Curries, or your Giannis Antetokounmpos.

But without Sailors, we might not have any of those players at all. Why?

Kenny Sailors Created The Jump Shot

Back in 1934, basketball looked different. The NBA didn’t exist (it was founded in 1946), and the sport was not the fast-paced, high-flying game it is today. That extended to the shooting form of its players.

In the 1930s, players took flat-footed, two-handed set shots, similar to how you might set a volleyball. Yet next to a windmill one sunny day, a 13-year-old Kenny Sailors took a shot over his brother, who was five years older and nearly a foot taller.

Sailors squared up to the basket, put the ball over his head, bent his arms, leapt, and shot. His feet actually left the Earth as he soared up and got the shot off over his brother. And the modern jump shot was born.

Of course, since Sailors was doing something new, people didn’t know what to think of it. Coaches told him he needed to get a good set shot to have any chance of success. Sportswriters didn’t know how to describe this foreign shot.

But Sailors waved a hand of indifference toward the haters and kept shooting. It eventually led to a 1943 championship with the Wyoming Cowboys, the only championship in the school’s history. And it gave Sailors a ticket to the pros.

The Coolest Roster Appearances

Sailors had a fairly short-lived basketball career. After serving in the Marines, he spent three seasons in the Basketball Association of America (B.A.A.) and two in the NBA.

But I challenge you to find me someone that played for more teams with cool nicknames than Sailors. Just look at this delightful coterie of team names.

Sailors suited up for the Cleveland Rebels, Chicago Stags, Philadelphia Warriors, Providence Steamrollers, Denver Nuggets, Boston Celtics, and Baltimore Bullets.

In all, Sailors only played in 276 professional games. But what a delightful legacy.

Hunting and Fishing in the Alaskan Wilderness

Once Sailors retired at age 30, he had to find some way to pass the time.

How about buying a dude ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming? That lasted for a bit, and Sailors even served a term in the Wyoming Legislature, making unsuccessful runs at both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

When his kids were out of the house, Sailors and his wife sold the ranch to his brother and moved to Alaska.

Sailors coached basketball (because by now the jump shot was all the rage, so why not learn from the original?), taught high school history, and led hunting and fishing expeditions throughout the state.

Sailors eventually moved back to Wyoming and in 2012, he was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. He died in 2016 at 95 years old.

Up until Fennis Dembo received the honor in 2019, Sailors was the only player from the University of Wyoming to have his jersey retired. If you’re ever in Laramie, you can stop by the campus to see it hanging from the rafters.

And whenever you’re seeing, say, Jamal Murray or Jimmy Butler pulling up for a jump shot over a taller defender, give a little nod in appreciation for what Sailors created.

Put it all together and Kenny Sailors was one cool cat.

That’s all ’til next time. Thanks for reading!