HILLSDALE, Wyo. - It started out as just another one-on-one game between two farm boys. But this one, on a warm spring day nearly 70 years ago, changed the world of basketball.
As usual, 13-year-old Kenny Sailors was being dominated by his older, taller brother, Bud, as they battled on the dirt next to a windmill supporting a homemade wooden backboard and netless rim. Bud was 6-foot-5 and one of the tallest players around, while Kenny was four years younger and nearly a foot shorter.
"When we played each other, he'd just slam it down my throat," recalls Kenny, now 82 and living in Gooding, Idaho. "I got to thinking if I could jump high enough, I could get the shot off him."
Jumping to shoot, though, was unthinkable in 1934. Coaches harped on never leaving the ground to shoot or defend in the game invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith. Two-handed set shots and a few hooks were the norm.
Kenny, who later became a longtime high school coach in Alaska, didn't care. Out of frustration, he leaped to keep Bud from swatting away his shot.
It worked, to both boys' surprise, and Kenny went on to perfect that stop-and-go, straight-up shot.
After their mother sold the farm and moved her boys to Laramie, the now 5-foot-11 Kenny Sailors earned All-State honors and twice led Laramie High to runner-up finishes in the state tournament.
Sailors, who was also a superb ballhandler, was named All-American in leading Wyoming to the NCAA championship in 1943. The Cowboys capped a 31-2 season by defeating Georgetown 46-34 for the title, with Sailors scoring a game-high 16 points.
"Kenny Sailors was their star, their gun," remembers Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, a freshman for the Hoyas that year. "He had a deadly shot."
Longtime Wyoming sportscaster Larry Birleffi was dazzled by what Sailors simply called "my shot."
"I hadn't seen anything like it," Birleffi said. "He had the only one. He could stop on a dime and shoot ... a one-hander. That shot was terrific."
John Christgau, in his book, "The Origins of the Jump Shot," wrote that Sailors is one of eight pioneers who developed the modern-day jump shot in the 1930s and '40s.
The others are Johnny Adams of Beebe, Ark.; Whitey Skoog of Brainerd, Minn.; Davage Minor of Gary, Ind.; Belus Smawley of Sunshine, N.C.; John "Bud" Palmer of Princeton, N.J.; John Burton of San Francisco; and Joe Fulks of Kuttawa, Ky.
"They were defying kind of an American tradition to conformity and obedience, and look what it got them," Christgau said. "It got them absolutely to the pinnacle of basketball."
Six would play in the NBA.
Sailors played five seasons professionally. His best year was 1949-50 when he averaged 17.8 points for the Denver Nuggets, fourth-highest in the league.
Robin J. Deutsch, an archivist at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., credits Sailors, Fulks and Hank Luisetti of San Francisco as key developers of the jump shot.
Luisetti originated the running one-hander, also called the "step-and-shoot." Sailors developed the shot very closely to what it is today, Deutsch said.
"However, Jumpin' Joe Fulks is the individual who fine-tuned the shot to what it really is today, especially in terms of athleticism," he said.
Luisetti and Fulks are in the Hall of Fame. Sailors is not.
Hall of Fame officials say Sailors has been nominated and his credentials have been continually reviewed by the Veterans' Screening Committee, but he hasn't received enough votes from that panel for his nomination to move forward.
Shortly after Wyoming won the NCAA title, Sailors joined the Marines and fought in the South Pacific in World War II, earning a Bronze Star.
Following the war, Sailors returned to Wyoming and led the Cowboys to a 22-4 record and was named the nation's top player. A picture in Life magazine showing him leaping above Long Island players in a 1946 game no doubt inspired countless young imitators.
After his NBA career ended, Sailors and his wife, Boky, ran a nursing home in Cheyenne, and then a dude ranch in Jackson Hole. In 1965, they sold the ranch to his brother and moved to Alaska.
"She was crazy about horses, and I liked the outdoors and hunting and fishing," Sailors said.
He started an outfitting business, taught history and coached high school basketball for 20 years, winning five state girls championships at Glennallen. Sailors also coached at Angoon in the early 1990s.
Boky died a year ago, and Bud died a few months ago. Sailors lives with his daughter, Linda, on a farm in southern Idaho. He plans to return to Alaska this summer to check on his homestead, where the Gakona River runs through the back yard.
"It's got king salmon running up it, and red salmon. I like to go up and fish a lot and go hunt some moose and bring it home. I like that moose meat."
Sailors leaves it to others to determine his place in history.
"I've never, ever tried to say that I was the first guy to jump in the air and shoot the ball. That would be ridiculous," he said.
Among his backers is Ray Meyer, the Hall of Famer and former DePaul coach, who sent him a supportive letter. And former St. John's coach Joe Lapchick once told him, "A lot of them shot some form of the jump shot, but you shot the true jump shot, the shot that's being used today."
Just off Interstate 80, about 20 miles east of Cheyenne, a fading sign points out that Hillsdale is home to a former rodeo queen. There's no mention of Sailors, who grew up a few miles south of town.
On the old farm, the windmill and basket where he and his brother played is long gone. But a 4-foot-by-4-foot concrete slab, tucked under tumbleweeds and aging lilacs, marks the spot where the windmill stood, where basketball history was made.
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