Kenny Sailors, a two-time all-American who led the University of Wyoming to the 1943 NCAA basketball championship and who is often considered the first player to develop the modern jump shot, died Jan. 30 at an assisted-living center in Laramie, Wyo. He was 95.
His death was announced by the university. The cause was not disclosed.
Mr. Sailors was a 5-foot-10 Wyoming farm boy who, untutored and practicing with his brother underneath a windmill, developed an athletic, innovative style of basketball at a time when most players never left their feet.
Yet he was a forgotten star, as younger generations of athletes found glory on the strength of the shot that he perfected in a remote time and place before the age of videotape.
Mr. Sailors was a brilliant ballhandler, but his greatest contribution to the sport was almost accidental, as he taught himself to soar high in the air and release a pinpoint shot at the peak of his jump. Other players and fans were shocked by his audacity.
“Nothing has ever changed a sport like the jump shot changed basketball,” Hall of Fame coach Bob Knight said in a documentary promoting Mr. Sailors for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “Nobody in my lifetime has done anything to raise the sport to the level of popularity that he did.”
Mr. Sailors first gained national attention in 1941, when his Wyoming Cowboys appeared at New York’s Madison Square Garden against top teams from the East.
“Most of us came off farms or ranches,” he told the New York Daily News in 2014. “Had never been outside of Wyoming before. We got to ride on the train. First time we ever rode on a train, most of us.”
But on the basketball court, Mr. Sailors had something that even New York City had never seen.
“He jumped up higher than all the defenders, and he shot it one-handed,” Jack Rose, a spectator at some of those early games at Madison Square Garden, told CBSSports.com in 2015. “We’d never seen anything like it. We all looked at each other like, ‘What was that?’ ”
As a junior at Wyoming, Mr. Sailors led his Cowboys to the 1943 NCAA championship, scoring 16 points in the title game, a 46-34 victory over Georgetown. He was the only player from either team to score in double figures and was named the tournament’s outstanding player.
“His ability to dribble through and around any type of defense was uncanny,” the New York Times reported, “just as was his electrifying one-handed shot.”
A week earlier, St. John’s had won the National Invitation Tournament, which was considered more prestigious than the NCAA Tournament at the time. In a benefit for the Red Cross, Wyoming met St. John’s in a showdown to prove which team was the king of college basketball. The Cowboys prevailed in overtime, 52-47.
Wyoming finished the season with a record of 31-2, claiming its first and only national basketball championship. Mr. Sailors was named a first-team all-American and player of the year.
Three years later, after Mr. Sailors had returned to college from the Marine Corps, Life magazine photographer Eric Schaal caught him in classic midair form, and the image was circulated nationwide. Most people had never seen a jump shot before, and it soon caught on with players throughout the country.
Mr. Sailors developed his shot when he was about 13, while playing against his older brother at their farm near tiny Hillsdale, Wyo. (population 47).
“My brother Bud was five years older than me and he was 6-foot-5,” Mr. Sailors told CBSSports.com last year. “I was only about 5-8 at the time, and I couldn’t even get a shot off over him, let alone make a basket. He’d swat it back in my face every time.”
His only solution was to leap in the air and shoot the ball over his brother’s outstretched arms. The jump shot was born out of necessity, Mr. Sailors recalled in 2014, in those games against his brother.
“I shot the ball, I don’t know how, maybe I just threw it at the basket,” he told the Daily News. “But nevertheless it went in. And he said, ‘Kenny, that’s a good shot, if you can develop it.’ ”
Other players have been cited as early innovators of the jump shot, including Stanford’s Hank Luisetti in the 1930s, but basketball historian Jerry Krause and John Christgau, author of “The Origins of the Jump Shot” (1999), concluded that the purest form of the jump shot was pioneered by Mr. Sailors.
Only he had a jump shot that today’s fans would recognize, as he leapt straight up, directly facing the basket, his elbow cocked at a 90-degree angle, followed by a delicate one-handed release of the ball.
“What I found,” Krause told CBSSports.com, “was that a lot of guys shot some variation of a jump shot, a running shot off one foot or what have you. But Kenny’s shot is the shot we see today. Was he the first? I don’t think anyone could ever say that for certain. But what you can say, and I’m very comfortable saying this, is that Kenny was the first player to really develop the jump shot and use it consistently. The jump shot we see today is Kenny’s shot.”
Kenneth L. Sailors was born Jan. 14, 1921, in Bushnell, Neb. His father died at a young age, Mr. Sailors said, and he grew up with his mother, brother and sister near Hillsdale, in southeastern Wyoming.
When his brother was offered a basketball scholarship to the University of Wyoming, the family moved to Laramie. In high school, Mr. Sailors was an all-state basketball player and also starred in football and track, winning the state championship in the long jump.
He was an exceptional jumper, with a vertical leap of more than three feet, but many people were confused by his unorthodox style, and some coaches tried to get him to abandon the jump shot. But he knew that, at 5-feet-10, the only way he could stand out in basketball was to keep jumping.
After Wyoming’s national championship season in 1943, Mr. Sailors spent two years as a Marine Corps officer during World War II. He returned for a final collegiate season in 1945-46, winning all-American honors again as he led Wyoming to a 22-4 record.
He then played with seven teams during five years of professional basketball in the early days of the National Basketball Association. He had his finest season in 1949-50 with the original Denver Nuggets, averaging 17.3 points a game.
After his basketball career, Mr. Sailors lived near Jackson Hole, Wyo., where he had a ranch and a business as an outdoors guide. He served one term in the Wyoming legislature but was unsuccessful in several bids for Congress.
In 1964, he moved to Alaska and lived in a log cabin 200 miles north of Anchorage, where he led hunting and fishing trips and coached basketball for more than 30 years. He later moved to Idaho before returning to Wyoming.
His wife of 59 years, the former Marilynne Corbin, died in 2002. Two daughters also preceded him in death. Survivors include a son; eight grandchildren; 12 great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.
In 2012, Mr. Sailors was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City, Mo. but he has yet to gain admission to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., his sport’s foremost shrine. Knight and other experts consider his omission one of the most glaring injustices in basketball history.