Jump Shot: Kenny Sailors: Basketball Innovator and Alaskan Outfitter


Kenny Sailors was a basketball star, and the inventor of the jump shot. He attended the University of Wyoming and was MVP in 1943 in college AA basketball. After WWII, he spent five years as an early player in the new NBA. As a youngster, Kenny was five-foot-seven but his older brother was six-foot-two so when playing basketball, Kenny had to jump up over his brother to get off a shot. That is how the jump shot was born, and Kenny used it in college and professional basketball. He played in Denver and several ...

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Jump Shot: Kenny Sailors: Basketball Innovator and Alaskan Outfitter

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Kenny Sailors was a basketball star, and the inventor of the jump shot. He attended the University of Wyoming and was MVP in 1943 in college AA basketball. After WWII, he spent five years as an early player in the new NBA. As a youngster, Kenny was five-foot-seven but his older brother was six-foot-two so when playing basketball, Kenny had to jump up over his brother to get off a shot. That is how the jump shot was born, and Kenny used it in college and professional basketball. He played in Denver and several other cities whose team names have now changed, but he also played for the Boston Celtics with Bob Cousy. After he left the NBA, he moved to Alaska and in 1965 settled in the Glennallen area, where he was a fishing and hunting guide in the Wrangle Mountains for thirty-five years. He now lives in Wyoming.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780882409931
  • Publisher: Pruett Publishing Company
  • Publication date: 3/3/2014
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 218
  • Sales rank: 1,445,910
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Coauthor Lew Freedman is the former sports editor of the Anchorage Daily News and the author of over twenty books focused on Alaska, including My Season on the Kenai and Lowell Thomas Jr, Flight to Adventure.

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Read an Excerpt

When Kenny Sailors showed off his jump shot at Madison Square Garden in New York City in the NCAA title game in March of 1943, and against St. John’s in early April, almost no one in the stands or on the sidelines had seen anybody take such a weird shot at the basket.
Many people didn’t know what to make of it. Not everyone approved. Few realized that it represented the shot of the future as basketball, then a half-century old, matured as a game. What they did know was that the shot seemed revolutionary and that this Sailors guy made many of his baskets in this manner, which defied logic to them.
To some extent taking a jump shot instead of a set shot was like swimming with your head in the water instead of above the surface, or throwing a forward pass instead of handing the ball off to a fellow member of the backfield in football.
Joe Lapchick, who at the time was St. John’s coach, watched the jump shot become a deadly weapon for players during his tenure with the Redmen, then with the New York Knicks of the NBA, and finally back at St. John’s. In 1965, Lapchick said, “Sailors started the one-hand jumper, which is probably the shot of the present and the future.”
Over the last eighty years, various sources have labeled Sailors as being “the inventor” of the jump shot. He never used the description because he realized some stranger somewhere must have left his feet to take a shot at a hoop in another back yard or on another playground.
“I don’t say that I’m the first guy who ever shot a jump shot,” Sailors has said many times in similar ways. “I’m sure there must be some kid somewhere who jumped in the air and shot the ball somewhere. But the old-timers credit me with it.”
There is no question of Sailors’ pedigree with the jump shot dating to the 1930s in those one-on-one games against brother Bud. No one else was using a jump shot as part of his repertoire in high school contests or college games until Sailors came along either. Not the jump shot that we know today. Not the jump shot as it is portrayed on the NBA logo, which borrowed the silhouetted form from future star Jerry West.
There have been other claimants to the early use of the jump shot, but there has never been solid proof that anyone else used the jump shot in the manner Sailors did before he did. There has never been solid proof that anyone else used the jump shot as it is known, used and taught today in the sport before Sailors, either.
A wide variety of sources, from eyewitnesses such as Lapchick and DePaul coach Ray Meyer, to books and websites, ascribe the jump shot’s beginnings to Sailors. It is not something that can be copyrighted or patented in a United States government office, but is more like folklore, passed on through generations by word of mouth from a time when basketball games were not filmed like documentaries and photographers attended few contests.
A 1994 New York Times story headlined “The Birth of the Jump Shot,” was actually a review of a book called “Big Leagues: Professional Baseball, Football and Basketball in National Memory.” The book’s author, Stephen Fox, contended that “sports history unreels around a circle, not down a line.” He also stated that the addition of the lively ball to baseball, the forward pass in football, and the jump shot in basketball, all contributed mightily to the popularity of those sports.
When it comes to defining the jump shot it is simplistically explained as usually being a shot with a basketball taken when a player jumps in the air—normally straight up. Of course, variations of jump shots being taken off-balance abound now.
Sailors offered his definition of how to make optimum use of the shot in an article that was written for NCAA.com in 2013.
“You don’t shoot it on the way up, you don’t shoot it on the way down,” he said. “You have to take the shot right at the peak of your jump. It takes a little practice. It’s all wrists and fingers when you release it.”
Although later in life Sailors couldn’t remember a date when he attempted his first jump shot against his brother he has given enough interviews over the years that others have tried to pinpoint it for him and concluded that it was probably in May of 1934. He was in junior high school at the time, Bud in high school. No spectators were present—unless mom looked out the window of the house. It was hardly a eureka moment for her when she would have rushed outside and tried to capture the moment with a camera.
Basketball was invented in 1891 by Dr. James Naismith and it was a static, floor-bound game. The first players shot at a peach basket and when someone made a shot by heaving the ball skyward, the game paused for an official to dig the ball out of the wooden basket.
Eventually, the hoop was invented, a net was placed on it, and when players made a shot it fell through to the floor. Throughout the 1920s and beyond, it was felt that the most efficient way to make an outside shot was to stand still and throw the ball at the basket with two hands on it to accurately guide it. Good players could make shots from thirty feet away, but they never left their feet when propelling the ball to the ten-foot-high rim.
For many years, casual basketball observers gave credit to Stanford All-American Hank Luisetti for inventing the jump shot. Luisetti, who was born in 1916 in San Francisco, rather invented a shot that was an intermediary shot between the set shot and jump shot. Luisetti featured a running one-hander. He charged towards the foul line on his dribble, cocked the ball behind his ear, and let fly, though his feet did not leave the ground.
Luisetti, who stood 6-foot-2 and weighed 185 pounds, was twice named college basketball’s player of the year and was chosen All-American three times. On January 1, 1938, in a game played in Cleveland against Duquesne, Luisetti became the first college player to score 50 points in a game. That night he made twenty-three field goals and four free throws as Stanford won, 92-27.
Like Sailors, Luisetti had to travel to New York for a game to receive maximum exposure and publicity for his shot. “He revolutionized shooting,” Mike Montgomery, who decades later was the Stanford’s coach, told the Stanford Magazine. “Someone would have come up (a one-handed shot), somewhere along the line, but he was the guy who was first and he had tremendous success with it. Once he started shooting like that people said, ‘Oh, you can’t do that,” and it became the way everybody did it.”
Not quite. Few shot exactly like Luisetti with his running start. There were definitely detractors, too, who felt Luisetti was out of control and did not want to see their players using any such recklessness in a game. Interestingly, one of those critics was Nat Holman, then the coach of City College of New York, who had been a Lapchick teammate with the Original Celtics.
“That’s not basketball,” Holman said. “If my boys ever shot one-handed, I’d quit coaching.”
Before he had seen Sailors’ jumper, Lapchick also was skeptical about Luisetti’s method of making shots.
“I can’t be persuaded that two (hands) on the ball doesn’t make for far superior shot control and a greater percentage of hits,” Lapchick said in the early 1940s.
While Luisetti did not adapt his game because of a bigger brother who was swatting all of his shots away, he did have his reason for trying a one-handed shot in place of the two-hand set.
“Shooting two-handed, I just couldn’t reach the basket,” he said.
What Montgomery said of Luisetti, others said of Sailors. What Luisetti said of himself, Sailors said of himself. They were both innovators during a period of time when basketball was mostly played below the rim.
“I was lucky with my coaches in high school and college, I guess,” Luisetti said. “Because I made the baskets they left me alone and didn’t try to change my shots.”
Luisetti had a phenomenal college basketball career, but he came along before there was an NBA and professional leagues were not yet stable, or did not offer reasonable salaries. Luisetti, who died at 86 in 2002, continued playing basketball with the Phillips 66 AAU team.
Sailors did see Luisetti play in an AAU tournament in Denver and Luisetti’s style influenced him. By then Sailors already had the rudiments of his jumper down—the games against Bud were years in the past. But Sailors also tinkered with his shot off and on over the years trying to improve his accuracy.
Several decades later Sailors wished to both credit Luisetti and differentiate his own shot from the Stanford player’s. “Luisetti had a step-and-shoot move,” Sailors said. “I think that’s where I copied the one-hand shot from him.” But, as he noted, Luisetti didn’t jump in the air, clearing the floor with both feet as he shot.
One reason that Sailors jumped was because he could jump. That is, he was a strong leaper with a thirty-six vertical leap. That meant that when he jumped he was out-jumping most people.
A later Wyoming coach, Jim Brandenburg, who became friends with Sailors, came out of Texas and said he first became aware of the jump shot when the Cowboys made headlines with their romp to the NCAA crown. The jump shot enthralled people, he said in a book called “Cowboy Up” about Wyoming basketball, but “it wasn’t like Kenny went to New York and everybody started shooting the jump shot. It took a while for coaches to get used to it. Coaches did not have a progressive set of skills they would teach. Once the cat was out of the bag and the jump shot was introduced, it has become such a predominant part of the game. Kenny was a tremendous athlete, and I truly think he is the guy who should be fully credited for the innovation of the jump shot.”
Author John Christgau penned a book called “The Origins Of The Jump Shot,” featuring eight players who were early jump shooters. In Christgau’s opinion all eight played a role in introducing the jump shot to basketball.
Christgau grew up in Minnesota and remembered seeing a Brainerd High School player named Myer “Whitey” Skoog shoot a jump shot in 1944. Skoog was later a guard for the great Minneapolis Lakers champions of the NBA. For much the same reason that Sailors perfected his jump shot versus his taller brother, Skoog attempted one jumper over a taller opposing center on Bemidji in the third quarter of a game. It was the last jump shot he took for five years, however, when he was then playing for the University of Minnesota. In part, that was because he felt as if was a “hot dog” or “show off” for taking the off-balance heave.
In research for his book, Christgau suggested that John “Mouse” Gonzalez of San Francisco, said he took a jump shot at a YMCA for the first time in October of 1942 and that Dave Minor took jump shots for Gary, Indiana between 1937 and 1941 in high school games.
Interestingly, in the book, Curt Gowdy, the same man who was a teammate of Sailors’ at Wyoming, was quoted as saying that Johnny Adams of Arkansas was the first jump shooter he had seen when he played against him in 1941. That contradicts Gowdy’s personal history with Sailors at Wyoming that predates the NCAA contest he referred to. Adams and Sailors were pretty much concurrent. In later years Sailors became aware of Adams’ use of a similar shot.
“Luisetti didn’t shoot a jump shot the way we know it,” Sailors said. “He had one foot on the deck. Ray Meyer said, ‘It wasn’t a jump shot, Kenny.’ Gowdy said that Johnny Adams shot the first jump shot in the game of basketball. I don’t think anyone will ever know who really shot the first one. The game started in the 1800s. Some kid jumped in the air and shot the ball somewhere. Ray Meyer and Joe Lapchick made it real clear that in New York when I shot it, that was the first.”
Christgau’s reporting indicated that Belus Van Smawley from North Carolina was using his jump shot perhaps as early as 1934, like Sailors. Smawley practiced taking jump shots at an abandoned train depot that had been turned into a court and which he and his friends used to play on in bad weather. Smawley’s claim to fame was the turn-around jump shot first publicized during the 1942-43 season at Appalachian State. Smawley played just one season there and had his college attendance interrupted by World War II.
After the war, in 1946, he turned professional and competed for five seasons—actually almost perfectly overlapping with Sailors in pro ball.
“When I got in the pros the only guy in the league who shot anything like the jump shot that I did was Belus Smawley,” Sailors said. “He had both feet off the floor, but he shot two-handed with the ball behind his head and fell back. He didn’t use the height to shoot, he faded back. But he was off the floor. He was probably off the floor about eighteen inches. Height wasn’t his objective.
“I covered him. He was good. He was tough. When he was hitting, boy, he was very tough to cover. When he wasn’t hitting, he wasn’t very tough to cover.”
Bud Palmer, who died in March of 2013 at 91, became a famous sportscaster and writer who also worked for Mayor John Lindsay of New York. Palmer was born in Hollywood, but attended Phillips-Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and then Princeton. By 1939, the 6-foot-4 Palmer had employed the jump shot in high school games.
Palmer was later captain of the New York Knicks, but when he tried out for the team in 1946, his coach, Neal Cohalen, took one look at the aspiring Palmer’s jump shot and said, “What the hell kind of shot is that?”
More famed than any of the others as a professional star was Joe Fulks. Nicknamed “Jumpin’ Joe,” Fulks came out of the small community of Birmingham, Kentucky and used some kind of jump shot in high school in the 1930s.
Fulks was one of the first stars of the new NBA and led the league in scoring during the 1946-47 season, averaging 23.2 points per game. The next season he led the league again, averaging 22.1 points a game. He once scored a record 63 points in a game, a mark that stood from the 1948-49 season until the 1960-61 season when the Lakers’ Elgin Baylor scored 71 points in a game.
For many years after Sailors left the college basketball spotlight and the pros, as well, he lived in a remote hand-built log cabin in Gakona, Alaska. He was out of sight and out of mind. He had little to do with the sport of his upbringing except coaching some high school ball. Some historians even acted as if he had died. At the least he had become invisible. Yet anytime a sportswriter somewhere wrote an article indicating that someone else had originated the jump shot, fans in Wyoming or elsewhere, spoke up. Hey, wait a minute, they would say: Don’t forget Kenny Sailors.
One writer who did not make the mistake of overlooking Sailors was Alexander Wolff, the Sports Illustrated basketball writer who authored a book entitled, “100 Years Of Hoops” that came out in 1991 to celebrate the anniversary of the invention of the game.
In a section of the book labeled, “The Shot,” an item read, “1940: Kenny Sailors of Wyoming is credited with being the first player to use the jump shot in college competition. Sailors will be tournament MVP as the Cowboys win the 1943 NCAA title.” In the accompanying text, Wolff wrote, “Wyoming’s Kenny Sailors is widely credited with birthing the jumper (later to be called the J).”
Sailors has always been modest about his role. He eschews the description of inventor of the jump shot, but accepts the blessing of others who say that he first took the shot that most approximates the modern jumper and that his use of it helped popularize it. Sailors said Fulks was more athletic than he was and “is the individual who fine-tuned the shot.”
When it comes to talking about the invention of the jump shot, it is not as neat to compare it to, say, the invention of the light bulb, where Thomas Edison’s is the only name mentioned.
However, when Kenny Sailors was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in November of 2012, one of the main reasons cited during the ceremony was his “invention of the jump shot.”
It was the final stamp of approval of the role he played in the evolution of the sport that he loved.
Sailors began shooting the jump shot in 1934. He used the jump shot in high school and he brought the jump shot to college at Wyoming in the autumn of 1939. He didn’t play varsity ball until the fall of 1940, and that’s when the first photos of him taking a jump shot were clicked.
“I’ve got pictures of me shooting it my sophomore year,” he said. “Then I shot it more my junior year.”
Long-time Wyoming sportswriter and broadcaster, the late Larry Birleffi, attended the school at the same time Sailors did and always remembered the hours of practice the guard put in with extra-time gym visits. Birleffi said Sailors seemed to always be in the gym working out, jumping up and down and shooting hundreds of those new-fangled shots.
“We thought it was a little radical really, Birleffi said years later. But he said that work paid off for the hustling guard from Hillsdale and that by the time Sailors finished his schooling at Wyoming “he was a household name.”
Sailors has a good memory, but after the passage of so many years, while he can envision that very first jump shot taken against Bud he cannot recall with one hundred percent certainly in his nineties whether or not it went in the basket. And Lord, he has tried many times to recall that. He won’t fudge it, though, and tell someone that yes, indeedy, the shot hit the spot if he can’t remember, although he did so when he was much younger.
“As near as I can remember,” Sailors said, “I just dribbled up to him and I just jumped as high as I could in the air.”
For all intents and purposes, the stop-action camera should have stopped there. These days someone would have been standing close by with a camera phone and posted the photo of the grand moment on the Internet. It would have been a YouTube sensation, going viral, within hours.
Instead, only words preserve the happenings on the hard court of 1934.

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1: The Jump Shot’s Beginnings
Chapter 2: Becoming a Player
Chapter 3: Wyoming Hoops
Chapter 4: A Special Someone and a Special Season
Chapter 5: Conference Champs and NCAA Bound
Chapter 6: National Champs
Chapter 7: The Jump Shot’s Evolution
Chapter 8: Back in Wyoming
Chapter 9: Going Pro
Chapter 10: Steamrolled Out of Providence
Chapter 11: Retirement
Chapter 12: Hunting Wyoming’s Wild Country
Chapter 13: Cowboying Up and on to Alaska
Chapter 14: Alaska Life
Chapter 15: Alaska Adventures
Chapter 16: Back to Basketball in Alaska
Chapter 17: Return to Wyoming
Chapter 18: A Hall of Famer
Kenny Sailors Basketball Awards and Statistics
About the Author

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