From Madison Square Garden To Gakona, Alaska: How Ken Sailors Invented the Jump Shot

Everybody Used To Throw Like A Girl Before Ken Sailors Showed Up

Looking Back: 1987 Copper River Country Journal

 Northcountry Communications. All Rights Reserved.


Ken Sailors, in 1987 at home in
Gakona, Alaska.

January 30th, 2016:

Copper Valley longtime resident Kenny Sailors died in his sleep in an assisted living home in Laramie, Wyoming at the age of 95. Only 5 feet 10 inches, he developed the jump shot to compensate for his height. He played basketball in 1943 at the University of Wyoming, and won the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship, and Most Outstanding Player award. He was the College Basketball Player of the year in 1943 and 1946. He played for a number of basketball teams from 1946 to 1951, including the Boston Celtics, and was named to the National Collegiate Basketball hall of Fame. In the Copper Valley, he was known as "Coach," and worked with Glennallen basketball teams.


Wyoming - When Ken Sailors was a little boy, growing up on a ranch in Wyoming, he and his older brother used to play basketball through a hoop attached to a windmill. Kenny was the little guy in the family. He was 5 years younger, and never topped 5 foot 11. His brother, on the other hand was 6 foot 5. "He'd tease me because I couldn't shoot over him. He used to tease me a lot, and call me a little runt. I was determined to show him...That's why I invented the jump shot; to get over big men."

They haven't always had a jump shot in basketball. Before Ken Sailors came along, they used to coach that if your feet left the floor when you make a basket your form wasn't any good.

But somehow Kenny Sailors managed to take his windmill-tilting style into high school without having his shoelaces tied. "When I started jumping, my high school coach never tried to change me," he recalls now.

Later, the coaches weren't so kind. "The 1st year he was in pro ball, he played for Cleveland," Marilynne Sailors recalls. "He sat on the bench..."

But good luck intervened. Before the season was over, they let the old coach go, and Ken Sailors, - and Cleveland - made it to the finals that year.

The Sailor's still have newspaper clippings about Ken Sailors' basketball career. "You may have to tone it down," his wife warns. "Some of it sounds a little unrealistic."

But it's all there. He was famous. He was more than famous. He was a super star.

Ken Sailors, playing for the Boston Celtics.

The clippings say it all: "'He's one of the best I've ever seen,' said Ray Meyer of DePaul, 'and I mean in play making above all. He's the boy who sets everything up.'"

Headline after headline screamed his ability: "Nuggets' Sailors Jumps to 6th in Scoring Race"; "Sailors in Charge of Court School"; "Sailors is Chosen for Second Team of BAA Star Five"; "Sailors Looms All-Pro Team Contender".

Ken Sailors was a one-man band. He was a Boston Celtic Globetrotter before Harlem ever came up with the idea; a flashy, dancing, athletic basketball player who didn't make it pro until he was 27 years old and had put in time with the Marines.

But when he went into the big time, he went there all the way. In the 1940's the country was wild about basketball. The place they went wild was Madison Square Garden. And the guy who drove them wildest was Kenny Sailors. In 1943, Ken led his team to the Garden with his one-handed jump shot. "We were the only team around in those days where everybody shot one-handed," recalled guard Floyd Volker. "You know, the Easterners all clicked their heels and shot two-handed. But we shot everything with one hand, even our free-throws. They loved our style at Madison Square Garden. We were voted the most popular team to play there that year...No team could press us because of (Sailors') ball-handling abilities. No one or two men could get the ball from him, he was that good. We would spread out and just turn him loose and listen to the crowd applaud."

In the NCAA playoffs, Sailors won the most valuable player award, and many called him the "greatest basketball player" they had ever seen. "This Sailors can do everything with a basketball but tie a seaman's knot," said Joe Cumminsky, sports editor of the New York PM, "and given a chance to dribble two steps, he'd probably be able to do that."

Even now, forty years later, Ken Sailors - who is a 66 year old guide and lives in a log cabin in Gakona - is still acknowledged by the world as a basketball great. He regularly receives letters inquiries, and telephone calls from people who are hot on the basketball trail. Famed Coach Ray Meyer recently wrote him, "Kenny, you were the first one who actually used the true one-handed shot."

"I'm sure somebody jumped in the air and shot a basketball before me," Sailors acknowledges.

But the trail to Ken Sailors' door is clear enough. And Yankee Magazine, among others, is hot in pursuit, attempting to document how basketball literally got off the ground. Last Spring, Bob Trebilcock, of Yankee, wrote to Ken Sailors about a story he wants to  include him in, called "American Ingenuity".

Sports Illustrated writes to Ken Sailors. The Associated Press writes to Ken Sailors. The Los Angeles Times writes to Ken Sailors.

They don't write because he's a self-acknowledged "health nut" who likes to spend time outdoors and with  his wife. They don't write because he taught school here in Copper River for 9 years, and because he's volunteered for several years to show Gakona Elementary students how to make baskets. They don't write because he raises horses and leads a quiet and unassuming life...

They write because he won the Sullivan Award as the best athlete in the United States in basketball. They write because he was selected by Madison Square Garden as one of the top 10 players to play in New York City at Madison Square Garden between 1933 and 1943. They write because he won the Chuck Taylor Award, as the best basketball player in the nation, and the Helms Award, and because he was selected the most valuable player on the All-American Team.

And when they write - or call - Ken Sailors always offers to take them fishing if they ever come up here and visit Alaska

Copyright, 1987-2016: 
Copper River Country Journal,  April 1st, 1987
All Rights Reserved.

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