Five men and a woman line an open grave, watching their friend Kenny Sailors’ casket lowering into the ground.
“Yeehaw,” Roger McMicheal said.
“Joker,” Rick Stuart said.
The cold Wyoming wind begins dispersing the group at Greenhill Cemetery. Each person looks at the casket as they leave.
“Till we meet again,” Stuart said, walking from the grave.
Silence filled the University of Wyoming’s Arena-Auditorium. A bagpipe soon echoed from a locker room. “Amazing Grace” enveloped the venue, ringing through the rafters.
As the music faded, Pastor Thomas Lund of Faith Community Church took the podium, lined by flowers, in front of the wooden
casket topped with a beat-up cap owned by Sailors.
A UW Cowboy, professional basketball player and, most notably, inventor of the jump shot, athletics was only a small part of Sailors’ life. Sailors died Jan. 30 at the age of 95.
“(Kenny) said, ‘You make sure, you make sure that at my funeral, you don’t allow anyone to make it more about basketball than about my savior,’” Lund said.
A deeply religious man, Sailors put his basketball career to the back of his head as he aged. Bill Schrage, a close friend, described his first meeting with Sailors.
“I just met him by accident at the rec center here in town — I didn’t know who he was,” Schrage said. “We just talked about our common Christian faith the first time we met for a long time in the locker room. I still didn’t know who he was.”
“Next time I came, there he was again, so I thought I’d introduce myself, and he introduced himself,” Schrage continued. “I said, ‘Are you the basketball player?’ He said, ‘Yeah.’ But he would never lead with that. He would sure talk about Jesus Christ.”
Basketball defined Sailors’ early life. His jersey, No. 4, hangs alone from the A-A rafters. While he led the UW basketball team to a national championship title in 1943, he is best known for the invention and perfection of the jump shot, revolutionizing the game we know today. After joining the U.S. Marines and serving in the South Pacific from 1943-1945, he finished his college career and played five seasons of professional basketball.
“We had an NBA team in our hometown, so I knew some of the guys he played against, but not him,” Schrage said. “I even had it all wrong as to who invented the jump shot. He was quick to correct me on that one.”
Sailors left professional basketball in 1951 to become a licensed hunting and fishing guide first in Jackson, then in Alaska.
“He only played 16 years of basketball,” Schrage said. “He spent 48 years in the outdoors doing what he really loved, outfitting and guiding.”
Basketball didn’t leave Sailors’ life entirely. He would coach youth basketball teams for the rest of his life, even into his 90s. The Guernsey-Sunrise High School girls basketball team was prepared to make the trip to the funeral until winter weather closed the roads.
“The student handbook policy states you can be excused from school only for the immediate death of a family member — leaving for the funeral would have been an unexcused absence,” coach Troy Reichert said. “They would have to forfeit both games this weekend to go to the funeral, and they voted to go anyway.”
Sailors attended Guernsey-Sunrise’s athletic banquet in 2012 and met the girls whenever they were in Laramie. It made a difference to every one of the players, senior Katie Scherger said.
“He was just an inspiration to the team,” she said. “He cared more about us than about his stories.”
Sailors did not try to give special basketball pointers — instead, he offered advice stretching beyond athletics.
“I remember him just telling us, ‘No matter if you win or lose, just play your hardest,’” Scherger said. “He inspired us, as a team, to just play on.”
That inspiration was exactly what Sailors was trying to do, Schrage said.
“These kids realized there’s something more important to life than sports, and that would have suited Kenny really well,” he said.
Dan, Kenny’s son, wrote the eulogy, titled “Pop.” Read by Schrage, the story explained just how important Christianity was in Sailors’ life.
“By 1966 or 1967, as I recall, Pop began a journey toward what I would call — to use a sports metaphor — becoming a semi-pro theologian,” Dan wrote. “… By 1968, Pop began to change. He became more mellow and humble. He referred everything to the will of God, saying ‘I am only what God has made me — whatever I am or have done is because of his preference in my life.’”
One phrase echoed through the eulogy — always do the best you can.
“Pop never pressured me to play basketball,” Dan wrote. “He just wanted me to ‘do the best I could’ at whatever I chose.”
Schrage ended the eulogy with his own anecdote.
“A few years ago, we were watching March Madness on television, and I was curious who he thought would be in the finals,” he said. “So, I asked him, ‘Kenny, what would your Final Four be?’ To my surprise, he didn’t talk about basketball. He had a ready answer — he said, ‘In this order: God, husband, father, U.S. Marine.’ I asked, ‘Kenny, what about basketball?’ He answered, ‘That’s not in the Final Four for me.’”