Former University of Wyoming great Kenny Sailors never set out to invent history. He just wanted to be able to beat his brother, Bud, in a game of basketball.
Sailors, who is credited with inventing the present-day jump shot, passed away early Saturday morning at Spring Wind Assisted Living.
He was 95.
“The University of Wyoming has lost one of its great heroes and ambassadors with the death of Kenny Sailors,” UW President Dick McGinity says in a release. “As the entire university community mourns his passing and celebrates his life, we offer our thoughts and prayers to his family.”
Wyoming honored the passing of Sailors on Saturday with a moment of silence prior to the Cowboys’ game with Colorado State at the Arena-Auditorium.
Prior to the game on his Twitter account, Wyoming senior Josh Adams tweeted this about Sailors’ passing: “Not only a great player and a legend. But an even better man. Lucky I got to meet you … RIP #4”
After Wyoming beat Colorado State, UW men’s coach Larry Shyatt had fond memories of his time with Sailors.
“Kenny is going to be sorely missed by so many,” Shyatt said. “I remember he would come up to see Jeremy (Shyatt’s son and UW assistant coach) and me the first year or two we were back. All he kept saying was, ‘I just want to see one more championship.’ He got to see that.”
Born in 1921 in Bushnell, Nebraska, Sailors moved to Egbert in 1929. After a standout high school career, Sailors attended Wyoming. Prior to that, Sailors needed to find a way to score in pickup games with his brother — who was significantly taller than Kenny — during their junior high days.
In those moments, the game of basketball changed forever with the invention of the jump shot.
“It was just a weapon that came naturally,” Sailors says in a newspaper article in 1988. “Bud was big, and he was fast enough to stop my drive. I just did (the jump shot) out of necessity.”
Added Bud: “We played quite a bit before he figured out he could dribble and get that one-handed shot on me. I don’t care how tall you are, you’re either going to foul him or he’s going to make it. He was real accurate with it.”
As a junior at UW, Sailors helped lead the Cowboys to the program’s only national championship in 1943 by beating Georgetown 46-34 at Madison Square Garden in New York. Sailors scored 16 points in the title game and was named Most Outstanding Player in the tournament.
Before his death, Sailors was the oldest living Most Outstanding Player of an NCAA tournament.
Following his junior year, Sailors enlisted in the U.S Marines and served in the South Pacific during World War II from 1943-1945. He returned to Wyoming for his senior year and was named All-American for a third time in his career after the season. Sailors then was one of the pioneers of professional basketball in the United States, first with the Basketball Association of America and later with the National Basketball Association.
In all, Sailors played five professional seasons and scored 3,480 points.
After retiring from basketball, Sailors returned to Wyoming and became a licensed hunting and fishing guide in Jackson Hole from 1951-1965 and later in Alaska.
During Sailors’ time in Alaska, he was also credited with pioneering girls basketball in the public school system and forming the first state girls basketball championship tournament in the state. As a coach, he guided Glennallen High School to three straight state girls basketball championships.
He retired from the guide and coaching professions in 1999.
Following his retirement, Sailors was regularly seen at Wyoming men’s and women’s basketball games and practices until his health started to decline in recent years.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Sailors family,” Wyoming women’s basketball coach Joe Legerski said. “Kenny brought back a piece of history to all Wyoming fans. When you had a chance to visit with him and talk about Wyoming men’s basketball, he gave us a glimpse of what it was like back in the day.”
“It was always nice to have former players stop in and show the pride they have for this institution and relay that on to the current players and staff.”
In 2012, Sailors was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, joining his former coach — Everett Sheldon — as the only two representatives from the state of Wyoming in the NCBHF. In recent years, a push has been made to have Sailors inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
“He was a great man, a great Wyoming Cowboy and a great representative of the state of Wyoming and the University of Wyoming,” UW Athletics Director Tom Burman said. “He touched so many lives. For years after he moved back to Laramie, he would come to Cowboy and Cowgirl practices and games. He was a great mentor for our student-athletes.
“I know the people of Wyoming, like all of us in Wyoming athletics, will miss him, but we are grateful that we had the opportunity to know him for so many years.”