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Statue honoring Wyoming legend creates conflict between university, Green River artist

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Arena-Auditorium

The statue, “Kenny Sailors the Jump Shot” is shown inside the newly renovated Arena-Auditorium on Saturday in Laramie.

When fans enter the Arena-Auditorium today for the Wyoming Cowboys’ game against New Mexico Highlands, they’ll pass an 18-foot statue of the state’s most legendary basketball player.

The statue stands in a gallery at the east entrance of the auditorium before massive windows that offer a glimpse of the towering figure as fans pass by outside. Cast in bronze and weighing 2 tons, the statue depicts Kenny Sailors taking the jump shot he is credited with inventing.

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Arena-Auditorium

The Kenny Sailors statue inside the newly renovated Arena-Auditorium.

Most of the fans know Sailors’ story. They know he led the Cowboys to the 1943 NCAA Men’s Championship before his career in the NBA. They know Sailors died nearly two years ago, shortly after his 95th birthday.

What they might not know is the monument is not the lone statue created to honor the UW legend. Many may have no idea that the second statue was created by a man who was the first to be commissioned to design the sculpture, that it will almost certainly be his final work and that his creation sits in storage more than 200 miles away while a different artist’s statue graces the revamped Arena-Auditorium.

The Wyoming athletics department had intended for the statue to be a long-overdue way of honoring the Cowboy State legend. But, as all sides acknowledge, a premature announcement bungled the sentiment from the start. What happened afterward is what remains in dispute, leaving one Wyoming family feeling wronged by its school and state, a community angered by a perceived slight to one of its pillars and a patriarch debilitated by Lou Gehrig’s disease feeling maligned by the school he loves.

***

The issue of how two different Sailors statues came to be has become a contentious game of he said, she said. The athletics department announced in January 2014 that Green River artist Rudy Gunter would be sculpting the Kenny Sailors statue. Since then, the athletics department has admitted that the announcement was made “in error,” but maintain that they have been transparent with Gunter through the process.

The Gunter family claims the opposite.

“No one … ever told me that that statue wasn’t going to go in the Double-A,” Gunter said.

The chance to honor Sailors meant a lot to 77-year-old Gunter. He was a University of Wyoming graduate. His sons Troy and Blake wrestled for the Cowboys.

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Rudy Gunter

Rudy Gunter sculpts his statue of Kenny Sailors. Gunter was originally chosen to create the piece to display in the Arena-Auditorium, but the university later commissioned another artist for the job. 

A member of the inaugural class of the Green River Hall of Fame in 2009, Gunter sculpted the wolf pack outside Green River High School and the horses that are on display at Western Wyoming Community College, the Wild Horse Loop and in the city of Green River.

“The hundreds and thousands of artists that he has helped along, professional artists now that have made their living, owe it to all to Rudy and his dedication,” said Mary Shaw, a lifelong friend of Gunter’s and a member of the Green River art community who helped Gunter complete the Sailors statue.

Gunter, who coached boys basketball at Green River High School for 19 years, became friends with Sailors in the mid-2000s, when Gunter helped organize the Wyoming Senior Olympics.

So when the push to honor Sailors came to a head four years ago, Gunter appeared to be the man for the job. Wyoming athletics director Tom Burman wanted to memorialize Sailors, and there had been pressure to name the Arena-Auditorium floor after him. But Burman didn’t want to give up the revenue that the court’s naming rights could fetch. (It has since been named after prominent donor and fan Maury Brown.)

Bruce Pivic, a Rock Springs-based member of the Cowboy Joe Club donor organization, came to Burman with the idea for a statue. Pivic wanted Gunter to sculpt it.

On Jan. 25, 2014, at halftime of a Wyoming men’s basketball win over Nevada, Gunter was introduced to the crowd as the artist commissioned to memorialize Sailors. A press release from the Wyoming athletics department affirmed that Gunter would create the sculpture.

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Sailors Statue announcement

Athletic Director Tom Burman, right, shakes hands with UW Foundation President Ben Blalock. They are shown with UW President Dick McGinity, left, in January 2014 at the Arena-Auditorium after the university announced a $30 million renovation of the arena. The improvements included a planned 22-foot statue of former UW basketball player Kenny Sailors.

Gunter and Pivic made a verbal deal about the statue. No contract was signed.

“I am a man of my word,” Pivic wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune, “and so is Rudy.”

Rudy would be paid about $100,000 for the statue.

“Which is barely enough to cover his foundry costs,” said Terrell Lance, one of Gunter’s sons. “It’s about a ($250,000) piece. But it was important to him because of a little bit of pride, a little bit of loyalty to his friend, a little bit of loyalty to the school that he graduated from.”

But the loyalty would cost him more than money, the family said. Gunter has Lou Gehrig’s disease, and his wife said that over the course of the project, Gunter almost completely lost the use of his hands. The disease, formally amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, causes degeneration in motor neurons, which travel between the brain, spinal chord and muscles.

Still, the work was worth it.

“He knew he was sacrificing his hands to do it for them,” Lance said.

Soon after the announcement, however, Burman and the athletics department realized they had made a mistake.

***

In 2012, a piece of art called the Carbon Sink was installed at the University of Wyoming. Its concept, which related coal to climate change, angered members of the energy industry in Wyoming and resulted in the controversial removal of the piece. To avoid such an incident happening again, the university created the President’s Public Art Committee.

Burman was not aware of this committee — or the trustee-approved bylaws that guide it — when the athletics department introduced Gunter to the Arena-Auditorium crowd.

The Public Art Committee lists a process for evaluating pieces for which the art or artist has already been selected: The committee reviews a proposal and then reviews the art itself based on “artistic merit considerations, physical plant considerations, constituent input, financing, and consideration related to individual artists.” Finally, the committee votes on whether to recommend the piece to the university president, who makes the final decision.

Burman became aware of this shortly after Gunter was announced as the sculptor.

“I call Bruce and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to go through a totally different process,’” Burman said. “‘The university’s got these policies in place. There’s no way around it. Sorry. Blah blah blah.’ And he talked to the Gunter family.”

The family denies ever being told about the Public Art Committee process.

“Not one time was that ever mentioned to me,” Gunter said.

“Nor to me,” his wife, Sandee, added, her voice rising. “That’s a bald-faced lie.”

From what the family has learned after the fact, it is their understanding that the committee evaluated a small preliminary model of the statue, called a maquette, Gunter had made of Sailors shooting over a defender. Not only was that maquette not quite finished before Pivic took it, the family says, but it also fails to represent the statue Gunter ended up making.

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Statue

Rudy Gunter's statue remains at the Eagle Bronze foundry in Lander

The family said Burman had criticized Gunter’s statue during his Green River visits, especially the proportions.

“Tom Burman kept saying, ‘Well, his legs aren’t big enough,’” Sandee Gunter said. “(Sailors) wasn’t a big man. It told you that Tom Burman didn’t know crap.”

Burman declined to comment on Gunter’s statue.

“I shouldn’t be judging art,” he said. “Leave that up to the arts committee.”

In any case, Gunter’s piece was not selected during the initial process.

The committee’s other process for commissioning a piece of art is for circumstances when an artist has not yet been selected. One of the options within that process is a competitive bidding process, and in the case of the Sailors statue, an ad hoc committee was formed to conduct the search. Nick Popplewell, then Wyoming’s assistant athletic director for marketing and branding, chaired the committee, which also included senior associate athletic director Kevin McKinney, women’s basketball coach Joe Legerski, former Wyoming basketball player Adam Waddell and Susan Moldenhauer, who retired this fall as director of the University of Wyoming Art Museum.

Through a website called CaFÉ, the committee vetted hundreds of potential artists. Five finalists came to Laramie to make a presentation. Gunter was not one of them.

Pivic said he was not aware of the first process, the one where the committee evaluates an artist that has already been selected. As for the competitive bidding process, he wrote that he “most likely” submitted a bid on Gunter’s behalf “so the arts council would come look at a 95% done paid for sculpture.” Despite the bid, the committee never saw the statue in person.

“The arts council refused to come,” he wrote. “Again I don’t believe this was Tom’s choice in the matter but the arts council’s refusal because they were not happy with me or him.”

Chris Boswell, the vice president for government and community affairs who was the chair of the art committee, said he understood that a proposal of some kind was submitted for Gunter, though he said he had no direct knowledge of it.

The Gunter family says it was not told about the competitive bidding process. They say they learned of it through a Cody sculptor who saw an advertisement.

“And Bruce said, ‘Oh, it’s just some crap,’” Sandee Gunter said. She often speaks on behalf of her husband, who’s weakened by his condition.

“‘We’re having to jump through some hoops. Don’t worry about it.’ Then (Pivic) called me and said, ‘I don’t want Rudy stressed by anything. Can you get some pictures of sculptures he’s done, of monument pieces he’s done?’”

Sandee Gunter asked if there was a problem.

“No, everything is going to be fine,’” Pivic told her, as she recalled.

***

Ultimately, the Public Art Committee agreed that Jay Warren, a sculptor from Rogue River, Oregon, would make the statue that now sits at the front of the Arena-Auditorium.

In a September 2015 meeting, the committee voted unanimously to recommend Warren as the artist. In the minutes for that meeting, Boswell says he’s concerned that the “issue with B. Pivic’s statue had not been fully resolved.” He encouraged Burman and McKinney to “work through” the issue with Pivic and Gunter before the university president approved the committee’s decision.

“C. Boswell stated that he had (a) concern UW may end up with two statues,” according to the minutes.

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Arena-Auditorium

"Kenny Sailors the Jump Shot" statue inside the newly renovated Arena-Auditorium.

The members of the committee praised Warren’s statue. Ricki Klages, head of the UW art department, “noted that this statue is a much better representation of K. Sailors than the previous maquette that had been presented to the Public Art Committee.”

McKinney, the senior associate athletic director, “noted that it would have been nice to use a Wyoming artist, but there was not a Wyoming artist with a background in sports statues,” according to the minutes.

Where the sculptor is from matters, the Gunters said. When Rudy was initially announced as the artist in 2014, they say, the athletic department highlighted the fact that a Wyoming native and University of Wyoming graduate would use a Wyoming foundry to craft the statue of a Wyoming legend.

Warren cast his statue at Mussi Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, California.

“Yes, we would have loved to have that (Wyoming connection), and that was a positive thing when Rudy was involved,” McKinney said in an interview. “But on the other hand, we were looking at something that was going to stand the test of time, so we felt like we had to get people who were very tuned into human forms, athletes. And these were the best of those that applied.”

Warren met with Sailors in 2015 at Spring Wind Assisted Living when Warren was in Laramie to make his presentation. McKinney believed Warren was the only finalist to meet with Sailors, though he was not certain.

Warren said at the statue’s introductory ceremony that it was the first time he had met with one of his subjects before sculpting them. He did not respond to a request for comment.

“Kenny had Jay change some stuff in the way he held the ball,” McKinney said. “Because Kenny of course is very, very precise about that. And he loved the statue, but he said, ‘You don’t have my hand resting on the ball right.’”

The Gunter family takes pride in Rudy’s dedication to getting the hands just so.

“I know Kenny Sailors had sat with Rudy for a long time and told him exactly how those hands were supposed to be placed on the ball,” said Shaw, who helped Gunter finish his statue. “That was very important to Kenny, that you had to get the hands proportioned and set on the ball and the ball sitting perfectly. And we spent hours doing that.”

Those hands, after all, had helped pioneer a now-ubiquitous shot.

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Kenny Sailors

Former Wyoming basketball star Kenny Sailors grabs a loose ball during the Cowboys’ game against St. Johns in 1943. Sailors, who is credited with inventing the jump shot, died in January 2016 at age 95. He lived in Laramie. 

Rudy “gave him the maquette and a tear rolled down Kenny’s face,” Sandee Gunter said, “and he said, ‘Rudy, you got the hands right.’ And he said, ‘You taught me well.’”

Sailors died in January 2016, before any statue was erected in the Arena-Auditorium. McKinney said Sailors had remained informed about the statue, though he was humble about it being done. Sailors’ granddaughter, Wendy Sailors, and her daughter attended the unveiling of Warren’s statue on Nov. 3.

***

The issue of how much the Gunters knew essentially boils down to two visits. Burman twice came out to Gunter’s studio in Green River, which was the sculptor’s son’s garage with the roof cut out. The first time, Burman went with Larry Shyatt, then Wyoming’s head men’s basketball coach, and Legerski. The second time, he went with McKinney and Pivic.

Burman said he told the family on the first visit, which took place April 2013, according to Pivic, that the athletic department would have to go through the process laid out by the Public Art Committee. On the second trip, around September 2015, he told them that the sculpture would not be placed in the Arena-Auditorium, he said.

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Rudy Gunter

The statue of Kenny Sailors created by Rudy Gunter. 

That meeting occurred around the same time as the arts committee meeting where officials decided to use Warren’s work.

The Gunters repeatedly denied ever being told about the committee process or that the statue was not going to be used in the arena.

At one point, the family did discuss putting Gunter’s statue at another site, but not because they believed another sculpture was going to take its place. Renovations on the Arena-Auditorium had been delayed for financial reasons, and Pivic came to the Gunters’ house to discuss options.

“He said, ‘We can put it in our storage,’” Sandee Gunter said. “And he said, ‘Kenny can be dead and (Rudy Gunter) could be dead before they get this finished. Or … I have talked to the governor, and the governor said he would not give any more money to the University of Wyoming for the Double-A, but he would pay to have this sculpture erected at Pine Bluffs.’”

This brings up another point of contention between the sides. The Gunters say they were told by both Pivic and Burman that Gov. Matt Mead had approved the secondary site at a rest area along Interstate 80 near Sailors’ old home town of Hillsdale. Both Burman and Boswell said Mead had no involvement in the statue process other than to speak at the unveiling ceremony.

Burman said it was the Wyoming Department of Transportation that had approved the site, so long as no funding was required by them. Pivic said he would pay for the installation.

Though disappointed, Gunter says he agreed to the Pine Bluffs location under the belief that no statue would be going up in the near future at Arena-Auditorium and that it was a possibility that his mold could be used to make a second one for the venue when the funding came through.

The family had decided to debut the statue on June 13, 2016, Rudy Gunter’s 76th birthday. Sailors died five months earlier at the age of 95. The ceremony never happened.

***

The family cites a number of reasons that Rudy Gunter would not have continued to work on his sculpture had he known another was going to be erected in the Arena-Auditorium.

“There is no way,” Sandee Gunter said, “if we had had any inkling that this was not going to be there, we would have let them make fools out of us.”

Rudy Gunter’s grandson, Dallen Gunter, died in June 2014 at the age of 10 from brain cancer. The family said Gunter sacrificed valuable time with his grandson to fulfill his commitment to making the statue.

On top of that, the family said the act of sculpting worsened Gunter’s ALS. He was diagnosed in 2013, though his muscles had begun to atrophy two years before, the family said.

“One of the things that (Dallen’s father, Troy) said the other night is, he said, ‘Mom, dad would never in a million years have given up his hands or his time with Dallen ... if he’d have known that (the statue) wasn’t going to be there,’” Sandee Gunter said. “But he gave his word to him that he would do it.”

“He committed to this, knowing full well that using his hands would take his hands,” she continued. “Because he committed to it.”

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Rudy Gunter

The statue of Kenny Sailors created by Rudy Gunter. 

Gunter is now able to use just two fingers and a thumb on his right hand, none on his left. Sandee Gunter said she recently asked Rudy Gunter’s neurologist point blank whether doing the sculpture had caused him to lose use of his right hand so quickly.

“And she said, ‘Very definitely,’” she said.

***

About three months before Warren’s statue was unveiled, a former art student of Rudy Gunter contacted the family.

“We got a call, and it said, ‘Do you realize that they did commission an artist to do a Kenny Sailors (statue), and it’s going to be unveiled this fall?’” Sandee Gunter said. “And I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

On Nov. 3, the second phase of renovations was shown to the public. Former Wyoming basketball stars Fennis Dembo and Reggie Slater were in attendance. Mead spoke at the ceremony, saying that while he didn’t know all the details of the renovations, as a whole they had “the magic and wonder of a Kenny Sailors jump shot.”

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Arena-Auditorium

The new Kenny Sailors statue inside the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie. 

As the university celebrated, the Gunters seethed. Lance took to Facebook to share whatever photos or documents he could find. Angry commenters bombarded a post from Mead celebrating the statue, prompting the governor’s office to post a statement from the university.

Sandee Gunter said she received a Facebook message from Wendy Sailors, Kenny’s granddaughter, once the controversy surrounding the two statues began to swell on social media: “She just said, ‘Please do not feel that the Sailors family knew anything about any of this.’”

The anger was not isolated to the internet, the Gunters said.

“We’ve got people coming out of Kemmerer,” Lance, one of Gunter’s sons, said. “We’ve got people coming out of Rock Springs. We’ve got people from Green River. … (Cowboy Joe member) Paul Pistono stepped up and said, ‘This is grounds for me to no longer contribute to the University of Wyoming.’”

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Arena-Auditorium

The new Kenny Sailors statue inside the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie. 

The situation could escalate even further. The family has met with legal counsel. They are still considering their options, but when asked whether she believed that a lawsuit would eventually be filed, Sandee Gunter said yes.

In total, Pivic paid Gunter about $100,000. The last installment came earlier this month. The family estimated that, when factoring in costs, Gunter made less than $10,000 for his two years of work.

The university paid Warren $250,000 from private donations for his statue.

Pivic is now the owner of the Gunter statue. The Pine Bluffs site remains a possibility. The Gunters recently visited the site for the first time and thought it could be suitable.

Pivic chose not to use the Pine Bluffs location because the “rest area can not be seen from the interstate and the only way people would know it was there would be to drive into the rest area,” he wrote. But he said if the Gunters choose to go forward with Pine Bluffs, it should be an easy process because the state has approved the location.

He had also looked into other locations, one of which was the Gunters’ home town.

“I would now like to put it in Green River and honor the sculptor Rudy and his final piece,” Pivic wrote. “It is amazing and I feel it would be a great fit there since Rudy is one of the best people I have ever met. He has touched hundereds (sic) of students and people in his (tenure) in Green River. It would be a honor for him to display this in his home town.”

The family had wanted to put the sculpture at Wyoming’s Half Acre Gym, which is where Sailors played during his time at the university and is now a recreation center for the university. However, the family would have to go through the same committee process as the Arena-Auditorium.

Sandee Gunter said the family still needed to talk to Pivic about the Pine Bluffs location. But she is hesitant to go through another process.

“We’re back to the point that I’m going, ‘Who’s going to say it’s OK to put it there?’” she said. “Who owns the rest stop? … Is this going to be another thing that we think, ‘OK, it can be there,’ and then it won’t be and there will be more (problems)?’”

What the Gunters know is that the sculpture is not in the Arena-Auditorium. As its creator waits to find out whether it will land at a rest stop or somewhere else, its counterpart towers over passing fans in Laramie.

For now, the last work of Rudy Gunter stands against a wall at the Eagle Bronze foundry in Lander and gathers dust, 200 miles from the spot it was built for, far from the Wyoming campus it was meant to honor, waiting for its shot to be seen.

Follow University of Wyoming athletics reporter Brandon Foster on Twitter @BFoster91. Follow education reporter Seth Klamann on Twitter @SethKlamann.

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Brandon Foster reports on University of Wyoming athletics. He joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 after graduating from the University of Missouri and covering Mizzou athletics for two years. A St. Louis native, he lives in Laramie.

Seth Klamann joined the Star-Tribune in 2016 and covers education and health. A 2015 graduate of the University of Missouri and proud Kansas City native, Seth worked for newspapers in Milwaukee and Omaha before coming to Casper.

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