It was sculpted in Green River. It has been stored in Lander. Now, Rudy Gunter’s statue of Wyoming basketball legend Kenny Sailors has found a home in Laramie, the city for which it was originally commissioned.
In 2014, the University of Wyoming athletic department announced that Gunter, a Green River artist and longtime teacher and coach, would sculpt a statue of Sailors as part of a series of renovations at the Arena-Auditorium. That announcement was made in error, however, because the department was unaware of the process through which university art must now be approved.
What happened since has been a source of controversy and distress. Gunter, who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease — also known as ALS — and his family claim UW never informed them of plans for a different statue to be unveiled at the arena last November. UW athletics maintains it has been transparent about the process.
Gunter’s statue, completed years ago with the help of friend Mary Shaw, will be installed Tuesday at Laramie’s Washington Park and dedicated at 1 p.m. Friday. Gunter, 78, will be in attendance for the ceremony, as will his wife, Sandee, and several family members.
“It’s been hard on Rudy, to think of it just being in the back of a warehouse and a foundry,” said Sandee, referring to Lander’s Eagle Bronze foundry. “His disease is progressing, and so he wanted to see it.”
Though the 15-foot statue will not stand on UW’s campus, it will be on display in the same city where Sailors attended high school, played college basketball and died in 2016. Credited with innovating basketball’s modern-day jump shot, Sailors helped lead Wyoming to its lone NCAA Championship in 1943, when he earned his first College Basketball Player of the Year honor.
Gunter’s statue will be the second embodiment of Sailors installed in Laramie in the last eight months. But donor Bruce Pivic views the latter as a tribute to the artist himself.
“This is more about Rudy now,” Pivic said, “and somebody seeing his legacy. Because this is obviously his last piece of work, and I wanted it to be somewhere it would be notable, because I think it is notable, and somewhere that people would enjoy it.”
Pivic is having the statue installed with the help of GE Johnson Construction Company and U.S. Engineering Company, who he said are donating time and absorbing some of the costs.
The city council approved the donation of the statue April 17, after a resolution was first put forward Feb. 20, according to parks and recreation director Todd Feezer.
“We’ve adopted a public art plan, and that helps guide and direct our improvement in public art and provision of public art,” Feezer said. “So it kind of meets with our plan. It just shows that we’re able to utilize that plan to its best potential.”
There were once talks about putting the statue at an Interstate 80 rest stop in Pine Bluffs, not far from where Sailors grew up. But people would not see the statue unless they actually stopped there, Pivic said, and visibility was an important factor in choosing a location.
“It’s going to be put somewhere where future generations will be able to see it,” he said.
Laramie City Councilor Pat Gabriel had mentioned the Kenny Sailors Gym at the Laramie Plains Civic Center, but the logistics were not feasible, and Pivic said visibility would again be an issue.
Ultimately, Washington Park emerged as the best option. It is located just three blocks south of the UW campus.
“When I place it, it will look like he’s taking a jump shot towards one of the baskets,” Pivic said of the park’s basketball hoops. “... The park itself sees thousands of people a year, because everything that Laramie does is in that park. Fourth of July celebration, all that stuff.”
The sculpture will be unveiled just in time for this year’s Freedom Has a Birthday, a Laramie Independence Day celebration dating back to 1990. Mayor Andi Summerville, Feezer and Pivic will be there Friday, and the public is invited to attend the ceremony.
Sandee Gunter, Rudy’s wife, said a group of cousins who cannot be there Friday plan to hold a family reunion in August in Washington Park. That month, Rudy and Sandee’s grandson Zac will begin attending the University of Wyoming.
“So having it there, it will be good,” Sandee said tearfully.
The Gunters stopped by Washington Park on the way home from a recent trip to Denver.
“It’s an absolutely beautiful park,” said Sandee, who often speaks on her husband’s behalf, due to his weakened condition.
In terms of visibility, the Gunters and Pivic said they actually prefer the location to the gallery inside the east entrance of the “Double-A,” home of the Cowboys and Cowgirls basketball teams.
“We think more people will see it where it is,” Sandee said.
Gunter’s statue will be outdoors, which was the original idea, Pivic said. The statue has been prepared to withstand those conditions from the start, and Pivic has also provided a fund for future maintenance of the statue.
Though admittedly biased, the Gunters also find the statue more realistic than the one UW had commissioned by Oregon-based sculptor Jay Warren. The hands and overall figure are more akin to the Cowboy legend, they said. Pivic said the 18-foot UW statue is too towering.
In December, a month after the issue came to a head, UW President Laurie Nichols visited the Gunters’ home. It was a gesture Sandee appreciated, given the long communication breakdown that led to a contentious “he said, she said.”
“She came realizing that nothing could be done,” Sandee said of Nichols, who became president in late 2015, “but she assured us that had she been there a year and a half earlier, we wouldn’t have been sitting there at the table talking over things like we were. She was just a wonderful, wonderful lady.”
Not everything is resolved, though. The Gunters still have questions, Sandee said, about why exactly Rudy’s statue was not used at the Arena-Auditorium. If that spot was out of the question, Rudy wanted the statue at Wyoming’s Half Acre Gym, a recreation center where the Cowboys played during Sailors’ career. Because the location is also on Wyoming’s campus, however, the statue would have faced the same approval process that failed to place it in the Arena-Auditorium.
And then there is the matter of Rudy’s health. Sandee said she was told by Rudy’s neurologist that working on the statue exacerbated his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS.
Still, the statue finally has a home — no small thing. Sandee said Rudy had begun to believe he would never see his final work on display.
“When we drove away, Rudy had a smile on his face,” Sandee said of their trip to Washington Park. “I said, ‘Are you happy?’ And he said, ‘Yes.’”