Kenny Sailors, who many credit with inventing the modern jump shot, died in his sleep early Saturday morning in Laramie. He was 95.
Sailors, who suffered a heart attack in December and had been under medical attention since then, is the lone University of Wyoming basketball player to have his number retired.
“We were saddened to hear of the passing of Kenny (Sailors) this morning,” University of Wyoming Athletic Director Tom Burman said on Saturday. “He was a great man, a great Wyoming Cowboy and a great representative of the state of Wyoming and the University of Wyoming.
“He touched so many lives. ... 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.”
Sailors was named the most valuable player of the 1943 NCAA tournament after scoring 16 points and leading the Cowboys to a 46-34 victory over Georgetown in the national championship game. Two days later, Wyoming (31-2) beat National Invitation Tournament winner St. John’s.
The Cowboys also twice beat the Phillips 66ers, the Amateur Athletic Union champions, as well as the Armed Forces All-Stars.
“When you beat the AAU team champions and you beat the Armed Forces All-Stars and you beat everybody in the NCAA and you beat NIT (champion), there’s no one else left,” said former UW coach Jim Brandenburg, a friend of Sailors. “That’s the kind of player and the kind of leader Kenny Sailors was.”
Sailors later had a brief career in the fledgling National Basketball Association, following three years in the league’s predecessor, the Basketball Association of America.
Sailors developed the jump shot while growing up on the family farm in Hillsdale, outside of Cheyenne. Playing against his 6-foot-6 older brother, Bud, the 5-10 Kenny Sailors “invented” the jump shot as a way to shoot over his taller brother.
At a 2012 press conference after he was elected to the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, Sailors refused to take full credit for inventing the jump shot. Instead, he quoted former DePaul coach and Hall of Fame member Ray Meyer.
“Ray Meyer put it best,” Sailors told the Star-Tribune. “He said, ‘There are several people that claimed to have invented the jump shot. Kenny doesn’t make that claim, but he does claim that he developed the jump shot (that) is being used today.’
“I like that a lot better.”
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Sailors was inducted into the University of Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame in 1993.
“I think he’s not only a noteworthy figure in Wyoming athletics history, I think he’s one of the great figures in the state of Wyoming’s history,” said Ryan Thorburn, author of “Cowboy Up: Kenny Sailors, The Jump Shot and Wyoming’s Championship Basketball History.”
Sailors served in the Marines for two years (1943-45) before returning to UW and once again earning All-American honors for the 1946 season.
He later served as a hunting and fishing guide in the Jackson area and then in Alaska before moving back to Laramie about 10 years ago, following the passing of his wife, Marilynne.
While in Alaska, Sailors coached high school girls basketball and is credited with introducing the state’s first girls state tournament. He led Glenallen High School to three consecutive girls state championships and a 68-game winning streak during his time as head coach.
“The thing that’s he’s known for is he’s the guy who created the modern jump shot,” Brandenburg said. “It’s been a long time that he’s done this, and I think now the whole world is starting to wake up and realize that he is the creator of the modern jump shot. But he is much more than that. He was just a great human being. He’s done a lot of good wherever he’s lived.”
After returning to Wyoming, he became a regular at the Arena-Auditorium in Laramie.
He often frequented practices and served as a mentor to student-athletes.
“As far as his demeanor, he was just really one of those guys that strangers would go up to him and get pictures and he didn’t mind telling the story over and over again to everyone he encountered,” Thorburn said.
“The University of Wyoming has lost one of its great heroes and ambassadors with the death of Kenny Sailors,” UW President Dick McGinity said. “As the entire university community mourns his passing and celebrates his life, we offer our thoughts and prayers to his family.”
Sailors is survived by his son, Dan, and daughter-in-law, Jean, eight grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild, along with numerous nephews and nieces. Services are pending.
“Very strong person,” Brandenburg said. “He’s strong with his beliefs, his convictions. In many ways, he’s just an original cowboy.”