Kenny Sailors: The man who invented the jump shot

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Back in the late 40s and early 50s, I would occasionally attend pro basketball games at the Coliseum on Monroe Street in Northwest Baltimore, near Pennsylvania Avenue. Like the baseball/football stadium on 33rd Street, it is now part of our city’s sports folklore.

An indoor arena, the Coliseum, could hold 4,500 people. Its primary tenant was the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets, although concerts, featuring stars such as “Fats” Domino were also held there.

This was in the very early days of pro basketball. The Bullets played there from 1945-1954. Then, they shifted to the larger venue at the new Civic Center in the downtown area.

I recall one player in particular from that Coliseum era – Kenny Sailors. He was a 5ft, 10in, 175 pound, point guard, very quick, and a terrific dribbler and ball handler for the Province Steamrollers. (Later, he would play for the Bullets.)

Sailors would seem to fly down the court and when he got near the keyhole – jump high in the air, holding the ball in the palm of his right hand. Then, Sailors would loft the ball high and over his opponent’s out stretched hands toward and into the basket. It was, indeed, a big “wow” moment!

Today, the “jump shot” is a given. But back then, in both college and pro basketball, it was a rarity. The game in those days was a  lot slower than it is today. Think slow-motion! For whatever reason, it was dominated by the two-handed, flat footed set shot. No kidding!

You can watch Sailors tell his story about his inventive “jump shot.”

(As an aside, I remember another great athlete shooting a jump shot with such grace and style. This was back in the early 50s. His name was Al Kaline (now in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame). He was playing a sandlot game at Southern H.S. in South Baltimore. Kaline was just so poetic that evening, that my memory of his taking and making that shot has stayed with me all of these years.)

Sailors was born in 1921, in Bushnell, Nebraska, out on the great wind-swept plains of middle America. His mom, Cora, was the anchor/hero in the family. His father, sadly, was absent without leave.

In the video, Sailors commented how in his day if you were playing defense or offense, “you never left the floor.” He gave credit to a photo in “Life” magazine showing him taking a jump shot for making it so popular with other players and with America’s sports-loving public.

Sailors underscored how in the photo he is shown in the air with the ball ready to shoot it, while all the other players are simply standing around with their “feet on the ground.” That picture, he implied, said it all.

Before his five years pro career, with seven different teams, Sailors played his college ball out west close to his home roots — in Laramie — with the University of Wyoming. His best year of his four year college career was the 1942-43 season when he averaged 15.0 points per game.  His “Cowboys” team from Wyoming won the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in 1943. Sailors was also a College All-American three times.

There was a little hiatus on Sailors’ college basketball career. WWII intervened. Uncle Sam needed him. He saw service with the U.S. Marines from 1943 to 1945.

In the pros, Sailors maintained a 17.3 points per game average, in the 1949-50 season for the Denver Nuggets. He also played long enough in the league to get a pension, which he appreciated. Sailors was married with two boys and the top salary in that bygone period was around $15,000 a year, hardly the mega-millions of today!

I think one of the most endearing parts of Sailors’ story on the jump shot (see video) is the role his older and taller brother, Barton (Bud), played in it. Bud was a pretty good basketball athlete in his own right. He was about six inches taller, too. So in order to get a shot over Bud, playing “one one one,” Sailors needed to learn how to jump high and over any attempt on his brother’s part to block the shot. It took plenty of practice, but Sailors did perfect “that” jump shot. The rest as they say is history.

A good book on Sailor’s life was written, in 2014, by Lew Freedman. Its title is “Jump Shot: Kenny Sailors Basketball Innovator and Alaskan Outfitter.” The author also gives considerable coverage to Sailor’s life after basketball as an outfitter in Alaska. I found this coverage, too, very interesting, since it was such a big part of who Sailors was as a true son of the Midwest.

In 2012, Sailors was inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame. He died in 2016, in Laramie, Wyoming, at the ripe old age of 95. However, the legend of his fabulous “jump shot” lives on after him.