The pro career of Kenny Sailors was never as grand as it should have been. Institutions are always slow to accept change. And basketball, as an institution, was slow to adopt the move that Sailors helped popularize – the jump shot.
The following exchange, noted in The Origins of the Jump Shot, during Sailors’ rookie season helps show the resistance to Sailors’ extraordinary brilliance:
Kenny was about to step into the shower after that first practice when [Cleveland coach] Dutch Dehnert approached him. “Say-lors,” Dutch pronounced Kenny’s name. “Where’d you get that leapin’ one-hander?”
“I been shootin’ it ever since I was a kid.”
Whether that satisfied Dutch or not, his face gave no hint.
“And that dribblin’ of yours,” he continued. “You don’t dribble in this league. You pass the ball.”
Kenny shrugged. “I have to dribble to shoot my jumper, Dutch.”
“I’m gonna give you some advice, Say-lors. If you’re gonna go in this league, you gotta forget that dribblin’.”
Kenny turned to enter the shower.
“And you gotta get yourself a good two-hand set shot,” Dutch shouted after him.
Needless to say, Say-lors never had much opportunity to win over the recalcitrant Dehnert. Nonetheless, the way Sailors played basketball has gone on to shape and influence nearly every player since.When was the last time you’ve seen a player let loose a two-hand set shoot?
So, although just 5’10” tall, Sailors’ greatest contribution to the game was elevating it to new heights.
He was one of the first prominent players to use the jump shot back in the 1940s. Sailors did not invent the jumper. It had been around since the 1920s, at least. What makes Sailors notable is just how reliant he was on the shot. His diminutive height made it necessity for him to jump while shooting, otherwise he’d constantly be blocked by earthbound, yet taller opponents.
With the jumper in hand, however, Sailors could more than equalize the situation turning it completely to his favor. Not only could he lift his release point higher by jumping, his opponents were unfamiliar with the shot, so they didn’t know how to defend it. Used to earthbound two-handers and set-shots, the defenders couldn’t adjust on the fly to Sailors.
Sailors attended college at the University of Wyoming and was named Most Outstanding Player of the 1943 NCAA tournament en route to leading Wyoming to the championship that year. In 1942, 1943, and 1946, Sailors was named an All-American as well. The disruption in his college career came thanks to his service in the Marine Corps during World War II.
Naturally, the delay in finishing college meant his pro career was also delayed. At age 24, Sailors finally entered pro basketball with the Cleveland Rebels in 1946. Unfortunately for Sailors, his pro career was racked with chaos, misfortune and the skepticism of coaches like Dehnert. Sailors’s website does an excellent job summing up the dysfunction caused by the unstable financial situation of many ball clubs in the BAA and early NBA.
- July 27, 1947 – Drafted by the Chicago Stags from the Cleveland Rebels in the dispersal draft when Cleveland folded
- November 1947 – Sold by Chicago to the Philadelphia Warriors
- December 1, 1947 – Sold by Philadelphia to the Providence Steamrollers
- July 16, 1949 – Signed by the Denver Nuggets as Providence folded when the BAA merged into the new NBA
- June 22, 1950 – Sold by Denver to the Boston Celtics as Denver folded
- December 1, 1950 – Traded by Boston to the Baltimore Bullets where Kenny retired after one season and finished his professional career
After failing to impress in Cleveland and cast aside by Philly and Chicago in short order, Sailors’s greatest success in the pros came with the Providence Steamrollers and the Denver Nuggets from 1947 to 1950. Sailors was freed to shoot his jumper. For the 1949 and 1950 seasons Sailors finished in the top 5 in scoring in the BAA/NBA while also finishing 7th and 6th, respectively, in assist per game.
For his stellar 1948-49 campaign with the Steamrollers, Kenny was named to the All-BAA 2nd Team. His 1950 season with the Nuggets was worthy of similar honors, despite his exclusion.
Unfortunately for Sailors, the free-wheeling offenses that let him loose in Providence and, especially, Denver weren’t to last. Providence folded in 1949 and Denver in 1950. Sailors was picked up by Boston prior to the 1950-51 season, but with Bob Cousy in hand they had no use for Kenny. Traded to Baltimore, Sailors was now 29 years old and longing to return to the West. So after that 1951 season with the Bullets, Sailors retired from pro ball and headed back to the other side of the Mississippi.
The pros never quite appreciated the revolution Sailors was instigating back in the 1940s. Even today, very few appreciate the role that Sailors commanded in what is one of the largest transformations in basketball’s history.
Thanks to his simple boldness to take a jumper, shooting was heading toward the sky and little men everywhere could add another weapon to combat the potential domination of leviathans in the paint.
So even though his own personal greatness never blossomed due to the inertia of tradition, Sailors has a hand in all the great players since who’ve jumped and taken a shot.