Beyond the Jump Shot

About Beyond the Jump Shot – The Elevated Life of Kenny Sailors
Published in Summer 2024

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Have you ever heard the name Kenny Sailors? Didn’t the jump shot always exist in basketball?

When Kenny Sailors was born in 1921, his dad didn’t want another mouth to feed. Ed Sailors left the family. Kenny and his brother were raised by a single mother on a starvation operation farm in Wyoming. With faith in God and grit, the family preserved and overcame.

If the boys had any free time on the farm, they played ball in the dirt corral in front of a wooden windmill. To score against his bigger brother, Kenny used his ingenuity, and speed, to jump and shoot.

His jump shot helped him to succeed on the hardwood and propelled him into basketball leadership;  in high school, college, and eventually pro ball.

After leaving the pros, Kenny and his wife made their way to the interior of Alaska, where he taught high school and volunteered to coach basketball in the town of Glennallen. While in Alaska, Kenny developed the girls' basketball program in the public school system of that state.

Basketball continued to be a springboard for Kenny to encourage many folks, especially young people until he died in 2016.


Debbie Sorensen                                



            If you love basketball, you’ll love this story. If you don’t love basketball, you’ll love this story. If you want to be inspired by a young boy who was so desperate he jumped, you’ll love this story. 

            I’m not a basketball expert or a personal historian. Many other writers have covered those topics on Kenny Sailors. But I do love a good story. My story is about a friend who chose to make a difference in life. 

             Kenny Sailors discovered a way to shoot a basketball over an older and bigger brother. He became legendary throughout basketball and made history with the game-changing jump shot. To be clear, before the three-point shot impacted basketball, there was the jump shot.

            I first met Kenny in the summer of 1978 when my husband and I moved to the Copper River Valley in southcentral Alaska. Neighbors Marilynne and Kenny Sailors heard we were new to the area and invited us to a potluck meal to meet folks.        

            On a recommendation from the Sailors, Russ and I attended the Native Chapel in nearby Gulkana Village. When a weekly Bible study started at the Sailors’ home, Marilynne invited me to join them. In the winter it was not unusual for Kenny to help me shovel my Volkswagen Bug out of a pile of snow in their yard.  He was a good man and, good with a shovel.

            We were told that in 1943, Kenny had played on the University of Wyoming national championship basketball team in Madison Square Garden. He also played for the Boston Celtics in 1950-51, then went into politics, before switching careers to guiding and hunting. 

            The development of the jump shot shook up the world of basketball so much that Kenny Sailors was named, “Most Valuable Player NCAA championships,” in 1943.

            How could a poor, fatherless kid, raised by a single mother on a Wyoming farm, develop an unusual play and change basketball history? 

            I began to dig deeper into this inspiring story. Kenny Sailors not only changed a sport but changed countless lives through his willingness to become involved and make a difference.

            When asked about the jump shot, the basketball veteran would simply respond, “There’s no way of knowing which kid, somewhere, jumped in the air and shot a basketball. Yes, I had a jump shot. I jumped to score against my big brother.”

            Legendary coach of DePaul University, Ray Meyer had something to say on the jump shot development.

            “Sailors may not have been the first player to jump in the air and shoot the ball.” Meyer continued, “But he developed the shot that’s being used today.”

            “That’s the way he put it,” Kenny said. “And I like that.”

            In 1946 Eric Schaal, a photographer for Life magazine, captured the Wyoming Cowboys guard, suspended above the basketball court of Madison Square Garden. That picture highlighted Kenny’s jump and shot throughout the world of sports. Going into the air, Sailors launched basketball into a new dimension of play.

            Between 1921 and 2016, Kenny’s life covered nearly a century of stunning changes. Kenny’s Mother, Cora Sailors, was a determined frontier pioneer who overcame the hardships of life with determination and grit. With her faith in God, she was an example to help her son overcome unfairness and challenges. Kenny was nearly tossed out to die by a desperate father who didn’t want another mouth to feed. Soon after, Ed Sailors abandoned his family. At that point, Cora determined, she would raise her sons to become men.

            Kenny became a basketball pioneer who forged his way in life. His big brother Bud, caused him to get creative as they shot basketballs toward the round iron rim, nailed to the wooden backboard, on the windmill of their Wyoming farm. 

            Later in high school and college, two special coaches came alongside the young man and took Kenny under their wings. Those men helped him deal with the rejection and abandonment the trauma in his early life had created. Floyd Foreman and Everett Shelton went on to reinforce his ballhandling, and leadership, skills.

            This innovator went on to have a family and succeed in life. He disappeared for several decades into the American wilderness while he worked his outdoor businesses. When he re-emerged, he taught high school and established a girls’ basketball program in the Alaska public schools. Kenny elevated the lives of young and old alike.

             I am one of the many people Kenny and Marilynne Sailors encouraged.    



Chapter One

The Beginning



            “Kenny, this isn’t the game for you. It’s for big men. Tall men!” 

With that, 6’5” Bud Sailors, swatted yet another basketball shot from the hands of his younger brother Kenny. The worn basketball hit the packed dirt of the wind-blown Wyoming farm yard. Kenny scrambled through the dust and snagged the frayed ball as it bounced off the wooden backboard mounted on the wooden windmill in the corral. 

Kenny said, “I was only 5’7” and five years younger than my brother. I was determined to make another attempt to get around Bud and drive into the iron hoop.” 

“I knew my chances were not high I’d ever get a shot off. The big bum Bud always stuffed the ball down my throat.”

Kenny recalled, “The windmill was important to us as we scratched out a living on a dryland farm near Hillsdale, Wyoming in the 1930s. When the windmill was in gear and the wind blew, it pumped water through a metal pipe to the stock tank to water the animals. By moving a lever, fresh water was channeled from the pipe to a spigot for us to collect and use. The only way the water came into the house was one bucket at a time, carried at the end of somebody’s arm. Water was critical for life. Period.”

             The prairie Sentinel became a symbol of persistence for Kenny and would help establish his path to move forward in life. 

Kenny commented: “I think the good Lord must have put it in my mind, to jump against Bud. I knew there had to be a way. I just had to figure it out. ” 

Necessity became the mother of invention and the result, was to jump and shoot. 

“I kept experimenting with quick moves until I found a way to shoot around that bum. When I changed my tactics, it made a difference in my shot. When I changed my shot, it made a difference in my game. I had no idea it would change the game of basketball forever.”

 Bud’s little brother did become a difference-maker on the basketball court. Kenny continued to make a difference in the lives of other folks, long after he left the basketball courts. 

Back to the backboard…that was another story. While not essential for life, it was mighty important in the development of two young fellows guided into manhood by a single mother with limited assets. Cora Houtz Sailors was one plucky lady. Raised in that sod house on the prairie, this woman was full of gumption. She persevered in the worst life threw at her. With her solid foundation of faith and determination, she was convinced she would ultimately prevail. The results? Both of her sons went on to raise families and succeed in the military and business. 

Kenny said, “Bud and I competed hard against each other in the corral. Before we could play, we cleared out the cow chips and horse biscuits that decorated our fancy playing ‘court’.” 

 “On a spring day as the wind howled across the grasslands,” Kenny recalled, “ I made up my mind I was going to find a way to shoot the ball over my brother and hit the hoop.”

 Bud, on the other hand, had another plan. 

He stated, “ I wanted to frustrate that little squirt and refuse him a chance for a single shot.”

Kenny responded with, “I knew I could jump. I figured if I could jump high enough out of my dribble, I might get the ball up over the ‘big Bud’ problem.”

 He worked hard with that thought in mind.

 “I’d dribble up, get around the dribble, jump straight up, bring the ball just above my head, and let it fly. It missed the backboard and hoop a few times. But then, by golly—that old basketball, finally dropped through the hoop on that rough wooden backboard”

 Kenny was just as surprised as his brother was when the ball found its mark.

Bud recalled. “I was stunned to see the ball hit the hoop! My own feet were still planted in the dirt of the corral. I told my brother, you have to get better. You must get better at that.” 

Kenny recalled, “I started working hard to make that shot. I practiced dribbling and shooting with a leather basketball Bud had brought home from the high school in Hillsdale.” 

Bud had approached his Hillsdale basketball coach Floyd Domine.

 “If we could have a ball to use,” he explained, “ we could practice when we have a little time in between chores.”


“That would be me and Kenny.”

After some discussion, Domine gave his consent.

Having a basketball to use inspired the brothers to practice with dogged determination. 

Bud Sailors was one of the best high school players in Wyoming and Domine valued this solid 6’ 5” asset to the Hillsdale Basketball team. He also recognized Kenneth as the scrappy ball player from the early morning free-for-all ball sessions in the school gym. It looked like the hound dogs on the surrounding farms, frantically chasing the ever-present jackrabbits in the area.

Kenny recalled, “I was frequently at the head of the pack. The jackrabbit racing against the hounds, so to speak.”

The students ran in frantic circles to keep ahead of the pursuers. It was a rare moment when one of the other players could steal the ball away from Bud’s faster brother. 

Later, when he played ball in high school, college, and the NBA, Kenny Sailors the runt, would take all sorts of hits from big men guarding the hoop. The gritty lessons of his youth in the dirt corral at home and the gym at school stayed with him.

Domine, along with the folks in the community, had watched for two years, as Bud rode his horse bareback the four miles into town each evening for basketball practice. Both boys possessed perseverance. Cora was adamant about her boys riding horses bareback. “I don’t want either of you ridin’ saddle. I’ve seen too many accidents because of saddles.” 

Kenny said, “Mother laid down that law when we first begged for horses to ride. There was no point in arguing with her. We continued to walk or ride bareback.” 


Chapter 2

Houtz History


Kenny’s Grandfather, David D. Houtz was a noteworthy person in the family of Cora Belle Houtz Sailors. Born in the mid-1800s, he was trained as an educator in a New York state college.   He headed to the Great Plains to seek his fortune in Nebraska. Houtz met and married Mary E. Vice. 

According to Kenny. “My mother Cora was born June 8, 1881, in Nemaha County Nebraska. She had a sister and two brothers.”

“Grandpa moved everyone on to Kansas where they had a farm and built a house called a ‘soddy.’ The walls were made of blocks of cut sod, stacked one on top of the other. The compact building had a packed dirt floor and one window. It was common to have varmints and snakes drop in from the walls or ceiling. Even rattlesnakes! Grandpa later heard about a teaching job out in Colorado and decided to leave the farm for the mining region.”

In 1896 a fire devastated the mining camp of Cripple Creek, Colorado, where around 20,000 residents lived. With the rebuilding of the site, the townsfolk wanted schools and other amenities for their families. 

“Grandpa Houtz was hired as one of the first teachers in the rough-and-tumble town. The  family endured a difficult, month-long trip by covered wagon before they arrived at their destination.”

Kenny continued;  “Grandpa got the teaching job because he was not only trained, he was also a big guy. A tough, towering disciplinarian, Grandpa stood 6’4” and weighed 230-240 pounds. He was hired to straighten out a bunch of students that ranged in age from six to twenty-five. “One of the problems in those days for teachers was the fact that these older boys could go to school as long as they could stand it. Some of them were big and up to no good. This group of mischief makers had already run off several teachers.”

“Those miserable young men were bullies who had been trying to destroy the school system in the community. They had beaten up former teachers, thereby robbing the community of their investment in the education system. The smaller students suffered all types of physical abuse and humiliation at the hands of the older roughnecks as well. Cripple Creek residents were desperate for a way to bring order to the school, so all students could thrive and families would know their children as well as the teachers, would be safe.”

On the first day of school, Mr. Houtz lined everyone up outside the building and made a statement. “I understand several of you older boys have had a lot of fun runnin’ off teachers.”    The big guys smirked.

 “We might as well get this thing straightened out right now.” Houtz paused. “Do any of you think you can run  me off?”

The oldest student stepped forward; a bearded, surly lout, who smiled confidently. 

“Yeah, I think we can,” he sneered at the older man.

Not batting an eye, the teacher took a quick step forward, delivered a swift punch to the solar plexus of the student, and down he went. Flat on his back.  

Rubbing one hand over the other, Houtz surveyed the stunned group; “Is there anybody else?” The other students sucked in their breath and stepped back. Mr. Houtz had no more problems during his tenure at Cripple Creek. The learning process went on to flourish.

Kenny said, “ Grandpa was a teacher who meant business and yet cared about his students. He went on to develop ways to gain control over difficult situations in primitive classroom settings. As a result, his students received a good education and the parents were grateful.”

 “We heard stories of discipline during the years of frontier schools. Common punishments for schoolroom infractions included; twisting an ear, lifting (or pulling the hair) at the nape of the neck or applying a ruler to an outstretched hand. Grandpa Houtz was a well-respected teacher who used common sense in how he maintained classroom order.”

 The whole exercise in behavioral management was not lost on his young daughter Cora. Later in life, she must have reached back into the bag of tricks that her father had developed and pulled out some dandies as she guided her sons. 

“She made it clear to us,” Kenny related, “that expectations would be met at home or in school. You needed to pay attention, be respectful, and do your best. Period.”

Kenny continued. “My mother probably finished out her education at that time in Colorado. When she completed the McGuffey Reader # Six and participated in the common exams, she did well. The exams were very comprehensive and held the students to high standards. The whole business of finishing the McGuffey Reader series was a very big deal and something both Mother and her father were proud of.”  

“After a few years, Grandpa decided to return to Nebraska and teach there.”

 The family left Cripple Creek and ended up in the very southeast corner of Nebraska, in Falls City. He stayed in the classroom until 1905 when he became superintendent of schools in Nebraska. He held that position until he retired in 1920. His sons Elmer and Melvin lived close by, near Verdon. Grandpa purchased a small country store and settled down.