In May 1934, when Sailors was 13, he was playing basketball with his older brother, Bud, an accomplished basketball player. Bud challenged, “Let’s see if you can get a shot up over me.” Bud was five years older and a foot taller; at the time, the way to shoot baskets was to plant both feet firmly on the ground, and shoot from the chest with both hands. That clearly wouldn’t work, so Ken improvised: he leapt into the air and fired the ball toward the basket with one hand. “It probably wasn’t pretty, but I got the shot off, and it went in,” he said years later. “And boy, Bud says: ‘You’d better develop that. That’s going to be a good shot.’ So I started working on it.” — Ken Sailors arguably invented the basketball jump shot in that moment. The innovation was not well received. In college, a coach watched his style and said, “You’ve got to get yourself a good two-hand set shot,” and relegated him to the bench. But Sailors kept working on his shot, and in 1943 led the University of Wyoming to their only N.C.A.A. championship ever. Sailors was named the NCAA Basketball Tournament Most Outstanding Player, and was the unanimous selection as College Basketball Player of the Year, too.
Even with that, the jump shot was not widely used until a Life magazine photographer got a photo of Sailors doing a jump shot in 1946: it shows Sailors high in the air, with nothing between the ball and the basket; every other player is shown with both feet on the floor; they had no defense for Sailors’ move. Still, once Sailors went pro, his coach had no use for the jump shot. “You’ll never go in this league with that shot,” said Dutch Dehnert of the Cleveland Rebels, sending him to the bench. The coach moved on, and Sailors — and his jump shot — got another chance. Even if other players jumped when they shot before Sailors, he brought it to college, and then professional, play. “Sailors started the onehanded jumper,” said pro coach Joe Lapchick in 1965, “which is probably the shot of the present and the future.” DePaul University coach Ray Meyer agreed, telling Sailors, “You were the first I saw with the true jump shot as we know it today.” After playing pro ball for five years, in 1965 Sailors went on to grab a homestead with his wife in Alaska. He ran a guide and outfitting business for 34 years, and then retired back to Wyoming. Kenneth “Kenny” Sailors died January 30, after having a heart attack in December. He was 94.