Kenny Sailors: Father Of Basketball's Jump Shot

Former NBA player Kenny Sailors with his friend Anne Brande at StoryCorps in Laramie, Wyo.

Former NBA player Kenny Sailors with his friend Anne Brande at StoryCorps in Laramie, Wyo. StoryCorps hide caption

itoggle caption StoryCorps
Kenny Sailors takes a jump shot in a college game. i

Hang Time: Kenny Sailors takes a jump shot in a college game. Courtesy of Kenny Sailors hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Kenny Sailors
Kenny Sailors takes a jump shot in a college game.

Hang Time: Kenny Sailors takes a jump shot in a college game.

Courtesy of Kenny Sailors

Anyone watching basketball games when the NBA season begins soon will see something that started with Kenny Sailors: the jump shot. That was in the first half of the 20th century.

Recently, Sailors spoke about how he came to shoot after leaping in the air. It all started, he said, with desperation.

Sailors' older brother was a great basketball player — probably the best their town of Hillsdale, Wyo., had yet seen. He put up a simple hoop in the yard of their farm. And despite the five-year gap between them, he demanded that his younger brother play him.

To shoot over his brother, Kenny Sailors jumped — and shot the ball.

"It probably wasn't very pretty, but I got the shot off," Sailors recalled. "And it went in."

"You'd better develop that," his brother told him. "That's going to be a good shot."

So he practiced it. And when the NBA was formed in 1946, Sailors signed up with the team in Cleveland, then called the Rebels. And in those days, nobody jumped to shoot.

"Everybody had to keep both feet on the floor," Sailors said, "or the coach would take you out of the ballgame."

In a scrimmage before the season started, Sailors unveiled his jump shot. And after the practice was over, his coach, Henry "Dutch" Dehnert had some things to say to him.

"Sailors, where'd you get that leaping one-hander?" he asked.

When Sailors said he had been using it for a long time, the coach had one piece of advice.

"You'll never go in this league with that shot," Dehnert said.

"I thought, boy, my career's over with, right now," Sailors said.

To this day, Sailors gets letters from sports fans asking him about the jump shot. He's careful not to make any claims he can't back up.

Instead, Sailors turns to a quote from Ray Meyer, the longtime DePaul University basketball coach.

"Sailors may not have been the first player to jump in the air and shoot the ball," Meyer said, "but he developed the shot that's being used today."

"That's the way he put it," Sailors said. "And I like that."

Produced for Morning Edition by Nadia Reiman. The senior producer for StoryCorps is Michael Garofalo.

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