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Kenny Sailors is one of the most beloved University of Wyoming student-athletes ever, but it still comes as a surprise to him whenever he is given an award from his alma mater.
He should be used to the accolades by now: Point guard for the NCAA 1943 championship Wyoming Cowboys basketball team and tournament most valuable player; three time All-America selection; and having his number 4 Cowboys jersey retired.
His latest achievement is being named the recipient of the UW 2008 Medallion Service Award. The Medallion Service Award, initiated in 1968 but not given annually, recognizes outstanding service and dedication to the university.
Tom Burman, UW director of athletics, sums up Sailors' accomplishments:
"In my mind Kenny Sailors may be the most important UW student-athlete to ever wear the Cowboy or Cowgirl uniform. Many basketball historians credited him with inventing the jump shot. This changed the game of basketball the same way the forward pass changed the sport of football," he says. "Kenny's playing career was interrupted due to World War II, where he served his country with honor and then returned to UW before becoming a professional basketball player. Kenny is a great asset to Laramie and the University of Wyoming."
Sailors smiles modestly when he hears comments such as Burman's, but speaks firmly on the question of the jump shot.
"No one really knows who took the first jump shot, but I worked at developing the shot and made it the shot that players still use today," he says.
Sailors is not too fond of the modern game in which players either slam dunk the ball or shoot a distant three-pointer without driving to the basket. But Sailors' technique called for dribbling toward the basket, elevating an estimated 36 inches off the ground, seemingly freezing in the air while squaring the body and cocking the elbows, then releasing the ball with a flick of the wrist.
"Nobody could block it," he recalls.
Sailors graduated from UW in 1943 with a B.S. degree in education. After a stint in the military, he returned to UW for one year to complete his eligibility. He then went on to play basketball in the new NBA for five years, starting when he was 27, the age at which many players were retiring. He played for various teams including Cleveland, Baltimore and Denver.
But it is not his basketball playing days and serving as an ambassador for UW alone that the Medallion Service Award acknowledges. It is his continued dedication to what he considers his home town of Laramie and also the University of Wyoming.
Sailors came from Hillsdale in Laramie County because his mother wanted him to attend high school in Laramie. He went on to UW hoping to play both football and basketball but could compete in only one sport. Although his tuition was paid by the Elks Club, he still needed money so he worked at the student union. He met his future wife Marilynne Corbin one day at work. Their mutual friend, Stan Hathaway, who would one day be governor of Wyoming, brought her by to introduce the two.
Sailors was a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, and she was in Kappa Kappa Gamma. After many years in Alaska, Marilynne became ill, forcing the couple to leave their work as outfitters and move to Idaho. When she passed away, Sailors returned to Laramie, where all three of their children had been born.
Sailors can be seen at home basketball games studying the Cowboys as they dribble, screen, shoot and play defense. What most fans don't see is how Sailors interacts with the players off the court.
"I never talk to them about how to do things or run certain plays," he says. "I talk to them more about what to expect and how they will be treated on and off the court and how to keep it from bothering them when things don't go well."
He recently played in the Senior Olympics and practices the jump shot, though now he elevates only a few inches off the ground. He dismisses any notion that his days on the court are behind him.
"Of course I still play. I'm only 87 years old," he says laughing.