A Pen Pal Friend of Mine, and Basketball Legend, Has Passed -- Who Said White Men Can't Jump?

When I was a little kid, I became obsessed with basketball. I'd go to the rec center and play most days, even if it was rainy weather or I had basketball practices. I had T-shirts with various basketball players on them -- usually Lakers players or Pete Maravich. One day I had a substitute teacher in 10th grade. I was wearing the warm-up shirt of the JV team I played on and he was asking me about the schools team. He said, "A good friend of mine played for the Boston Celtics." My eyes about popped out of my head, as I wondered if it were Bob Cousy, Bill Russell, John Havlicek. The possibilities were endless. He said, "You probably never heard of him. His name is Ken Sailors."

Well, since I was obsessed with the sport, I had read every book I could about the old-timers that played decades before Jordan, Bird, and Magic. I said, "Wow. He's the first guy that ever did a jump shot in a game." (before he was making jump shots in the early 40s, everyone shot with both feet on the ground). His photo in Life Magazine was the first ever that showed a basketball player in the air (take that, Dr. J !)

That substitute teacher was there the next day and gave me his phone number and address. In those days, just calling somebody that lived 30 minutes away was "long distance" and expensive. This was in Laramie, Wyoming. So, I wrote him a letter asking for his autograph, and we had an interesting correspondence. I asked why he only played 3 years in the NBA when he was a good player. He told me about how it didn't pay the way the players make money now. One endorsement he got was from a prune juice company, which also supplied him with as much as he wanted for free.

He was 5'10" and had to jump to shoot over his much taller, older brother. He explained that's how he developed the shot. It reminded me of the time I met Laker Jamaal Wilkes at the Miramar Bass. He had a weird outside shot, as he tried to shoot over his taller sister. Listening to him talk about that story, after I rode my bike 7 miles carrying a poster and 8 basketball cards (all of which he signed), was thrilling.

Kenny led the University of Wyoming to the NCAA championship and was named player of the year in 1943 and 46. He also made the Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame and like Shaquille O'Neal, there are plans for a statue to be erected in his hometown gym (they already have his jersey hanging from the rafters -- the only one ever retired there).

The last time he wrote me (approximately 31 years ago), he told me about the huge ranch he owned. He gave tours and took people on hiking and fishing trips. He said I was welcome anytime.

Hearing that he died today really shook me up. Sure, he was 95 and lived a great life, but still. I looked up some stuff about his life. His wife of 46 years died years ago. He had a daughter that died at age 5. He has a son, grandkids, great grandkids, and even a great, great grandchild.

I didn't realize his college basketball career was interrupted by flying a bomber in the war. So many great athletes in that era served our country (local legends Ted Williams and Jerry Coleman come to mind).

I like to think he's at that big basketball court in the sky...using that jump shot to score over Wilt "the stilt" Chamberlain.

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Tags: Boston Celtics, Jamaal Wilkes, Kenny Sailors, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Ted Williams, Wilt Chamberlain, jump shot

Comment by Josh Board on February 4, 2016 at 5:20pm

Thanks for the kind words, Sam. I too, was bummed about Maravich passing. I read his book. Turns out...he should've never even lived that long. His heart was missing one of the valves or something!

Here's the best Pete Maravich story about autographs you've never heard before. So, I became friends with Stu Lantz, while in high school. He's a former NBA player, who now broadcasts for the Lakers. He was a counselor at my high school, and his son Todd was an amazing basketball player at a competing school. He would come once a week to talk to athletes, and I'd have him sign all the basketball cards I had (this was the mid-80s). He asked if he could have his rookie card. I gave it to him, and he asked me to sign it (the first "autograph" I was ever asked to sign....hopefully not the last!). Luckily for me, it was the year Topps made their basketball cards a lot bigger in the late '60s. Anyway, we would talk about autographs. And he told me after games, they'd be signing so many, and standing there for an hour. Then the next day coming to practice, they'd see a lot of them on the ground. So it made the players less likely to sign, knowing that they don't even care about them. And on airplanes, if they were ever asked to sign autographs, they'd sign the other players names. Maravich would sign it "stu lantz" and Lantz would sign "Pistol Pete."  He always wondered if anybody ever noticed, or years later, they'd see that the signatures were different.

In one of The Doors books, Jim Morrison supposedly signed a few autographs with the names of these poets he loved (like Lord Byron). I'd just love to come across one of those. You know an old lady is going to insist Jim signed it, but nobody will want to buy it, because it's not his name. But I will!!!!!

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