Arguably the most important player in the history of basketball died over the weekend.
Kenny Sailors did not dominate his sport like Babe Ruth did, and in fact is not even on the list of the best 50 NBA players compiled here. However, he changed his game as Ruth did.
Ruth started intentionally hitting home runs, teaching players to stop treating a home run as a lucky mistake due to swinging slightly too low to accidentally lift the ball instead of hitting the perfect line drive.
Scoring exploded in baseball, and Ruth became the greatest player ever because he was also the strongest player and thus able to take advantage of the new strategy he created.
In The Ultimate Hoops Guide: Marquette University, I noted scoring improved over the years with the shot clock and the three-point shot, but none of these rule changes came close to the impact of Sailors’ invention.
Thanks to a big brother lording it over him, Sailors learned to jump while shooting the basketball. Yes, until then all shots were set shots. Watch a game today and see how many shots would not be blocked if the shooter kept his feet set for a shot. You could throw a ball out to half court and put up a shot now and then, but the 30-second shot clock could not be used because it would take a couple of minutes to throw enough passes to get off a shot.
While the Pac-12 can be credited with eliminating the jump ball after every basket to enable good teams to score 40 points in a game, six of the first national champions failed to score 50 points in a game.
Sailors led Wyoming into the 1943 title game against the big Georgetown squad—and used his invention to score 16 points and give the Cowboys their only national title, 46-34.
He then went to serve in World War II before coming back to finish his college career in 1947 and then play in the pros. In his first year in the pros he was one of only nine players to shoot at least 31 percent on field goals—getting shots off was just that tough. By four years later he was in the top four in the NBA in both points (17.3) and assists (4.0) per game, according to Basketball Reference.
By then every player on every team had grown up copying Sailors’ jump shot, and Bradley scored eight more points than any other team had ever scored in a championship game and still lost 71-68. Two years later a Kansas team all shooting jump shots scored 80 points in the title game, and the rest of the 1950s teams took off scoring 80-points plus a game.
The defenses slowly adjusted and eventually got scores back closer to 70 a game, but Sailors’ invention almost doubled basketball scoring.
While he did not have the personal talent to dominate the game like Ruth did, he ultimately had the same impact by making every player learned to play the game in a different way that led to more scoring and many more fans.
Rest in peace, and thank you for your service as part of the greatest generation. We are running out of heroes from that era.