The Origins of the Jump Shot
Eight Men Who Shook the World of Basketball
University of Nebraska Press
This fascinating look at the athletes who changed basketball by jumping into the air and creating, when such a thing was taboo, is about sport and competition, but most of all it is about what Christgau describes as the spirit of originality. I couldn't put it down.-Rick Telander
"Basketball," the American People's Encyclopedia says, "may dispute baseball's claim as the national game of the U.S., because it is the only such game that is wholly native American in origin . . ."
And since James Naismith invented the game with peach-baskets in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891, the introduction of the jump shot stands as the game's most important change. Where did the remarkable shot come from? Who were its originators?
One of the earliest shooters was Kenny Sailors. He was born in Nebraska in 1923, and at an early age moved with his mother and older brother Bud to a farm on the bleak Wyoming prairie east of Cheyenne. There, the family scratched out a living on a small farm during the depths of the Depression. "Boys," Cora Belle Sailors directed her two sons during frigid winters, "go out and get some fuel." That meant either cow chips gathered off the prairie, or roadside pieces of rubber tire that would bum with a fierce heat. Cora Sailors also instilled in her two sons a curious combination of fatalism and determination. "Lord," she would end the prayers at the supper table, "not my will, but Yours." Then she would lecture them. "It doesn't make any difference if you get knocked down seven times. You get back up."
By early 1934, at six-five Bud Sailors was one of the tallest people anybody on the prairie around Cheyenne had ever seen. At the end of his junior year at Hillsdale High, his coach loaned him a school ball to practice with over the summer. Bud nailed a hoop to the side of their farm windmill, and he and his little brother Kenny, four years younger and a foot short than Bud, began fierce one-on-one games.
Bud's strategy was merely to sit back and wait until Kenny tried to shoot, then slap the ball back in his little brother's face. His mother's homily about perseverance fresh in his mind, Kenny was soon taking his first jump shots at the windmill basket in May of 1934. They were desperate, leaping efforts to try to avoid having the ball batted away by his towering brother. Eventually, the shot became unstoppable, against tall men or short, and Kenny Sailors went from high school straight to the University of Wyoming, where he became an All American and one of the leaders of the 1943 NCAA champs. His jump shots in the finals against Georgetown are considered the first ones ever taken in Madison Square Garden.
After the war, Kenny was signed by Cleveland in the old ABL. From 1946 to 1951, he played with five different professional teams, including the original Denver Nuggets. He was consistently among the leading scorers in professional basketball. In the early 60s, Joe Lapchick wrote, "Hank Luisetti and Kenny Sailors have to be the two players who most influenced the game of basketball." Others called him the father of the jump shot, and after he moved to a remote log cabin in Alaska to work as a hunting guide, he did his best to at least look like a patriarch as he aged and his face became leathery. Still, when sportswriters pressed him to answer if he was in fact the inventor of the jump shot, he would only scoff and tell them, "How would I know if I was the first one? Maybe Naismith himself did it a time or two."
Kenny Sailors still lives and guides in Alaska, and he is one of eight pioneer basketball players featured in John Christgau's THE ORIGINS OF THE JUMP SHOT: Eight Men Who Shook the World of Basketball. The others are:
- In 1944, in the third quarter of a see-saw battle between the
two Minnesota Iron Range towns of Brainerd and Bemidji, guard Myer "Whitey" Skoog of Brainerd leaped instinctively
to put up a shot over Bemidji's towering center. It was five years
before he dared shoot the bizarre shot again, as an All American
with the University of Minnesota. The shot eventually took him
all the way to the old Minneapolis Lakers and several world
- John "Mouse" Gonzales, a lightweight basketball
player from Lowell High in San Francisco, threw up his first jump
shot in the old Japanese YMCA on Buchanan Street in San Francisco
one night in October of 1942. Gonzales, who later changed his
name to Burton, eventually played for San Francisco State University.
San Francisco old timers, including former Bear coaches
Rene Herrerias and Pete Newell, insist he was the first jump shooter
on the West Coast.
- Bud Palmer, a gangling and skinny 6'4" forward at
Phillips-Exeter Academy in New England, began experimenting with
his jump shot in 1939 in the same gym John Knowles made famous
in his novel A Separate Peace. The shot became Palmer's
trademark at Princeton, and later with the world champion New
York Knicks. Not even Palmer's later career as a network
sports announcer would match his jump-shot contribution to basketball.
- His full name was Davage "Dave" Minor, but
Gary, Indiana sportswriters called him "The Wheelhorse of
Steel City." He began shooting the first jumpers seen around
the Great Lakes in December of 1937 in his high school gym in
Gary. By 1941, the shot was so unstoppable he used it to take
the Froebel High School Blue Devils all the way to the
Final Four of the Indiana State Tournament, the mother of them
all. Eventually, he starred with the old Oakland Bittners of the AAU, and he was one of the first blacks signed in the NBA.
- Jumpin' Joe Fulks came from the tiny town of Birmingham
along the Tennessee River in western Kentucky in the 1930s. Now
submerged beneath the waters of Kentucky Lake, the town was the
site of Fulks's earliest jump shots using a discarded basketball
filled with sawdust. That shot lifted him from Kentucky obscurity
to world fame as a high-scoring Philadelphia Warrior in
the late '40s. He held the NBA's single game scoring record of
63 points for a decade before Elgin Baylor broke it with a 73
point night, and then Wilt Chamberlain produced his 100 point
miracle. The so-called "Babe Ruth of Basketball," Fulks
was haunted all his life by alcoholism, which led to his murder
in Kentucky in 1976. Because of the difficulties of his life and
his tragic death, he is the most forgotten sports legend of our
- Johnny Adams came out of Depression-era, share-cropping
poverty, yet his first flat jump shots--in 1935 in a cracker-box
gym with a low ceiling in Beebe, Arkansas--led to his recruitment
by the Arkansas Razorbacks and an eventual appearance in
the 1941 NCAA Final Four. "Who was the first jump shooter?"
sportscaster Curt Gowdy asks. "Coaches, broadcasters--every
year at the Final Four, we stand around and argue about it."
Gowdy played against Johnny Adams in the 1941 NCAA tournament,
and he insists, "It was Johnny Adams."
- Belus Van Smawley came from the Appalachian foothills in western North Carolina. When Belus was 13, his father bought a small farm two miles south of the village of Ellenboro, a half mile from an abandoned railroad depot along the old Southern Line. In that abandoned depot, the young boys of Ellenboro improvised a peach-basket gym to play in during inclement weather, and in the fall of 1934, Belus used his incredible jumping ability--developed by leaping up to touch high tree limbs while on his farm chores--to improvise a shot that no one had ever seen before. Off a dribble, he would stop suddenly, then with his back half to the basket leap high into the air, twisting himself to face the basket as he rose. It was a shot that would eventually make Belus Smawley one of the stars of the early NBA.
THE ORIGINS OF THE JUMP SHOT is for all basketball junkies who, wearing slick jerseys or in pickup games in the street, may have shot jumpers themselves and who now wonder who it was that changed the game of basketball so dramatically. It is also a book for a larger market of readers who will appreciate a dramatic narrative that is about hardship, fierce independence, and the origins of creativity.