What a strange season it was. The NCAA and Red Cross Champion that year almost didn’t field a team. It was distracted by a divorce affecting the team midway through the season. It also showcased a player who would introduce a shot to the nation that would change basketball forever. The #1 team at the end of the regular season didn’t play in either the NIT or NCAA when their top players went off to fight a war at the end of the regular season. Like we said, it was a season like no other.
The Wyoming Cowboys were coached by Everett Shelton, who came to Laramie in 1939. He turned the Wyoming Basketball program around quickly. He won the Mountain States Conference in his second year and earned Wyoming’s first appearance in the NCAA Tournament in 1941. They lost in the first round. Despite a 15-5 record in 1941-42, the Cowboys finished second in the conference, and failed to be invited back. He had a strong team returning in 1942, but the outbreak of World War II put everything in flux. Many in the administration and on the faculty of the University of Wyoming felt the basketball season should be cancelled, and that the young men on the team be encouraged to join the war effort. It wasn’t until just before the season was to open that Shelton was given permission to field a team.
11 of his 15 players were from Wyoming. Two were from Arizona, one from Nebraska and one from Gary, Indiana. The starters were dominated by the Cowboy State. Of the starters, only center Milo Komenich (Gary, Indiana) was not from Wyoming. Guard Ken Sailors (Hillsdale), forward Floyd Volker (Casper), forward Jim Weir (Green River), and guard Jimmy Collins (Laramie) were all homegrown. “Most of us came off farms and ranches, had never been outside Wyoming before.” said the star of the team, Kenny Sailors.
Scheduling was difficult at this late date, resulting in only 9 home games for his team. He sprinkled in many military and professional teams to his schedule. He took his team back East early in the season, leading to a thrashing at the hands of Duquesne in their 4th game. They won the rest of their games on the swing, and completely dominated their competition in the Mountain States Conference. Their only other loss during the regular season was to a Denver Legion team.
Their 28-2 record and Mountain States Championship earned them a berth in the NCAA Tournament and a trip to the West Regionals at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City, Missouri. They advanced out of the regional with two narrow victories over Oklahoma (53-50) and Texas (58-54). That led to a second trip to the East Coast and a showdown with East Regional Champ Georgetown in the Finals at New York City’s Madison Square Garden.
Georgetown was as much of a Cinderella as Wyoming. They had knocked out George Mikan and DePaul in the East Regional Final in a huge upset, 53-49.
The game began as a dogfight, with neither team able to take control in the first half. The teams were tied at 2-2, 4-4, 8-8, 16-16, 20-20, and ultimately 22-22 at the break.
Georgetown began the second half on a nine to 4 run to open up a 31-26 lead. The Cowboys responded by scoring the next eleven points and were never again threatened. Kenny Sailors ran through the Hoyas, and Wyoming’s defense clamped down on Georgetown. The Cowboys closed the game on a 20-3 run in their convincing 46-34 triumph.
Winning the NCAA Tournament was not the end of the 1943 campaign for the boys from Laramie.
The National Invitational Tournament (NIT) was completed at the Garden the night before the NCAA tournament final. St. John’s won. At the time nobody was sure which was the most prestigious event. Ev Shelton proposed a showdown game between the two tournament champions. Madison Square Garden agreed to host the event with all proceeds going to the American Red Cross.
More than 18,000 fans showed up to see the contest. Most felt that the NIT Champion St. John’s Redmen were the better team. The game was dominated by the big men. Wyoming’s Komenich battled St. John’s 6’ 9” Harry Boykoff. The first half was back and forth, but the Cowboys pulled out to a six point lead late in the second. Unfortunately, Komenich fouled out with just over a minute to go. The Redmen rallied and tied the game in the final seconds, forcing the game into overtime. Without their big center, it looked hopeless for the Cowboys. But then forward Jimmy Weir took over. Two hook shots and a free throw from Jimmy, and a defense that completely shut down the bigger Redmen and the magic season was complete with their 52-47 overtime win.
The celebration was short lived. This was 1943 and a war was on. Jimmy Weir didn’t even return to Laramie. He immediately traveled to Georgia and officer training school at Ft. Benning. Within weeks Kenny Sailors was a United States Marine. Shelton decided to cancel the 1943-1944 season.
It might seem strange, but the ramifications of the 1942-43 season were lasting. The Red Cross Game would be contested at the conclusion of the next two seasons, with the NCAA Champion also winning both times. This elevated the prestige of the NCAA Tournament, and accelerated the NCAA Tournament supplanting the NIT as the premier college basketball test.
Shelton would continue to coach in Laramie until 1959, compiling an overall record of 328-201 with five more appearances in the “Big Dance”. His divorce during the season almost ended his career, but keeping it low key limited the distraction. He would coach at Sacramento State after Wyoming, and win 117 more games before ending his coaching career following the 1969 season. He would pass away in 1974 at age 75.
The most important result of the season was by star guard Ken Sailors.
Ken Sailors was named first team All-American, and College Basketball Player of the Year following the season. He was also the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament. He scored 16 points in the Title Game, but none of those are his lasting legacy. His legacy hinges on the shot he introduced to the basketball world that year.
The 5′ 10” Sailor is widely credited with inventing the jump shot. He developed the jump shot at home competing against his older brother, Bud. Bud was much taller than Kenny who at the time was a 5’ 6” 13 year old. “One day, I just dribbled up to him and stopped and jumped as high as I could. So I shot the ball, I don’t know how, maybe I just threw it at the basket. But nevertheless, it went in.” His brother’s response was “Kenny that’s a good shot, if you can develop it.”
Bobby Knight said it best, “Nothing has ever changed a sport like the jump shot changed basketball, nobody in my lifetime has done anything to raise the sport to the level of popularity that he did.” He’s talking about Kenny Sailors. Sailors would live to be 95, passing away in Laramie in 2016.
The one asterisk to Wyoming’s unprecedented season is the fact that they were not able to face the #1 ranked team in the country, the Illinois Illini. Illinois was the Big 10 Champions, and completed their season at 17-1. They dominated the Big 10 so completely that four of the 5 All-Conference selections were Fighting Illini (the fifth member of the All-Conference team was none other than Northwestern’s Otto Graham!). The problem was three of their starters were drafted into the United States Army and would not be available for either the NIT or NCAA Tournaments. Illinois coach Doug Mills decided to forego post-season play. Was Illinois better than Wyoming? Since they never played each other, and had no common opponents, it’s a tough comparison. A minor sacrifice to the World War.