Worth Their Weight in Ration Coupons: Wyoming’s 1943 National Championship Team

Or how basketball's first jumpshot helped the University of Wyoming's basketball team win it all in the middle of a World War.
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Seventy years after the fact, it still doesn’t make sense. Basketball is, with all due respect to Indiana and Kentucky, a city game—an insatiable ivy splitting concrete to bloom, and Wyoming's entire population as a state—the smallest in the nation—is only slightly larger than that of Albuquerque, the 57th-largest U.S. city. Only Alaska, which was then years from being a state, is less densely populated. And yet it was Wyoming’s wide open spaces that produced the team of 11 native sons that won the 1943 NCAA Tournament—at the time only a kind-of-big deal—and beat both the NIT Tournament champion and the AAU National Tournament champion, both much bigger deals. The contemporary comparison, in terms of prestige and challenge, would be beating the champion of the Spanish League, then winning the NBA championship, then pummeling the Euroleague champion. There is no real college basketball analogue. And there is no precedent for the University of Wyoming Cowboys doing anything like this.

Of course, both college basketball and the world were very different in 1943; what seems out of place and asterisk-y about Wyoming's accomplishment owes much to that weirdness: the changes to college basketball wrought by World War and a very different culture of basketball, among other subsidiary differences. But it happened.

***

Heading into the 1942-43 season, most of Wyoming’s players already knew what every eligible male in the United States knew: they would soon serve in the military, in any of World War II's various bloody theaters. “I’d already signed up to go into the Marine Corps,” recalled Wyoming guard Ken Sailors in a 1990 interview. “They could call me any time, but fortunately they let me finish the basketball season. They didn’t even let me finish my college year out. The university did graduate me because I was close enough with my hours that they gave us the degree. It was a special ruling or something. It was a great year and a lot of fun. We had a lot on our minds, though. All of us did.”

Sailors, then a junior, was his team’s most explosive star. He was the shortest starter at 5-11, but he has cast the longest historic shadow of any player on the team. The 92-year-old is credited with inventing the modern jump shot.

Which, again: everything was different in 1943. Try to dunk, for instance, and some goon likely tabs you as a showboat and undercuts you. Even the best athletes thought it better, and safer, to stay earthbound. "If your feet left the floor you were a freak,” Sailors said. “You were on the bench. It's hard for people to believe."

As a young teenager living on a ranch in Wyoming, though, Sailors had no choice but to jump. Otherwise, he’d never get a shot off against his 6-5 older brother. “I got to jumpin’ in the air and throwin’ the ball,” he said in a 2010 interview with the University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center. “Now I don’t imagine that was much of a jump shot in those days.” By the time he was playing varsity for Wyoming, his shot—still unnamed, although press reports of the time called it “the shotput-type shot”—had developed into an unstoppable weapon.

Sailors has said that he can’t recall his jump shot ever being blocked in college or the pros; no rival was quick enough to rise and seriously contest his attempts, especially after a dribble feint he used to keep defenders off balance. The shot became the cornerstone of a career that included three All-American honors and consecutive National Player of the Year awards.

It helped that Sailors had, in Wyoming college coach Everett Shelton, one of the nation's best coaches and a basketball futurist whose innovations helped change the game as much as Sailors' did. Shelton embraced Sailors' alien jump shot in an era defined by the two-handed set shot. A Kansan, Shelton cut his coaching teeth on the AAU basketball circuit, which attracted the best players of the day, as sponsoring companies could offer far better salaries than the fledgling pro leagues. Shelton's emphasis was man-to-man defense and development of the five-man weave.

These innovations were furthered by one of Shelton's players on the Sterling Milk AAU team out of Oklahoma City. That was Henry Iba, who would later coach Oklahoma State to two national titles and lead the U.S. national team to two Olympic Gold Medals. Shelton's basketball bloodline is still alive through Iba’s coaching disciples: Bobby Knight, Eddie Sutton, Jack Hartman and Don Haskins and, by extension, Nolan Richardson, Gene Keady, Bill Self and Lon Kruger. In Wyoming, in 1943, basketball was beginning to become basketball.

Even if no one quite recognized or understood it yet. “Cowboys vs. Indians always signified shooting, scalping and thrilling action and tonight's combat between Wyoming, N.C.A.A. titleholder and St. John's, National Invitation basketball potentates, for the benefit of the Red Cross in the Garden, promises exceptional hoop hoopla,” scribe Jim Jennings wrote in his preview of Wyoming's NIT final against the St. John's Redmen. “Of course, the shooting will be confined to baskets and the scalping deftly done by ticket speculators since all reserved seats have been sold and the charity should receive about $26,000. Joe Lapchick's Apaches from Brooklyn are favored to win by five points.” Both St. John's and the oddsmakers had no idea what they were up against.

***

Sailors said a major goal of Shelton’s offensive system was to open up the middle of the court and promote drives to the basket through the use of picks. The method proved especially effective against teams from the East.

“They didn’t know how to cope with those inside and outside screens,” he recalled. “They’d never run into that sort of thing before. Their game was basically what they called ‘give and go.’ They’d give the ball to someone and go for the basket. Or grab the guy’s waist who’s guarding him and give him a pull and then go.”

Wyoming’s style was pivotal in routing previously undefeated St. Francis College—a small Brooklyn-based liberal arts school that plays today in the low-profile NEC—at Madison Square Garden in December, 1942. The Times, in its recap, was inspired to make some dubiously tasteful but undeniably timely references. “Wyoming height controlled the airlanes and Kenny Sailors’ stutter-dribble took care of the ground attack in a one-man blitzkrieg. This Sailors, already being boomed for All-America, shakes off defensive men like Rommel outrunning Il Duce’s dupes on the Tripoli highway.”

Wyoming lost only a single game against a college team that season, a 43-33 decision against Duquesne. They also lost 41-33 in the semifinals of the 38-team National AAU Tournament to Denver American Legion, a bunch of grown-ass men who’d been really, really good in college. Still, Wyoming could take some solace in the fact it had already beaten the eventual National AAU Champion, Phillips 66, twice during the exhibition season.

Otherwise, the Cowboys had beaten nearly 30 teams by an average of 20 points, despite playing only nine games at home. Fellow Wyoming native James Weir, a 6-5 forward, joined Sailors on an All-American team. So did 6-7 center Milo Komenich, who hailed from Gary, Indiana. They led Wyoming to the Big 7 conference title, earning one of eight spots in the NCAA Tournament and a trip to the west regional in Kansas City.  

Wyoming first knocked off Oklahoma by three points, then rallied to beat Texas by four. In this comeback, the Cowboys exploited a rule that provided the best opportunity to manufacture three quick points in an era before three-point shots—after a team made the first of two free throws, it had the option of shooting the second free throw or inbounding the ball, which afforded a new possession and another field goal attempt. The tactic could be used when a team wanted to burn extra time—this was years before the implementation of the shot clock—or needed points in a hurry. Wyoming used it to do both.

The Texas win propelled Wyoming into the national title game on March 30, 1943 at Madison Square Garden. Wyoming hardly knew anything about its opponent, except that they were called the Georgetown Hoyas. There were no tapes. No scouting reports. As far as Sailors knew, all Coach Shelton had done to prepare the Hoyas was ask another coach for the lowdown on Georgetown’s All-American center Johnny Mahnken.

The ignorance didn't hurt the Cowboys much. The game featured seven ties and seven lead changes. Georgetown went up 31-26 with seven minutes left, but Wyoming—led by Sailors’ 16 points and strong play off the bench by guard James Collins—outscored the Hoyas 15-3 down the stretch to take the title by a score of 46-34. Sailors was named the tournament’s most valuable player. "Even if he hadn't tallied a point," a New York Times reporter wrote, "he would have been worth his weight in ration coupons for his all-around value to his team."

***

Most of the nation, and certainly the New York media, was surprised at Wyoming’s overall depth and talent. Still, this was just the NCAA Tournament. The eight-team National Invitational Tournament ran simultaneous to the NCAAs, took place entirely in Madison Square Garden and was the most glamorous postseason tournament in the nation.

Creighton was favored heading into the 1943 NIT, but was upset by Washington & Jefferson—which today plays its games in Division III—in the first round. St. John’s took advantage, surging past Rice, Fordham and Toledo to the title. [It's worth noting that Illinois, ranked no. 1 throughout the season, would have been favored entering the NCAA or NIT tourneys. The program did not participate in either tourney because the draft had taken away three of its starters after the regular season, but its players felt confident they would have beaten Wyoming].

After St. John’s NIT tourney win, the nation's media capital naturally declared its hometown heroes the best team in the land. Which is where homerism and charity came together to bring our champions into the same ring.

Coach Shelton “got fed up with those New York papers making the statements they were making, kind of poking fun at Wyoming and saying we couldn’t hope to beat the great Eastern teams, especially St. John’s,” Sailors recalled. “How on earth can a little old team out of Wyoming—a lot of people didn’t even know where Wyoming was—how on earth could they beat the great St. John’s?”

Shelton had an idea as to an answer. He approached Ned Irish, president of the Garden and eventual founder of the New York Knicks, and proposed a game pitting the NIT and NCAA champs against each other. Irish liked the idea, and scheduled it for April 1 as a wartime benefit. Proceeds were slated for the American Red Cross, and Irish went about promoting it with all the shamelessness that made him one of the sport's greatest marketers. When Wyoming had arrived in the city for the NCAA Final, Irish outfitted each player with a 10-gallon hat that had to be worn around town.

St. John’s top star was sophomore Harry Boykoff, a 6-9 center who’d earned the first of three consecutive All-American honors and was becoming New York City’s first superstar big man. He would later became the NBA’s highest paid player with the Boston Celtics. St. John’s also had an effective point guard in Hy Gotkin, but he was only 5-8, and dribbled like this, which suggests a player who might've had a hard time in a more sophisticated era of basketball.

It was a huge draw: a sell-out at the Garden, and a big enough deal that 2,000 fans jammed into the Cowboys' home court in Laramie to listen to the game on radio. Wyoming’s governor, along with its U.S. Senators and a U.S. congressman, joined more than 18,300 fans at Madison Square Garden to take in the game.

Sailors didn’t recall any fans booing Wyoming. Indeed, there were more supporters than he expected.  “I suppose a lot of those were enemies of St. John’s basketball.”

As against Georgetown, Wyoming’s center Milo Komenich played a huge role in slowing down the opponent’s star center. Komenich fouled out, though, some time before regulation ended with the score deadlocked at 46. In overtime, Wyoming native Floyd Volker came off the bench to score five of Wyoming’s six overtime points. Sailors didn’t need to score as much as he had, but excelled in playmaker mode.

“Sailors has thin legs, wide shoulders and biceps and long arms of a heavy-weight wrestler,” Cy Kritzer of The Sporting News wrote afterward. “He dribbled up the floor with one hand, using the other to direct his teammates. If it can be said a man has beautiful hands, Sailors has them. Once at quarter-court, he used those hands like a virtuoso, and the Wyoming team responded to every move.” Wyoming held St. John’s to just one point in overtime to pull out a 52-47 win.

“We didn’t jump and run and yell and holler, like they do today,” Sailors said. Their coach, after all, had expected them to win all along. After the game, Sailors recalls Shelton, a Marine in World War I, saying “Now calm down, boys. You did it. But let’s just calm down.’”

***

Nobody outside the Cowboys clubhouse proved capable of taking Shelton's advice.  

If the players wanted distraction from their looming military service, the next week provided plenty of it. On April 2, Wyoming congressman Frank Barrett organized a night out for his Cowboys. They were treated to dinner and a visit to "Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe" nightclub in the basement of the Paramount Theatre. The club was known for its vaudeville revues and showgirls that the club promoted as "Billy Rose's Long-stemmed beauties."

This club “was the big thing in New York in those days,” Sailors recalled in the 1990 interview. “And they had everything for us. They even had the pretty girls settin’ by us. Everything but liquor.” In the 2010 interview, Sailors elaborated: “I don’t know where he got the girls. They weren’t dressed skimpy or anything like that. They had nice clothes. Ol’ Frank Barrett—he was quite a guy.”

The players also got treated to a Fred Waring big band concert and a trip to the Statue of Liberty. Money wasn’t an issue, Sailors recalled in 1990. “We had people sendin’ us money and everything. We were getting telegrams from Lions Clubs, and Rotary Clubs and business people and they’d send money to us, you know, ‘Have more fun, enjoy yourselves!’ It was kinda ridiculous!"

And then it was back to Wyoming, for more of the same. “We traveled [home] on that fast Zephyr train. That’s the only way we’d go in those days," Sailors remembered 47 years later. "We got off at that depot there in Laramie why, of course, you just—the whole town was there. And the band was there and the fire wagons were there, and they put us up on the fire wagon and there was cars honkin’, you’d thought everybody in town had got married! It was a riot! They let school out for a couple, three days, and businesses closed down. Everything was on the town; drinks were free—for everybody but us, of course! And I never paid for a haircut, I don’t think after that, or a lunch or anything I wanted. You go in any store it was kind of embarrassing—they give it to you!”

Of course, the celebration didn’t last. James Weir, the Cowboys’ crack power forward, didn’t even make it home. He left for his military service from New York City. In the following weeks, most of the other players also dispersed to various stations across the nation. Sailors left for the Marine Corps Base in Quantico, Virginia. He would serve about three years and work as an officer on a troop transport ship on the Pacific and Indian oceans.

For a few months in 1944, Sailors trained at the Marine Corps Base in San Diego. He joined the base’s basketball team, along with future Hall of Famer Joe Fulks. By this time, it’s safe to assume Sailors’ opponents—which included the University of Southern California and Dow Chemical’s AAU team—knew all about his new-fangled jump shot. It didn’t matter. He still did his thing, and his shot—"probably the shot of the present and future," Lapchick said in 1965—remained as unstoppable to his contemporaries as Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s sky hook would be to his. Sailors' team didn’t lose once in 35 games.


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