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Jump shots and faith passed down through the generations

Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield carries on a long tradition started by Wyoming’s Kenny Sailors in the 1940s


Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield fires a jump shot against Oregon Saturday (left), while a <em>Life</em> magazine photographer captures a Kenny Sailors jumper in a game between Wyoming and Long Island in 1946. Photos (Hield) by Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press and (Sailors) University of Wyoming

Jump shots and faith passed down through the generations

Unable to sleep the night before he and his Oklahoma teammates played in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight, senior Buddy Hield read Scripture sent by his mother to calm himself. “I was scared to come out here and let my teammates down,” he said.

The man who “locked in and read” Friday night was locked in Saturday evening, scoring 37 points and leading the Sooners to the Final Four with a comfortable 80-68 win over Oregon.

Oklahoma (a No. 2 seed) joins three other teams that won their way this weekend into the national semifinals next Saturday in Houston: Villanova (also a No. 2 seed) and its team effort featuring no stars, North Carolina and its dominating performance as the only surviving No. 1 seed in the tournament, and Syracuse and its improbable run as a 10th-seeded team.

But leading the charge and giving glory to God is one of the purest shooters in the game: Hield is hitting half his shots this year—including nearly 47 percent of his 3-point attempts—which is better than Stephen Curry’s stats when he played at Davidson.

Just before the halftime buzzer in Saturday’s game, Hield pulled up and drained a jump shot from nearly 30 feet, earning awe from the Anaheim, Calif., crowd and a salute from his hero Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.

“Every time I felt like we were getting ready to do something, [Hield] would jump up and make a shot,” Oregon Coach Dana Altman said.

The jump shot.

This year’s NCAA Tournament is the first one played since the death of the architect of the modern-day jump shot, Kenny Sailors.

Sailors, who died Jan. 30 at age 95, led Wyoming to the 1943 title in the fifth NCAA Tournament ever played. At the time, no one shot the ball like Sailors. Players of the game up to that point shot from the chest with both hands, feet planted.

Called a “virtuoso” with the ball, Sailors invented the jump shot at age 13—during the Depression on the dirt of the Wyoming plains—to get the ball over his older, taller brother. Now all players learn to shoot with a flick of the wrist, jumping with their feet set, shoulders squared.

But more than basketball mattered to Sailors. His granddaughter, Kelly Sailors-Gerlach, quoted him as saying, “At my funeral, I don’t want people saying how wonderful I am, but how great God is.”

Sailors and his wife of 59 years, Marilynne, became Christians during World War II, when he served in the Marines. But it was in the 1960s, after moving to Alaska to become a rancher and wilderness guide, when his faith began to change his life. His son, Dan, called him a “semi-pro theologian” whose “Final Four” was “God, husband, father, U.S. Marine,” with basketball taking a backseat.

Sailors played five seasons of pro basketball after college, and his playing earned him a spot in the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012 (though not yet the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame). In his later years he often talked of the game in the context of relationships—relationships he gained coaching Alaska high schoolers or through conversations that often began with a question about the jump shot.

“That’s why he felt he stayed alive so long, just to point people to Christ,” Sailors-Gerlach told me, adding that many would never have talked to him were it not for his basketball fame. She said he often thought those witnessing opportunities were the reason why he played.

Buddy Hield, at 22, is perhaps too young to realize the big picture associated with his basketball career. Like Sailors, he began playing on courts with makeshift baskets and in Depression-like conditions in the Bahamas with six siblings and no hot water.

One thing is sure: Hield and the Sooners will bring Sailors’ faith to Houston’s NRG Stadium on Saturday. Hield’s mom, Jackie Swann, will be walking around the concourse at halftime, praying off the nerves.

Oklahoma takes on Villanova in Saturday evening’s first semifinal, followed by Syracuse and North Carolina. The winners face each other next Monday for the title.


Andrew Branch Andrew is a World Journalism Institute graduate and a former WORLD correspondent.

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