I’m a big fan of University of Wyoming basketball. I began going to games about 22 years ago, when I first started dating my husband, Mike. He’s had season tickets to watch the Pokes since, well, about forever.
It shouldn’t surprise me, this love of the sport. I was a basketball cheerleader in high school. My mother is a huge sports fan and her father, Floyd Foreman, was a coach at Laramie High School.
At the “Border War” basketball game (Colorado State vs UW) on January 30th, I shared a moment of silence with all the fans in attendance to honor UW basketball great, Kenny Sailors, who had passed away that very morning at the age of 95.
For the rest of this season, the Cowboy men’s basketball team is wearing a commemorative patch, with Sailor’s number 4 in the center, on their jerseys.
The New York Times published a big story about Kenny. You can read it here.
Why all the fuss over this one guy?
JUMP SHOT INNOVATION
Kenny Sailors is credited with creating the one-handed jump shot, a move that helped him lead his team on to win a NCAA Basketball Championship in 1943. This is the shot that got basketball players off the ground and led to every bit of “hang time” we witness today.
He claims he developed the shot by necessity, while playing backyard hoops with his much-taller brother, Bud. In a 2008 National Public Radio interview Kenny said, “The good Lord must have put in my mind that if I’m going to get up over this big bum so I can shoot, I’m going to have to jump.”
But the funny thing is, a lot of people tried to discourage Kenny from using the shot.
My grandfather, who was Kenny’s coach in high school, was one of them. Sailors recalled Coach Foreman saying, “Where’d you get that queer shot?”
Only UW coach Everett Shelton encouraged Kenny to develop his shot, with obviously good result.
After college, Kenny played in the precursor to the NBA. Again--this time at the pro level--the coaches tried to discourage his odd shot. One of them even said, “You’ll never go in this league with that shot.”
It reminds me of something that Howard Aiken, American physicist and pioneer in computing, once said: “Don’t worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you’ll have to ram them down people’s throats.”
You see, the two-handed set shot was the norm. Players kept their feet on the ground. It’s just the way things were done.
So we remember Kenny because he reacted to a challenge by creating something new. But even more impressive in my mind, is how he persisted even when he was told his shot was wrong, queer, a no-go.
I ask myself, what does it take for a young guy to not back off and stick with the known. To not think to himself, Hey, they’re the coaches, the experts, I guess they know best.
Courage, I suppose. Tenacity, to be sure. Probably a measure of belief in yourself.
And where is the line between tenacity and stubbornness?
And what does all this have to do with writing?
INNOVATION, COURAGE & TENACITY IN THE SPORT OF WRITING
We have lots of similar stories in the literary world.
Spy/Author/First Woman Pro
Take Aphra Behn, female author of Oroonoko, or the History of the Royal Slave. This tome was an antislavery novel written in 1688 and based on her experiences as a spy in Surinam for King Charles II. Behn also wrote 18 plays and is considered to be the first professional female author in England.
How many naysayers (Women can’t write!) did Behn encounter in her life? Yet she stuck with it for all those years.
American author Stephen Crane had had enough of Romantic fiction and its escapist tendencies when he wrote what is called the first Naturalistic novel in America--The Red Badge of Courage--in 1895. Whereas previous writers had painted wartime stories with a grandiose brush, usually from the point of view of military strategists and generals, Crane told the story from the point of view of a young Civil War recruit and spared no gory details.
Critics and genteel readers of the time did not take well to this shift. U.S. General Alexander McClurg even suggested it was unpatriotic.
Can’t you just imagine Crane’s friends saying something like, “Stephen, you’re only twenty years old. You’ve never been to war. What makes you think you can write about it? Besides, it’s so ugly!”
Yet Crane made the leap, believed in himself and his story, and changed the literature of war for all time.
After Jeanette Walls wrote her bestselling memoir, The Glass Castle, she decided she wanted to write about her mother’s childhood. But as she talked with her mother, and delved into her family’s history, the story that begged to be written was about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith.
The problem—the wall that Walls had to find a way to leap up and over—was that Lily had died when Walls was only eight years old. She had very little first-hand knowledge of her grandmother.
So Walls shot over that obstacle and wrote a “true-life novel,” in which she “… saw the book more in the vein of an oral history, a retelling of stories handed down by my family through the years, and undertaken with the storyteller’s traditional liberties.”
She wrote Half Broke Horses in first person, pulled from her imagination to fill in details and changed some names to guard privacy. She let the story take the lead, even if it was a genre-bending thing to do.
I can’t say if her editor, publisher or fellow-writer husband looked askance at Wall’s decisions, but I’m betting she had plenty of what-the-heck-am-I-doing? moments in the creation of that book.
Note: There’s a great discussion on True-Life Novels (a.k.a. “Faction”) on author Mary Carroll Moore’s blog here.
WHO SAYS WRITERS AREN’T COURAGEOUS?
You and I may never create firsts in our writing careers (who knows?), as these writers did, but we can still emulate their courage, tenacity and belief in themselves and their stories.
So today, I pay tribute to Kenny Sailors. I take inspiration from his life in sports and apply the lessons to my writing life.
Like Kenny, we have to learn how to jump, to get up over our limitations and challenges.
Like Kenny, we have to find that sweet spot between tenacity and stubbornness and trust ourselves when we hit on something right.
Like Kenny, we have to have the courage to be different, even when the world raises an eyebrow at us. And when a critique of our writing says, this should be changed, but our gut says that's the way it has to be, we need to hold to our own truth.
Rest in peace, Kenny Sailors. Thanks for showing us what it takes.
I’m really glad my grandfather didn’t talk you out of your shot.
I used information from the following for this blog post:
Half Broke Horses: A True-Life Novel (Author’s Note) by Jeanette Walls
The Illustrated Timeline of Western Literature by Carol Strickland