September 15, 2012

Cowboy Up: Sailors, Jump Shot and UW Hoops

The did a question and answer with Boulder Daily Camera's Ryan Thorburn on Wyoming basketball history. Thorburn is a graduate of UW and has writen three books on Wyoming athletics, including his latest Cowboy Up: Kenny Sailors, The Jump Shot, and Wyoming's Championship Basketball History. Read Thorburn's answers on Cowboy Hoops. Talking with Kenny Sailors, what stood out most about his great story? What do you think the chances he will get into the college basketball Hall of Fame? How is his perspective on his place in history and the Hall of Fame?

Thorburn: What stood out to me, as an admirer of the Greatest Generation, was the timing of the 1943 Cowboys. They captured the imagination of not only Wyoming and basketball fans, but also the national media in New York as the dark clouds of World War II were moving in. The fact that Kenny was the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player and then immediately headed off to war is a remarkable story younger people should be aware of. And then he came back from war and was able to return to All-American form before blazing a pioneering trail in the NBA with his famous jump shot. Amazing stuff for a kid from Hillsdale, Wyo. Being able to spend time with Kenny and publish a book about his story is one of the great thrills of my professional life.

Getting Kenny into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame is something I would love to have a small part in helping with. Jim Brandenburg has mailed copies of Cowboy Up to the powers that be. From what I understand, the University of Wyoming athletic department, and even Larry Shyatt, are also making a push to get Kenny inducted. Of course, Kenny should already be in the Naismith Hall of Fame with Ev Shelton, but that hall of fame is decided on by NBA folks and is probably a long shot right now.

Kenny doesn't like to brag about his accomplishments, but obviously he is an indelible part of Wyoming and basketball history. He knows disappearing to Alaska for several decades is the main reason why he is not in the hall of fame. That's not a good enough excuse anymore. One of the most intriguing teams at Wyoming was the Benny Dees team from 1990-92. What are your thoughts on why that particular club underachieved in the era? Would a healthy Quin Higgins pushed that team over the hump to NCAA? What are your overall thoughts on the program under Dees, since you were a student at the time at UW?

Thorburn: I guess I'm kind of like Kevin McKinney when it comes to looking back to my days as a student in Laramie. In the book, Kevin talks about the 1960s as the best era of Wyoming basketball because of Flynn Robinson and all the great talent that called the Fieldhouse home. When you look at the records, the Pokes weren't very good. When I think about the early 1990s, my memories are of Reggie Slater dominating the glass, Theo Ratliff leading the nation in blocked shots, and Tim Breaux's silky-smooth jumper. As time goes on, the frustration of all those NBA players not experiencing March Madness in Laramie fades. Although I can still picture Mo Alexander taking horrible shots.

There is no question in my mind that the injury to Higgins derailed some great postseason possibilities for Benny and the program. Benny said Higgins was the best recruit he ever landed in Laramie. Ratliff described Higgins as an Amare Stoudemire-type of player. Slater said NBA players still ask him what ever happened to Higgins. I was in the front row of the student section when Higgins went down with that first knee injury during a blowout, non-conference win. It still makes me sick to think about it. Sadly, I was also there when Marcus Bailey went down against South Carolina. Both injuries likely cost Wyoming NCAA Tournament bids. I think Benny was a brilliant recruiter and a good coach, but certainly not the caliber of his predecessor. Like everyone else that follows the Pokes, I will always wonder what would have happened if Brandenburg would have stayed one more year. What are your expectations of the future of Wyoming basketball under Larry Shyatt? How about your thoughts on him returning to Laramie? What is the potential of the Cowboys basketball program in general? What is the upside?

Thorburn: I can't wait to see what Shyatt does in two or three years with his own recruits. We already know what he is capable of with Joby Wright's recruits and Heath Schroyer's recruits. I think this is potentially one of the great stories in college basketball over the next four or five years. How many times does a coach leave a program for greener pastures and then return to atone for that scorning? I can only think of one.

Cowboy Up documents the incredible tradition of Wyoming basketball -- from the first national championship in 1934 to Ev Shelton's great teams to Flynn Robinson to Fennis Dembo's Sweet 16 crew to Josh Davis and Co upsetting Gonzaga to the Shyatt re-happening. When a program has this type of rich history, I believe it can repeat itself. Hopefully Shyatt can get the Cowboys back in the national spotlight. Talking with former Cowboy players, coaches, and adminstrators, what are your thoughts on Brandenburg's Dembo/Leckner era and the Bradley/Garnett time period? Did the Cowboys miss out on a chance to run to the Final Four with these two teams?

Thorburn: What I love about those teams is that the players are still close and most of them are still in regular contact with Brandenburg. It was just a special time for Wyoming basketball and the WAC. Brandenburg was able to find hidden gems and develop them into stars. Garnett and Leckner were far from great players when they arrived on campus, but they were first-round NBA picks when they left. That's amazing recruiting and coaching. There is no question that Brandenburg built teams that were capable of making it to the Final Four. That's all you can ask for as a fan. After that, a program has to get lucky with the bracket. The Cowboys happened to run into Patrick Ewing and No. 1 UNLV the years Brandenburg thought they had a realistic opportunity to get to the Final Four. Obviously, the Dembo/Leckner group was coached by Dees as seniors and they tried to run with Loyola Marymount. Who is your all-time Cowboy basketball team? MVP? The top 10 players to ever wear the Brown and Gold?

Thorburn:My starting five -- Kenny Sailors at point guard, Flynn Robinson at shooting guard, Fennis Dembo at small forward, Reggie Slater at power forward and Eric Leckner at center.

Co-MVPs -- Sailors and Dembo.

Off the bench/on scholarship -- Sean Dent, Mike Jackson, Tim Breaux, Les Witte, Tony Windis, Charles Bradley, Marcus Bailey, Josh Davis, Theo Ratliff, and Bill Garnett.

Stories about all of the above and many more are in Cowboy Up. Thanks to all of the fans who have supported the book to date.

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