75 Years Ago Wyoming Basketball Won the Most Outlandish NCAA Championship Ever
Yes, Wyoming won a national title in basketball
The Cowboys were national champions in 1943
It’s a story that has so many fantastically strange details, I don’t know where to start.
How about beginning with the fact that this basketball team opened its season playing a doubleheader? Ernie Banks style. Or that a mid-season divorce nearly derailed the team? Or that the team played games versus the Phillips’ 66 Corporation and the Poudre Valley Creamery?
Or maybe first thing to mention is the part about the entire season almost being canceled? Or perhaps the fact that one player on the roster, Ken Sailors, changed basketball forever? Sailors, a local boy from Hillsdale, Wyo., not only led the club in scoring, but also, basically, invented the jump-shot. So there was that.
Pinning down the end of the story—certainly that’s an easier task. On March 30, 1943, the University of Wyoming won the NCAA National Championship. The Cowboys defeated the Georgetown Hoyas. Surely that’s the end, right?
Nope. Two days after that championship, the Cowboys won another title—this one the “World Championship.” Following this final, final victory of the season, UW shipped most of its players off to war and shut down the basketball program.
Jimmy or Jimmy? Or there’s Jimmy.
When the Cowboys began practice in the fall of 1942, in their cavernous Half Acre Gymnasium, they did so with high hopes. The previous year’s team had gone 15-5. The ‘42-43 squad, like most years, was largely homegrown. Eleven of the fifteen players on the team hailed from Wyoming. UW’s enrollment hovered just above 1,500.
Coach Everett Shelton had his system in place. Hired by Wyoming at the start of the 1939 season, Shelton stressed control and structure. Shelton’s teams ran a screening, weaving offense (it would become known as the “Wyoming Weave”) meant to capitalize on his team’s height and shooting ability. No less a coach than Henry Iba identified Shelton as one of the nation’s top basketball minds.
But Shelton needed the right mix of players. As the United States’ commitment to World War II expanded, finding players became increasingly difficult. And getting national caliber players to the thin air of Laramie (elevation 7,165ft; Population 11,000) had never been a particularly easy task. Thus Shelton’s first challenge of the season was a personnel one. Who would start at the second guard position? Milo Komenich, Ken Sailors, Floyd Volker, and Jim Weir locked down their starting spots early. The fifth spot remained up for grabs.
The state’s newspapers, including the basketball-crazy Casper Star-Tribune, clamored for the scoop. Scanning the roster, one enterprising journalist simply titled his hard-hitting piece on the issue, “Three Boys Named Jimmy Compete for the Guard Post.” There it was. Shelton eventually gave Jimmy Collins (a product of Laramie High) most of the minutes, over Jimmy Darden and Jimmy Reece.
On the Road
The Cowboys opened the season by traveling to Fort Warren, a military post 58 miles southeast of Laramie. There the Wyoming squad played a rare basketball doubleheader. Wyoming beat the Second Regiment, 49-33; then after a brief break, the Fifth Regiment, 54-43.
A week later, Wyoming had its first home game. Again versus Fort Warren. Another victory resulted.
Even as the Cowboys were getting started with their season, calls to shut down intercollegiate athletics altogether, to support the war, were growing. University of Wyoming President J.L. Morrill announced UW basketball would continue…until it was time to stop. “If it is necessary to discontinue intercollegiate athletics, the University of Wyoming will gladly comply,” Morrill clarified. Until then, the games would go on.
The Cowboys got their first real action of the season when they traveled east for a six game road trip through Pennsylvania and New York. The team spent its Christmas and New Year’s holidays together, bonding and balling. The boys stayed in on New Year’s Eve playing pinochle a hotel lobby. The first game of the trip produced a shellacking. Facing a Duquesne University team that had beaten the Pokes soundly the year prior, Wyoming could muster only 33 points, losing by 10. “Duquesne Again Proves Too Tough for Cowboys,” the Wyoming press reported. The Cowboys made fewer baskets (11) than personal fouls (17).
Following the poor performance versus the Dukes, however, the Cowboys found their groove. La Salle, St. Francis, Rochester and Lawrence Tech all fell to Wyoming by more than 20 points. Rochester had carried a 22 game winning streak into their matchup with Wyoming. It did them little good. “The towering Cowboys, bossed by Everett Shelton, average well over 6 feet and really put their altitude to good use,” the Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle reported of Wyoming’s 68-44 whupping.
Next Wyoming traveled to Salt Lake City to face the University of Utah. On back to back January nights, the Wyoming men dominated the Utes: 66-38 and 68-25. Two victories over Colorado State came next.
On January 28, Regis College visited Laramie. “Hell’s Half Acre Gym,” as it had become known by then, rocked as the Cowboys won 101-45. Two nights later, Wyoming won a rematch 86-34.
Bumps in the road happen for every team—even championship ones. In Wyoming’s case, however, even the problems were unusual. Halfway through the season, the press dug up the fact that Coach Shelton had recently divorced his wife.
Shelton, coach of “the eminently-successful University of Wyoming basketball team,” the Caspar Star-Tribune reported on February 11, 1943 had secured a divorce some months earlier. “Intolerable indignities” committed by Mrs. Shelton had been cited as the cause for the split. Keen investigative work in the county records office had turned up the story. Speculation swirled.
This was the 1940s. Divorces happened, but they usually came with a town’s worth of tisk-tisking and “pray for thems.” It could not have been easy. For Coach Shelton the divorce and single parenthood made an already strange season even more trying.
As the calendar turned to February, Wyoming finally found an opponent that brought a challenge. The Phillips 66 club of Bartlesville, Oklahoma—an all-star team supported by the oil company—hosted Wyoming on February 2 and 3. The plains of northeast Oklahoma were frigid as the Cowboys arrived in town. The gym though was hot. Wyoming and the “66” played a 42-41 overtime thriller the first night, Wyoming prevailing. One night later, they repeated their feat: Wyoming won 37-36.
Then it was back to the blowouts. CSU, Utah, BYU, Howard-Payne, Colorado Mines—none came close. A victory over the Poudre Valley Creamery (they were tougher than they sounded), ran Wyoming’s record to 25-1.
There the streak finally ended. On March 19, Wyoming faced a Denver Legion team made up of University of Colorado (present and former) players, as well as a couple of local ringers. Bob “Ace” Gruenig served as the club’s player-coach. This collection of hardened basketball veterans stopped Wyoming cold, 33-41. The loss served as a final tune up before the Cowboys began post-season competition.
In 1943, the NCAA tournament was still in its infancy. Eight schools made up the entire bracket. Teams competed first regionally, before advancing to a final in New York City. Wyoming had its hands full. The team traveled to Kansas City, Missouri to face the University of Oklahoma Sooners. There the Cowboys won a taut, back and forth battle 53-50. Survive and advance.
Next up loomed the University of Texas. After a season of blowout wins, Wyoming again prevailed in a close one, beating back the Longhorns 58-54. The two victories were all that was necessary in this early version of the NCAA tournament to advance to the Championship Game in New York City.
Georgetown University versus the University of Wyoming. “The Cowboys checked their ponies at the doorway of Madison Square Garden,” the AP report joked, east coast bias in full effect.
Nearly 15,000 spectators packed the arena to see the title match. After a warm up game featuring teams from the Manhattan Beach Coast Guard Station and Aberdeen Proving Grounds, the main event tipped off.
Future Congressman Henry Hyde led the Georgetown squad. Early in the game, the teams were tight. The baskets had lids. At half, Wyoming led, 18-16. Ten times during the contest, one team or another made a basket to tie the score. Gradually though the Wyoming squad seized control. Ken Sailors—he of the path-breaking jump shot—found his stroke. The Pokes fed him the ball. Sailors’ 16 points made him the only player in the game to hit double digits. Georgetown could not keep up.
“A spurt in the last five minutes by the Cowboys demoralized Georgetown and clinched the national title for the mountain conference champions.” Final score: Wyoming 46; Georgetown 34.
The Casper Star-Tribune exalted. World War II did not abate, obviously (in fact a “Rommel Squeezed Tighter” headline still dominated the front page of the March 31, 1943 paper), but the championship gave the people of the western side of the United States a reason to exhale.
Communities throughout Wyoming took collections and sent envelopes filled with singles and fives to the Cowboys’ New York City hotel so that the team could celebrate. “We are proud of the Cowboys,” read one note that came with some cash. “Caspar citizens send $95 to the Cowboys to be shared equally, so that you may see some of the sights of New York!”
But there was still work to be done.
Wait, the NIT?
It’s difficult to fathom today, but there was a time when the reputation of the National Invitational Tournament (the NIT) equaled that of the NCAA tournament. And 1943 was squarely in that time. Thus the victory of the St. Johns University Indians (over Toledo) in the NIT tournament championship game on March 29 gave that school as least as much claim to collegiate basketball supremacy for the 1943 campaign as Wyoming.
In the days leading up to both the NIT and NCAA championships (both of which took place in New York City), organizers persuaded the remaining schools to agree to a NIT champ v. NCAA champ game for April 1, 1943. It would be a “World Championship,” according to the Association Press, the proceeds of which would go to benefit the Red Cross.
18,316 fans paid to watch the contest, generating more than $24,000 for charity. Again Wyoming found itself engaged in a tight post-season affair.
The big men dominated the game. St. John’s 6’9 Harry “Highpockets” Boykoff battled against Wyoming’s Komenich. Possession after possession, the teams dumped the ball into the post. Komenich won the matchup, scoring 20 points to Boykoff’s 6.
The teams traded leads until late in the game. With one minute to play, Komenich fouled out. Wyoming held a 6 point edge, plenty it seemed to hold on for the victory. But St. John’s scrambled desperately. The Johnnies tied the score at 46 as regulation time expired.
One more time the cagers from Laramie trudged out onto the court. This time it was a different star—Jim Weir—who led the way. Two hook shots and a trip to the foul line provided the final, necessary margin. Stingy defense shut down St. Johns. 52-47. Wyoming had prevailed. There was no one left to play.
How had they done it? Coach Shelton struggled to explain why his Cowboys seemed to pull out every victory. “Never have I had a band of boys whose team spirit was such that you could almost see it and feel it,” Shelton concluded. “In every game, I felt that that spirit gave us a sixth man on the floor.”
More likely it was the five men actually on the floor. Three Wyoming Cowboys—Komenich, Sailors and Weir—earned All American status for the campaign. Ken Sailors won the Chuck Taylor Award presented to the nation’s top player.
Off to War
With the championship(s) secured, two things happened—one rather timeless and one very specific to 1943.
First, Wyoming leadership immediately predicted that the basketball championship would result in an application windfall for the University. Wyoming Governor Lester Hunt went so far as to announce that enrollment would likely double because of the school’s basketball fame.
Apparently this athletic-glory-to-admissions-boom theory has always been a seductive one.
Second, most of the University of Wyoming basketball team headed off to war. Jim Weir for one did not even come back to Wyoming. Following the New York City championship games, Weir departed directly for Fort Benning, Georgia and the United States Army. A week after playing the game of his life, Weir was in officer training school. His teammates would follow quickly, filling slots in the Army, Marines, and Navy.
The time for basketball was over. UW would not field a 1943-44 basketball team due to the war.
Still, the memories persisted. Wyoming’s most unusual basketball campaign had provided its state with a cause for celebration. “The state’s ten-gallon hat sailed sky-high,” was how one scribe described the effect of the Cowboy’s season. All schools, all states, should be so lucky.