Basketball's Disruptive Innovation

Basketball's Disruptive InnovationOf all the changes that have occurred in basketball over the past 120 years since James Naismith invented the game, which is considered the game’s most important? The dunk? The shot-clock? The Laker-girls? All significant…but this particular change could also be considered one of basketball’s true innovations – a game changer that revolutionized the game so dramatically that the previous way of performing this act became obsolete. Give up?

It was the jump shot. Yes, the jump shot – a way of shooting that we all take for granted today.

For the first forty years of its history, basketball was a slow-paced game where shooting was confined to the “set shot” – a shot where players used one or both hands to shoot but they kept their feet firmly on the floor. There was very little jumping–current thinking at the time was that shots could only be accurate if the player was set (like a free throw). The idea of players jumping and shooting at the same time just was unheard of.

All that changed in the early 1940s when Kenny Sailors played for the University of Wyoming. According to author John Christgau, author of the book Origins of the Jump Shot, Sailors was one of the earliest (if not the first) to use the jump shot as a young boy growing up in Wyoming.

“He was born in Nebraska in 1923, and at an early age moved with his mother and older brother Bud to a farm on the bleak Wyoming prairie east of Cheyenne. There, the family scratched out a living on a small farm during the depths of the Depression. “Boys,” Cora Belle Sailors directed her two sons during frigid winters, “go out and get some fuel.” That meant either cow chips gathered off the prairie, or roadside pieces of rubber tire that would bum with a fierce heat. Cora Sailors also instilled in her two sons a curious combination of fatalism and determination. “Lord,” she would end the prayers at the supper table, “not my will, but Yours.” Then she would lecture them. “It doesn’t make any difference if you get knocked down seven times. You get back up.”

By early 1934, at six-five Bud Sailors was one of the tallest people anybody on the prairie around Cheyenne had ever seen. At the end of his junior year at Hillsdale High, his coach loaned him a school ball to practice with over the summer. Bud nailed a hoop to the side of their farm windmill, and he and his little brother Kenny, four years younger and a foot short than Bud, began fierce one-on-one games.

Bud’s strategy was merely to sit back and wait until Kenny tried to shoot, then slap the ball back in his little brother’s face. His mother’s homily about perseverance fresh in his mind, Kenny was soon taking his first jump shots at the windmill basket in May of 1934. They were desperate, leaping efforts to try to avoid having the ball batted away by his towering brother. Eventually, the shot became unstoppable, against tall men or short, and Kenny Sailors went from high school straight to the University of Wyoming, where he became an All American and one of the leaders of the 1943 NCAA champs. His jump shots in the finals against Georgetown are considered the first ones ever taken in Madison Square Garden.”

Kenny Sailors’ jump shot shares all the characteristics of disruptive innovation:

  1. It changed the existing ecosystem – Sailors’ new shot changed the way that players and coaches viewed shooting. As more and more players adopted the jump shot, refinements continued over time until what we have is the modern jump shot of today.
  2. Early adoption created a huge competitive advantage – The University of Wyoming was the first to use Sailor’s jump shot and they won the NCAA championship – their only national championship in basketball.
  3. It disrupted and replaced the existing offering in the market – Almost overnight, the jump shot replaced the set shot – sending it into obsolescence.

Here’s the takeaway: Innovation comes in many different forms. For Kenny Sailors, improving the existing set shot was not the answer in backyard scrimmages with his brother: the only way to win was through disruptive innovation – the jump shot. For all those who grew up watching the classic shooters Michael Jordan, Reggie Miller, Larry Bird and Jerry West perform their magic, a big ‘thank you’ should go to Kenny Sailors who was the first to use the shot on a national stage.

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Patrick LeflerPatrick Lefler is the founder of The Spruance Group – a management consultancy that helps growing companies grow faster. He is a former Marine Corps officer; a graduate of both Annapolis and The Wharton School, and has over twenty years of industry expertise.

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Patrick Lefler




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No Comments

  1. Wes Bleed on November 21, 2010 at 10:16 am

    Right on: if all we did was polish what we already have, we’d be listening to nicely improved cassette tapes or watching movies on really fancy VHS tapes.

  2. John Christgau on November 21, 2010 at 1:59 pm


    Thanks for calling attention to THE ORIGINS OF THE JUMP SHOT. Kenny Sailors was a pioneer in the best sense of the word. He made the entire earthbound institution of basketball follow him into the air. If I were the commissioner of the NBA, I would make a study of Kenny Sailors’ life mandatory reading.

    John Christgau

  3. Patrick Lefler on November 22, 2010 at 9:37 pm


    I agree 100% with you – there’s a big difference between improvement (or polish) and innovation. Kenny Sailors was a true innovator.

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.


  4. Patrick Lefler on November 22, 2010 at 9:41 pm


    The book looks really interesting – I just picked up a copy and can’t wait to start reading. Curious how you picked that particular topic…

    Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment.


  5. Mark on January 3, 2011 at 4:30 pm


    I get the principles you are sharing. However, I would disagree on the jump shot being the single most innovation, I would say the fastbreak. When you drill into the history of basketball you will uncover the forever struggle between white (slow) and black (fast) basketball. The slow, plodding, ground bound game you describe was not Dr. Naismith view on how basketball was to be played but how one of his pupils believed the game should be played. That pupil was coach Phog Allen. However, Dr. Naismith also mentored a young black coached and as documented on ESPN Films, “Black Magic” Dr. Naismith instilled the principles that basketball is to be played baseline to baseline as fast as possible. The coach is John McClendon how is a member of the Naismith Hall of Fame. McCledon’s team’s were not ground bound!

    Last comment. I think the adding of the backboard in basketball has actually hindered the development of highly accurate shooters. That basketball today should be played without backboards. Like the game was originally played. Would that be consider an innovation?


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