Wide-eyed, long-armed Santa Clara senior Ken Sears stared up
through a basketball hoop as he let fly a baby hook, completing
the perfect pose for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's first basketball
cover--and paving the way for more than 400 NCAA, NBA and other
hoops covers in the ensuing 47 years, no fewer than 50 of which
have featured Michael Jordan. "That bum made the cover again!"
says Sears, 68, of Jordan's appearance on the Oct. 29 cover.
"Mine was the first year of SI, so it wasn't a big deal, but I
look back now, as the first basketball player on the cover, and
it really means something to me."
The 6'9", 200-pound Big Cat made plenty of hook shots from 1951
through '55 as a three-time AllWest Coast Conference player; as a
senior he was an All-America with a 22.3-point average. Not long
ago Sears wanted to show his granddaughter Kelley why Grandpa was
considered one of the top college basketball players of the '50s.
"I tried shooting free throws, and I thought that within 10 shots
I could start making them again," says Sears, who lives in his
childhood hometown of Watsonville, Calif., within 20 miles of his
two kids and three grandchildren. "But after a hundred shots, I
still couldn't even hit the basket."
Drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks in 1955, Sears
played 6 1/2 solid seasons in the Big Apple (averaging 16.2 points
and 9.2 rebounds a game) before finishing his career with Wilt
Chamberlain and the San Francisco Warriors in '64. "The game
passed me up," says Sears, who averaged only 4.8 points and 2.2
rebounds with the Warriors. "It became very physical, a lot of
pushing and shoving, and I didn't weigh much. A rebound was
something I never saw unless it bounced right to me."
During his playing days Sears worked as a bartender in the
off-season, eventually opening a Watsonville bar, which he ran
for seven years. After hanging up his sneakers he moved on to a
26-year career selling and renting recreational vehicles. Since
1973 Sears and Eunice, his wife of 42 years, have spent winters
in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, where they have owned a condo for
more than a decade. He loves the fishing south of the border, but
something else keeps drawing him back--the chance to brighten the
lives of the impoverished children of nearby Mismaloya. "When I
go down there, I'm a hero," says Sears, who has repaired and
distributed nearly 300 bicycles to the village children over the
years. "It gives me a lot of pleasure to give some kid a bicycle.
They think it's the greatest thing in the world."
--Tim Alan Smith