Documentary re-release commemorates Wyoming national title
LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) — Kim Komenich’s aim when beginning to work on “Cowboys!: The Story of the 1943 Wyoming World Championship Basketball Team,” was to get as much history on record while he still could. His father, Milo Komenich, was a member of the 1943 Wyoming basketball team that won both the NCAA tournament and a playoff against NIT champion St. John’s, but the two of them never talked about it much before his father died.
“I never got to hear those stories,” he said. “So I had to go find out for myself. I had to go out and talk to the guys who knew him. In the process, I just discovered all of the firsts.”
Sunday marked the 75th anniversary of the Cowboys’ win over St. John’s. Komenich’s documentary, which was released in fall 2014, is now available online for the first time on Vimeo.
“The bottom line is, and this is how I teach it now here in school, is so much stuff is just going to disappear if you don’t get it on film somehow or record it in some way,” said Komenich, who spent 30 years as a photojournalist at the San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle and now teaches at San Francisco State. “Whether or not you produce it into a film, the main thing is you capture it before it’s gone. And that’s essentially what most of the film work I did is, is making sure that somehow we get those stories down before they’re gone.”
While the Cowboys’ win March 30, 1943, against Georgetown won them their first and only NCAA Tournament championship, now considered the top prize in college basketball, the win two days later was even more significant. At the time, the NIT was the more prestigious tournament, something that would change in the coming decades.
“Both of these tournaments didn’t come into existence until the ’30s,” Komenich said, “and Ned Irish, the guy who was the promoter for Madison Square Garden and the Boston Garden and he had all these promotions going, he came up with the idea of, ‘Well, why wouldn’t we have a playoff between the NIT and the NCAA? And what a perfect time. We can have this championship and we’ll call it the Red Cross Game and we’ll give the money, the proceeds to the Red Cross.’
“So on that level, it was special in a lot of ways. And going and talking to those guys specifically about those few seasons they were together was just magical. This idea of (Wyoming head coach Everett) Shelton being one of the first true entrepreneurs in college sports, I mean, the idea of taking your team on the train during Christmas break to go play tough teams back east.
“And he was really ahead of his time when it came to that sort of thing. He was playing the Wyoming university team against the company teams like Phillips Petroleum. He was playing against the Air Force team in Cheyenne. And these guys were just getting a whole other set of approaches to basketball that they weren’t getting by just playing Utah, Idaho and the guys in the conference. What it did was it made them a lot more worldly as basketball players.”
Milo Komenich, a post player, led Wyoming with an average of 16.7 points per game that championship season. He earned all-American honors that year as well as in 1946.
One of his teammates, of course, was Kenny Sailors. Sailors is credited as the modern-day innovator of the jump shot, something that is discussed in the film. He was named the College Basketball Player of the Year and the NCAA Tournament MVP that season.
“He had to learn the jump shot just because he was a small kid at the time,” Kim Komenich told the Casper Star-Tribune. “He was playing against his brother, and Kenny’s growth spurt hadn’t happened yet. So he had to find a way to put the moves on his brother so he could get the shot. And that’s what it was. It was sort of that ingenuity that you find out on the ranch or on the farm, and then it was coupled with the idea of Ev Shelton coming in and just introducing these players to basketball from the world of the military teams and the company teams.”
The film features interviews with Sailors and teammates Jimmie Reese and Tony Katana, as well as former Sen. Alan Simpson, among others. It also includes black-and-white footage of that game at Madison Square Garden.
“That was probably our single biggest expense was buying the rights to just a few minutes of that black and white footage,” Komenich said. ”. So we had a lot of pieces, and they all came together.”
The film premiered at Laramie’s Wyo Theater back in 2014, with Sailors and others participating in a Q&A session afterward.
“I think part of it was they kind of came out to see what it was all about,” Komenich said. “People aren’t used to being in a movie or knowing anyone who’s in a movie. So it’s one of those kind of oddities that kind of pops up in your life occasionally. And you just got a sense in watching the film that everyone had sort of a personal connection to it. I don’t think we sold out the Wyo Theater, but we probably had more than 100 people there.
″. Kenny was talking about how he used to sneak into the Wyo Theater as a kid. It just turned into kind of a fun night. I think people reacted really well to it.”
It was also shown at the GI and Tribute film festivals, both of which have a focus on the military. The documentary discusses how many of the Wyoming championship players left shortly after to fight in World War II.
Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, http://www.trib.com