Ken Sears ’55 put Santa Clara in the Final Four and himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated—then shrugged. In an era when West Coast big men like Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor, and Wilt Chamberlain became icons, Sears had other plans. After six years as a Knickerbocker and two with the Warriors, he returned to Watsonville and became a different kind of legend.
His game was ahead of its time. Kenny Sears could play inside but also drove past defenders and shot from outside. He was a face-up big man before the term existed. “I thought he was the best of his era,” former SCU basketball coach Carroll Williams says. Williams played against Sears at San Jose State. “Everybody had special things they did well. He was really versatile and did everything well.”
Sears didn’t talk much. Friends agree on that. He was unassuming, uninterested in championing his accolades, but there were plenty: two-time West Coast Player of the Year (once winning over Bill Russell), a third team All-American in 1955. He led SCU to the Elite Eight twice and Final Four in 1952, beating UCLA on the way. He was the first basketball player on the cover of Sports Illustrated, in 1954. As a pro, he was twice an all-star and averaged 16.2 points per game.
Sears enjoyed small-town life after basketball. He owned a beer-only bar in Freedom, California, named Kenny & I or Sears and I or Kenny Sears and I, depending on who you ask. He also sold RVs, for a while. He traveled to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with his wife, Eunice, for a month at a time. At first, they stayed in an RV and eventually bought a condo. Before trips he would collect bikes and skates to give away to locals in Mexico, who knew nothing of his basketball past.
Dick Garibaldi ’55 recalled a time he visited Sears in Mexico. He hooked a sailfish on his boat and turned to his former teammate for help. “I was afraid of losing it,” Garibaldi says. Sears closed the deal and landed the fish. “We came back and I was yelling at all our friends ‘Come on, bring a camera.’” But by the time the camera arrived, locals had stripped the fish as Sears watched with a smile. “All there was was bones,” Garibaldi laughed. “So we never got a picture of it.” That’s because Sears always gave away his fish.
Playing basketball didn’t make Sears rich. His first contract was just $8,500. He almost skipped the NBA to sign with an AAU team, the Oklahoma Phillips Oilers, where he would play and work for the company. But Sears had plenty: a wife and a son and a daughter and three granddaughters, friends and a boat. He had a life and lived it well.