The Big Cat

Saying goodbye to Ken Sears ’55, the first basketball player to appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.

The Big Cat
Ken Sears playing for the New York Knicks.

Ken Sears watched the Golden State Warriors’ playoff game on TV Saturday, April 22. He ate well and analyzed the players and the game, said his daughter.

He had a personal interest in the game: As his professional career ended in 1964, the NBA All-Star had contributed to the San Francisco Warriors’ NBA finals run.

Later that evening in his Watsonville home, the 83-year-old Santa Cruz County basketball legend fell ill. Surrounded by family, he died Sunday morning after battling pulmonary fibrosis the past two years.

“The time was appropriate,” Debbie Barry said of her father’s death. He’d suffered enough.

Sears, a 6-foot-9 forward who played eight seasons in the NBA, including seven with the New York Knicks, led the league twice in field-goal percentage (1958-59, 1959-60).

After professional basketball, he lived an unassuming life. He returned to Watsonville, where he played in local recreational leagues for a few years and worked as a motor home salesman.

Ken Sears on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Photo courtesy SCU Archives

His passion was fishing. He and his wife, Eunice Sears, traveled to Mexico each year for extended vacations. They stayed in a motor home on an isolated beach in Mismaloya, near Puerto Vallarta.

For nearly four decades, Sears, a parishioner at Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, brought more than 400 refurbished bicycles and 10,000 pairs of shoes to impoverished children in Puerto Vallarta. He also donated much of his fishing haul to local villages.

They had no idea who he was, Barry said. Just the tall white guy.

His expeditions were reported by the Santa Cruz Sentinel, which made Sears feel uneasy.

“I think he was embarrassed by the coverage of his giving,” said Bob Linney, who coached Watsonville High’s boys basketball team for 20 seasons (1984-90 and 1995-09). “He didn’t want the notoriety or publicity.”

As a player, his appeal was national. The former Santa Clara University star was the first basketball player featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated (Dec. 20, 1954).

A few years back, an autographed copy hung on the wall of room 11C at Valley Convalescent Hospital. Sears gave it to ailing “Jumpin” John Burton, one of eight men credited with creating the jump shot in John Chistgau’s Origins of the Jump Shot: Eight Men Who Shook the World of Basketball. Burton, battling Lewy body disease, one of the most common causes of dementia, died in 2014.

Sears made regular visits to the hospital to keep Burton company after they were introduced.

“He was very humble,” Barry said. “He didn’t like the limelight. He wanted to do his part of helping people in his own way.”

So humble that he was selective about accepting invitations at Watsonville High. He turned down offers to help coach basketball at the school on numerous occasions and had someone show up on his behalf when his basketball jersey was retired.

Sears, also in Santa Clara University’s Hall of Fame, still ranks in the school’s all-time top 10 in several categories, including career points and free throws made and attempted.

“I don’t think the local community really showed the deference he deserved for his career,” said Pete Newell Jr., a Santa Cruz coaching legend who lives in Las Vegas. “He was the most successful Santa Cruz County basketball player ever. He goes from the Knicks back to Watsonville. He led a quiet, unassuming life.”

Newell, whose father coached the Cal men’s basketball team to the 1959 NCAA Championship, remembers when he was 10, seated in the first row behind the basket at the Cow Palace, watching Sears tear up the competition while playing for the Broncos in a tournament.

“When he was on the court, he was obviously the best player on the floor,” Newell said.

A two-time West Coast Conference Player of the Year, Sears helped the Broncos reach the Final Four in the 1952 NCAA Tournament.

“Ken Sears was one of the first big men that had a game facing up,” Newell said. “He wasn’t a back-to-basket type player, which I think helped him get to the NBA. He had a deadly jump shot.”

Sears, chosen by the Knicks as the fourth overall pick in the 1955 NBA Draft, averaged 13.9 points and 7.8 rebounds in 529 NBA games. He averaged a career-high 21 points in 1958-59 for the Knicks, and a career-high 13.7 rebounds for the same team a year later.

He also played with the San Francisco Saints of the American Basketball League in the 1961-62 season.

Though his Wildcatz jersey will forever reside in Watsonville High’s gym [where he entered the moniker “Big Cat” for his quickness and size —ed.], Sears’ fame didn’t make him a household name in the agricultural community.

Linney, the former Watsonville High basketball coach, had a Topps basketball card protected in a sturdy plastic case sitting on the desk in his classroom. It was gifted by one of the school’s custodians and Linney used it as a paperweight. The history teacher often used it as a history lesson during the Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant eras.

“When kids said that Watsonville doesn’t have an NBA player, I’d pull the card out,” Linney said. “They were in disbelief.”
This article first appeared under a different title in the Mercury News.

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