When Sports Illustrated first started out in August of 1954, it was primarily viewed as a rich man's magazine. Instead of focusing on sports that everyone can enjoy and participate in, it focused on sailing and dog shows. It needed to reach the masses. Finally, in late December of that year, it selected the first basketball cover athlete in the magazine's short
history. The player? Santa Clara University's Kenny Sears.
Kenny Sears was born on August 17, 1933 in Watsonville, California. After starring on the basketball court at Watsonville High School, he accepted a scholarship to Santa Clara University.
In those days, the Santa Clara University Broncos basketball team was on the rise. As a freshman, he averaged seven points a game as the Broncos made it all tghe way to the 1952 Final Four, losing to Illinois 67-64. He was even better as a sophomore, averaging 14.2 points per game and leading his team to a 17-7 record while earning the WCC's Player of the Year award. Although their incredible season ended in a 74-62 loss to Washington in the Elite Eight, the Broncos ended their run ranked 16th in the nation.
As a junior, Kenny Sears averaged 16.2 points a game, but he and his Santa Clara teammates lost a heartbreaker to USC in the Elite Eight, 66-65 in double overtime. His senior year was met with disappointment. Although the Broncos had a winning record, they failed to return to the NCAA Tournament.
However, the season wasn't a complete loss. Early that year, Sports Illustrated contacted Kenny Sears, wanting to know if he wanted to grace the cover of the young magazine. He obliged and history was made. In time, the 1955 WCC Player of the Year and third-team All American's jersey number 55 would be retired by the program, never to be worn by another player.
After graduating from SCU, Kenny Sears was drafted in the first round of the 1955 NBA Draft by the New York Knicks. In his first six years as a Knick, Sears averaged 11.21 points and 9.2 rebounds for the struggling franchise. By 1958, he had found his stride as a pro, twice being named an All-Star. The Knicks made the playoffs in 1959, but despite his 16.5 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, the Knicks were swept in two games by the Syracuse Nationals.
He briefly left the NBA in 1961 to play for the San Francisco Saints of the short-lived ABL. After his release in 1962, Sears returned to New York for 23 games before being traded to the San Francisco Warriors in 1963.
At that point in his career, Kenny Sears was more of a role player. In two years as a Warrior, he averaged 6.1 and 3.3 points per game. the Warriors made it all the way to the NBA Finals in 1964, giving Kenny Sears one last chance at becoming a champion. Like he had done for much of the season, he sat on the bench much of the time. In the Warriors' five game loss to the mighty Celtics, Kenny Sears averaged two points in each of the three games that he played in. After the loss, Kenny Sears retired from the NBA.
His heart never left San Francisco. As player, he had spent his offseasons tending bar, ultimately opening up his own joint in his hometown of Watsonville. After leaving the NBA, he spent the next 26 years selling RV's, spending many vacations in the tiny Mexican village of Puerto Vallarta. He found joy in repairing bikes and giving new ones to the children of the village. Kenny Sears died on April 23, 2017 in Watsonville.