DECEMBER 20, 1954
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 All-West 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� 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."