Jump Shot | Docs/ology

Jump Shot

Director: Jacob Hamilton

Runtime: 80 min

The jump shot. It’s the symbol of the game of basketball. Like the forehand in tennis, or the freestyle stroke in swimming it is the athletic movement that is most associated with the sport. But like all things we take for granted, few of us have ever wondered who ‘invented’ the jump shot. That’s like asking who invented toast, right?  Well, like all good superhero’s, even the jump shot has an origin story. And that story begins in a small town in Wyoming, with a young boy by the name of Kenny Sailors.

Jump Shot, a film by Jacob Hamilton which recently premiered at SXSW Film Festival, tells the story of a small town boy who developed the jump shot as a means to beating his older brother in one-on-one. His brother was nearly a foot taller than him and like a David coming up against his very own Goliath Kenny used his resources. Borrowing some height by jumping straight up and sailing the ball into the net, Kenny left his brother dumbfounded, as he would eventually the rest of the world.

Kenny went on to play for the University of Wyoming, where he would prove himself even further through his perfected jump shot. Leading his team to victory, Sailor’s Cowboys were the shock of the tournament, winning the NCAA championship in 1943 beating Georgetown in the finals. Kenny Sailors was named the tournament’s most valuable player and an All-American hero was born.

So why when Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Dirk Nowitski and other pros who appear in the film are asked if they’ve ever heard of Kenny Sailors ‘inventor of the jump shot’ they’re all bewildered to find the shot even has an origin at all? Because while Kenny was thriving in the height of his career, World War II was sitting on the sidelines ready to sub in.

Kenny, along with much of the UW team, was quickly drafted into the war. Some of his teammates never returned, but Sailors did and even played for five seasons in the NBA, which by now was full of players who had adapted his style of play. At the end of his pro career he retreated to Alaska with his young bride where he resided for 35 years. Those pivotal years are what allowed jump shots to assimilate into the general conscience of the game seemingly through osmosis. Kenny was out of sight, therefore out of mind.

Hamilton takes notice of this lapse in societal memory and regards it as a disservice to the legend that is Kenny Sailors. But it is clear that Kenny does not see it that way. He would much rather discuss his time overseas, or how he helped pave the way to normalize women’s basketball, or his beautiful wife Marilyn and their children.

Despite the mountain of archival footage recovered to display the proof that history is in fact on Kenny’s side, one of the film’s impressive feats, he’s the last to admit he invented the jump shot. “Who knows?” he says coolly, “Back in the 1800’s some kid out in podunk could jump in the air and throw the ball, couldn’t he? It’s a jump shot if his feet leave the floor.”

His boundless sense of humility only makes it easier to rally behind the recent movement to add him to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. By the end of the film, it is Kenny’s character alone that is enough to fuel advocacy. Hamilton, in his feature film debut, brings Sailor’s vibrant personality, oozing with the vitality of a forty year old trapped in the body of a ninety year old, forward in a way that is both heartwarming and inspiring.

Jump Shot allows people of both wide and limited knowledge of the game to sit in awe of a man who embodies the idea that there’s more to life than accolades. Kenny glows with humility and peace about the life he has lived. He reminds us to look at life beyond the basket, to rethink our values and live in the pursuit of upholding them.

Written by Delia Rowland