Written by Jacob Hamilton, Thaddeus D. Matula
Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story Review
There are moments where I wish I could travel back in time and take with me everything I learned in order to have a leg up on the competition — mainly because I’m too, ah, simple minded to craft a revolutionary idea for the modern age.
Of course, Kenny Sailors didn’t need a time machine. The man made a huge impact by inventing something many consider commonplace today: the jump shot. As basketball aficionados will attest, the jump shot remains one of the more pivotal aspects of the game; a move that allows a player to stop their forward momentum and leap straight up over a defender to shoot a shot. Every basketball player, from Dirk Nowitzki to Steph Curry, has figured out a way to perfect the technique, but few know about the shot’s origin. Much less the man who made the shot possible.
Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story sheds light on the man, the myth, and legend behind one of the key components of basketball; and offers a touching tribute to an individual who used the game to touch and influence the lives of many on and off the court.
As someone who has grown up watching the NBA, I was familiar with Kenny Sailors, but had no idea just how much he contributed to the sport. Like the many stars of this terrific documentary — namely Curry (who also executive produced) and Kevin Durant, among others — will admit, I just assumed the jump shot always existed.
As it turns out, Sailors crafted the move in order to compensate for his diminutive (by basketball standards) height. Everyone, including his older brother, informed Kenny at a young age that he was too small to play basketball, which, in the early 1930s, featured taller men who moved slowly and shot the ball flat footed. One summer afternoon, Kenny took a leap of faith, as it were, and sprung into the air in order to get the ball over his brother’s outstretched arms.
And just like that, the jump shot was born.
Kenny spent years perfecting the technique and eventually, in 1943, took it to the college level where he managed to lead a ragtag University of Wyoming team, coached by Everett Shelton, to an unthinkable NCAA title at Madison Square Garden. At the time, coaches, players, and sports writers were perplexed. Basketball was a slow-man’s game. Players avoided dribbling as much as possible, and typically lacked the athleticism so prevalent in today’s leagues. Kenny burst onto the scene like a man out of time; and used his speed, athleticism and unnatural shot to dominate the game.
After serving in World War II, he came home and joined the B.A.A. and NBA for a time. For five years he bounced around from ball club to ball club, most of which folded due to overall lack of interest from fans, and eventually retired from the sport at the age of 30 to spend more time with his wife and family in the vast country of Jackson Hole, Wyoming and later Alaska. There, he coached high school ball, and even helped kick start a women’s basketball program — albeit, one that defied the trends of the time and allowed the young women to actually play the sport.
The documentary covers all these moments and intermixes them with scenes of an older Sailors wandering about Laramie, Wyoming in 2015 reflecting on his life. He converses with the local barber, attends University of Wyoming practices, and seems to despise being known simply as the man who invented the jump shot.
“I’m not popular,” he says. “That jump shot is popular.”
I say all this not to spoil the plot of this superb documentary, directed by Jacob Hamilton, but to point out the whimsical nature of the story. Kenny Sailors’ life feels like a movie drummed up by Hollywood, except it’s real. The man lived for 95 years. He fought in World War II. Married the first girl he ever dated and lived with her until she died. Invented the jump shot. Successfully worked as a hunter. Played in the NBA. Coached high school basketball with great success.
He was even featured in Life magazine for cripes sakes — and yet, very few people know about him.
Jump Shot does a remarkable job blending photographs, animations, and interviews to tell the touching story of a simple man whose amazing life continues to influence people to this day. That professional basketball players continue to utilize moves that Kenny crafted back in the 40s and 50s speaks volumes about his impact on the game. That those who knew Kenny close shed tears at the mere mention of his name speaks volumes about his life.