Have you ever watched Semi-Pro? The moment when Jackie Moon does the first dunk? The players stand and look agape, the referee fumbles his whistle, and when his feet land back onto the Earth, he’s changed the game. Now, Semi-Pro is an irreverent and silly film, but I tend to think that’s what happened when Kenny Sailors — basketball legend and inventor of the jumpshot — first fired off his elegantly formed shot.
Kenny Sailors wasn’t a braggart. Far from it. He’d rather talk about his marriage to the love of his life Marilyn, or his time in the Marines during World War II, or the women’s high school basketball team who he coached to several state championships than talk about himself or that “silly” shot. Director Jacob Hamilton‘s Jumpshot: The Kenny Sailors Story uncovers two facts that’s long been apparent: Kenny Sailors invented the modern jumpshot and he was a singular and amazing man.
Hamilton’s documentary opens in 2011 in an empty gym. There’s an establishing shot of a basketball sitting idly on the floor. In walks an old man. He picks up the basketball, dribbles it off the floor, then bounces it off the floor for a basket. That’s Kenny Sailors, still gleefully outplaying people my age.
Sailors, for the most part, is long forgotten. When Bobby Knight, Jerry Krause, Steph Curry, Dirk Nowitzski, Nancy Lieberman, Tim Legler, etc. are asked who invented the jumpshot, their faces squirm with the same puzzlement Sailors’ former opponents must have had 80 years ago. What follows is a journey from Laramie, Wyoming to Alaska to the annals of basketball lore.
Hamilton, in his research for the film, uncovers some truly amazing archival footage — not just of basketball, but of Sailors’ life too. We see old photographs of Sailors, footage of his wife as a drum majorette, Laramie, Wyoming, his high school, and his games. And his games are incredible, especially his two David vs. Goliath moments: First, when his Wyoming team won the NCAA tournament, then when he beat back East Coast bias to defeat the NIT champions Saint John’s.
Incredibly, Sailors played a different brand of basketball than anyone who had come before him. His brand began with the jumpshot, which he fashioned because he couldn’t beat his taller brother Bud in one-on-ones. So like many other great discoveries and achievements, the jumpshot was born from sibling rivalry. But Sailors was more than his shot. He was an adept ball handler, possessed stop-on-a-dime speed and quickness, and was an adroit defender.
When Hamilton uses footage from Sailors’ games, especially from the NCAA tournament, or the famous photo from Life Magazine of Sailors rising over his flat-footed foes, we get a sense of just how far ahead he was of everyone else. Seeing him play is like watching the guy who presented sliced bread for the first time, he just cuts so smooth. And when current and former NBA and WNBA players see a picture of Sailors’ jumpshot, it’s like they’ve seen Santa Claus and the Eastern Bunny watching Jordan playing the Knicks at MSG. They’re just in awe.
But the most marvelous component of Hamilton’s documentary is Kenny Sailors. Your documentary is only as good as your subject, and Hamilton has an incredible subject. Sailors is humble, aware, and just a hoot. His lust for life and energy rivals those half his age, and his sense of humor is as fluid as his playing. At one point, he jokes about suing the NBA for $5,000 for the use of his jumshot. Much like Sailors must have been a player from a different era to his contemporaries, he feels like a man from a different time to us.
Sailors isn’t in the Hall of Fame. He’s not in the Naismith Hall of Fame because he went to Alaska for three and a half decades, because his wife had asthma and that was the best place for her. He’s not in because he spent his life coaching women’s high school basketball rather than appearing on CBS as a commentator. He’s not in because he rarely brags about himself. But by not being in — as much as that will confound your brain — in some measure he proves how much more there is to life than accolades. Sailors should be in the Hall of Fame, but if you leave Hamilton’s touching documentary with only that in mind then you’ve missed the point. And much like the players he whizzed past in his youth, you’ve also missed Kenny Sailors.
An official selection of SXSW 2019