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THE LAST WORD: Film documents origin of jump shot

Kerry Hubartt

I found out just in time about a new movie that had originally been intended to come out in theaters this month, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic had been sidelined. So it was available for rental in an online premier just for the weekend.

Being a fan of basketball and its history, I watched the film, “Jump Shot, the Kenny Sailors Story,” a documentary from executive producer Steph Curry, an extraordinary shooter in his own right, telling the story of the player who developed the modern day jump shot in basketball.

It was a fascinating story I had never heard before.

Produced by Curry’s Unanimous Media, the film was to be screened in more than 250 movie theaters across the U.S.through distributor Aspiration Entertainment in partnership with Trafalgar Releasing in a special one-night-only screening on April 2. “Jump Shot” had its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival and won awards at the DeadCenter Film Festival, Heartland International Film Festival and Hill Country Film Festival.

It’s eventual release to theaters, obviously, is still on hold.

So here’s the story.

Kenny Sailors, who died in 2016 at age 95, was born in 1921 in the little town of Hillsdale in Wyoming. He learned to play basketball against his older brother, who was 6-foot-4. Kenny was only 5-7 at the time.

Tired of getting his shots blocked by his big brother, Kenny tried a new strategy — he went into his shot by jumping, then releasing the ball at the top of his jump. And the shot went through the hoop.

Sailors perfected that shot in an era when everyone else was shooting two-handed, flat-footed set-shots. He became an all-state player in high school in Laramie and, by then 5-foot-10, he went on to lead the University of Wyoming team that won both the NCAA and NIT national tournaments in 1943. He was the unanimous selection as college basketball player of the year that season.

After marrying his high school sweetheart that summer, he joined the Marines and served with distinction in the Pacific in World War II. After the war, Sailors resumed his All-American career at Wyoming and went on to play for five years in the emerging league now known as the NBA.

Sailors finally retired from playing basketball, saying in the film, “The Lord has shown me that there are a lot more important things than sports.”

The documentary features interviews with several basketball greats, including Curry himself, the modern-day master of the jump shot who plays for the Golden State Warriors.

“Ever since I picked up a basketball, the jump shot was second nature to me,” Curry said in a statement. “Learning the history of where the art of the jump shot came from, who introduced it to the game, and how it changed the game, was incredibly intriguing. Even more importantly, learning about the person that Kenny was, and what he stood for, was very inspirational.”

After retiring from the NBA, Sailors moved to Alaska, where he hoped the clean air could improve his wife’s health. He started Alaska’s first public-school girls’ basketball league, creating opportunities for Native Americans. His teams won 68 straight games and three state titles.

He returned to Wyoming after his wife died. And speaking in the film about her dementia and death, he said “The Lord gives you strength that you don’t even know where it comes from … He just gives you the strength to go through most everything.”

Besides Curry, the film features many other basketball celebrities, such as Kevin Durant, Bob Knight, Clark Kellogg, Dirk Nowitzki, Nancy Lieberman, Lou Carneseca and Kiki Vandeweghe.

The documentary points out that there may be other players who claim to have invented the jump shot, and Sailors admits that himself, saying any kid who threw the ball toward the basket while hopping a bit in the 1890s might rightfully claim to be the real inventor.

But in a review of the film on Focus on the Family’s PluggedIn.com, Paul Asay wrote that “the jump shot as we know it today — a straight, vertical jump combined with a one-handed shot — seems to be Sailors’ own. And you look at pictures of him taking the shot and transpose them beside more contemporary greats–Durant, Curry, even Michael Jordan and Larry Bird–and you can see the remarkable imprint of Sailors’ influence.”

“And basketball wouldn’t be basketball without the jump shot,” writes John Stonestreet, president of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, an avowed basketball junkie who wrote a review of the film that alerted me to its online premier. “It’s so endemic to the game, in fact, that many people can’t imagine that basketball ever existed without it. But basketball was without it, in its earlier days. Two-handed set shots, overhand flings, running one-handers characterized what was a much slower game. Until, that is, the jump shot. And for that, we have to thank a player from the University of Wyoming named Kenny Sailors.”

— Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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