Like the curveball in baseball, forward pass in football and slap shot in hockey, it seems like the jump shot, as essential an element in basketball as the dribble, has always been a part of the game. But there was a time in each sport before those game-changers came into play, and the origins are sometimes not as clean as a textbook-form jumper.
“I’m a millennial so I just thought that the jump shot just appeared,” said six-time All-NBA first team and 2014 MVP Kevin Durant in the documentary feature Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story, premiering online on Thursday. “It was just a part of the game.”
For Durant, a student of the game and its history, and Stephen Curry, his Golden State Warriors teammate and executive producer of the film, which details the life of what most evidence shows is the originator of that seemingly most basic of shots—the jumper—Sailors’s contributions altered how basketball is played forever.
The Laramie, Wyoming, native stayed home to play with Coach Everett Shelton‘s University of Wyoming Cowboys, leading the squad to the 1942-43 NCAA title which so captivated the Madison Square Garden audience and college basketball world that a special challenge match was set up with NIT champion St. John’s. Following an overtime Cowboys victory, Sailors was as well-known as any college hoopster, in part because of the innovative jump shot he improvised while still at Laramie High School.
Sailors credits his high school coach with allowing him to continue shooting and perfecting the technique, in a time where slow-developing set shots meant a plodding style evident in old black-and-white videos, vastly different from today’s high-speed game. The wonder of the country-boy squad of Cowboys taking on the country’s best and winning at MSG, coupled with a classic photo in Life Magazine showing Sailors in perfect jumper form elevating over the defense, spurred thousands of players across the country to try the shot themselves.
Sailors’s life, though, was much more than basketball. After he shipped off to the Marines, rising to the rank of captain, and served a five-year stint in the BAA and nascent NBA with seven losing teams and franchises, he and his wife moved to Alaska, where he lived for 35 years as a big game hunter, a preferred region to control her emphysema. He settled in Glennallen, in the southeast corner of the state, serving as teacher and coach in the local high school and gaining credit for building the school’s and eventually the state’s girls’ basketball program.
What viewers won’t find in the documentary, which features interviews with the likes of Curry, Durant, Dirk Nowitzki, Bobby Knight, Mark Price, Univ. of Wyoming legend Fennis Denbo, Lou Carnesecca, Nancy Lieberman and other greats of the game, is Sailors hyping his own achievement, which may also include inventing the floater. And while others took up the cause to submit his case for induction in to the Naismith Hall of Fame, Sailors, though deeply appreciative of those efforts, considered God, family and the Marines as his “Final Four.”
Like the curveball, whose origins are disputed among baseball historians, the originator of the jump shot isn’t agreed upon by all. The Hall of Fame recognizes Glenn Roberts, who scored 2,013 points at Emory and Henry (Va) College from 1931-35 as the first to shoot the jumper. Belus Smawley, Joe Fulks and John Miller Cooper are others mentioned as its creators, though the form of Sailors’s shot more closely matches what we think of as a jumper today.
Still in touch with the game and his beloved Wyoming Cowboys right up until his January 2016 death at 95, Sailors’s life has been chronicled in prominent articles and in several books. But with stunning archival footage, interesting interviews with some of the greats of the game, and the words of Sailors himself, Jump Shot adds much to the collective knowledge of this hoops pioneer.