Before Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, Ray Allen and Reggie Miller and Larry Bird and Dale Ellis, there was Kenny Sailors. Sailors might not be as famous as some of the aforementioned shooters, but he’s arguably just as important. It was in 1934, on a farm in Southeastern Wyoming, that Sailors, then a skinny 13-year-old, performed a move in a game against his brother that would change basketball history: He decided to forgo a two-handed set shot and instead jumped off the ground to shoot the ball with one hand.
Sailors himself doesn’t claim to be the first person ever to jump in the air while shooting a basketball, but if he wasn’t the first to shoot a jump shot, he is certainly among the reasons its popularity grew. Throughout the early 1940s, Sailors’s Wyoming Cowboys dominated college basketball. In 1943, the jump-shooting Sailors was named the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and led the Cowboys to their only national championship. His on-court innovation landed him in Life magazine in 1946. “Guard Kenny Sailors of Wyoming jumps and shoots to make score 21-16,” the caption read.
Director Jacob Hamilton’s latest film, Jump Shot, profiles the basketball innovator, telling the story of not only Sailors’s jumper, but also the meaningful impact he had on society more broadly. The documentary, which took part in the festival circuit in 2019 and is set for a special digital release between April 16-18 at JumpShotMovie.com, lists arguably the greatest shooter of all-time, Stephen Curry, as its executive producer. It features the voices of Dirk Nowitzki, Bob Knight, Nancy Lieberman and Kevin Durant, among others.
“Kenny is a guy who stuck that flag in the ground,” Durant says at one point in the film. “And I can’t thank him enough for that.”
Sports Illustrated recently caught up with Hamilton to learn more about why Sailors is such an engaging figure, discuss what it was like working with Curry on the documentary and explain how some of the NBA’s best shooters look back at Sailors’s legacy.
The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Sports Illustrated: What interested you most about Kenny Sailors’s story?
Jacob Hamilton: I didn't initially know that the jump shot really had a rich origin story. But just listening to Kenny tell his story and speak, he was such a dynamic character that I eventually reached out to him, coordinated a breakfast and flew up to Wyoming for the first time. And it was at that point, he was like, “Everybody [who] knows me knows about basketball and the jump shot. That's all they want to really talk about, but there are so many other things that I am more proud of. I would rather talk about more than just basketball.” And that was what I was planning on telling him too, that there was more to his story than just basketball.
SI: What are some of those other elements?
JH: One could argue that he essentially defined the game of basketball by developing, popularizing and introducing the modern jump shot in professional basketball. But the game never defined who he was. That's kind of when I realized that this is a story people are going to be able to relate to whether or not you're a basketball fan. He was a pioneer for women's athletics in Alaska and also served his country in World War II. There's a whole lot more to Kenny's story than just basketball.
SI: You interviewed a number of today’s basketball stars for the film. What was it like talking to them about Kenny?
JH: I think when players like Stephen, KD and Dirk, when they get to the point in their careers that they're at, they begin to look at those that came before them and really appreciate the game. One of the things that we struggled with at first was how do we get these people that might not know Kenny’s story to engage with it, because they don't really know who he is, they've never seen him play. So it started out with this iconic Life magazine photo that was taken in 1946. Not many people knew of Kenny’s story. The older generation, the OG’s, like they were more familiar with it, but I didn't want to make a purely historical film. And you could tell when we sat down with the modern players just how appreciative they were.
SI: What was it like working with Steph on the project?
JH: Steph is an executive producer on the film and his involvement could have stopped at his interview. His love for basketball is what initially attracted him to the film, what's really cool is that because of who Kenny was, as a man of faith, somebody that values family, Steph was like, “Is there any other way that we could be more involved with the film?” And that was something we were not anticipating, at least not early on.
He's able to weigh in on key moments and scenes in the film and obviously anything that a basketball player or true fan would want to hear about. Having his knowledge and passion behind the film, it helped shape it into what it is today. Obviously, getting to have his voice amongst some of the other individuals in there, that also created a whole different dynamic in the film.
SI: You said you initially first started thinking about this story around a decade ago. A lot has changed since then. Sadly, Kenny died a few years ago after you had seemingly interviewed him and gotten to know him. And on the court, the three-point shot has continued to become more popular. Could the timing of this film have been better?
JH: I mean, you look at the landscape of the game and really there couldn’t have been a more perfect time for this to come out. You look at the ‘90s version of basketball where it's really a big man's game. To get to see the game evolve in that way to where it is today, it's definitely a more exciting game. We got to sit down with [Spurs shooting coach] Chip Engelland and he was sharing stories with us about guys and the jump shot. That was great.
Then for me, personally, getting to know Kenny, I realized early on that this guy gets it. That he was living for something bigger than himself. Kenny is such an incredible, beautiful character. I mean, his humility and his love for for other people, I think really shines through.