Great documentaries often reveal the magic behind things we take for granted. For instance, take the jump shot in basketball. Most people assume it’s as old as the game itself and that it has simply always been a move on the court. The quietly dazzling documentary, Jump Shot, follows its roots back to Wyoming native Kenny Sailors, and part of its charm lies in Sailors’ humble denial of his influence.
“Who knows?” he shrugs. “Back in the 1800s, some kid out in Podunk, Iowa could’ve jumped up in the air and thrown the ball.”
This isn’t far off from Sailors’ story. When he was a kid, he struggled going toe to toe with his much taller brother in one-on-one games. Out of frustration, he finally jumped up and boom went the dynamite.
Back then, in the late 1930s, players left their feet on the floor as a general rule. Of course, it’s a whole new game today, as players constantly soar across the court like superheroes and score slam dunks.
Who knows if Sailors was actually the first person on the planet to perform a jump shot? But he was definitely the first to capture the public’s attention with it.
Sailors famously broke out his secret weapon during the 1943 NCAA basketball championship in Madison Square Garden, where he led the Wyoming Cowboys to national victory. His jump-shot moment was immortalized in an iconic Life photograph. One of the most powerful sequences in the film is a montage of NBA players marveling at the photo, gazing at Sailors as if he were a god.
Here, director Jacob Hamilton perfectly captures the awe of sports. We treat sports stories as tall tales when they are actually grounded in the reality of overcoming everyday odds. Sailors wasn’t demonstrating a superpower; he was simply trying to outmatch taller players. The jump shot was a practical measure.
The film goes on to explore his even more heroic moments as an everyman. We see him ship off to the Pacific theater of World War II. Hamilton also sheds light on Sailors’ life in Alaska, where the fresh air alleviated his wife’s asthma. While they were out in the Great North, he pushed for schools to start basketball programs for young women and led a team of Native Alaskan girls to a state championship.
Unlike many of his admirers, Sailors considers the jump shot the least of his accomplishments.
Sadly, Sailors didn’t live to see this documentary, but you get the sense that he would’ve watched it sheepishly. With this film, Hamilton paints a beautiful portrait of the basketball star’s humility.
For whatever reason, Sailors has yet to be inducted into the prestigious Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts. The sequence about the rejection calls to mind a line from the sports classic, The Sandlot: “Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.”
Jump Shot is a Documentary Feature finalist at the 2019 Heartland Film Festival. Tickets can be purchased here.
10:30 a.m., Friday, Oct 11 — AMC Castleton Square
7:30 p.m., Thursday, Oct 17 — Historic Artcraft Theatre
5:45 p.m., Friday, Oct. 18 — DeBoest Lecture Hall at Newfields
5:10 p.m., Saturday, Oct 19 — AMC Castleton Square