AUSTIN, Texas — I had one question after seeing Jump Shot, a new documentary executive produced by Steph Curry, at South by Southwest: If an undersized white guy from Wyoming was responsible for perfecting the modern jump shot in the 1940s, how did we get to a point where the phrase “White Men Can’t Jump” wasn’t just a stereotype but the basis for an entire movie?
Jump Shot, directed by Jacob Hamilton, offers a simple, if indirect, answer to this question: Kenny Sailors, the white guy from Wyoming, was never big on promoting himself or the way he revolutionized basketball.
Sailors was MVP of the University of Wyoming’s 1943 NCAA championship team. Two weeks later, he shipped off to fight for the U.S. Marines in World War II. Upon Sailors’ return from the war, he played professional basketball long enough to collect a pension, then moved to Glennallen, Alaska, where he lived in relative obscurity for 35 years.
“I’m not popular,” Sailors explains on-screen. “That jump shot’s popular.”
Indeed, when Kevin Durant is asked about the jump shot, he voices a widely held misconception. “I’m a millennial,” he says, “so I thought the jump shot just appeared.” (The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame recognizes Glenn Roberts, who played at tiny Emory & Henry College in Virginia in the 1930s, as the originator of the jump shot, but his form doesn’t look like the modern version.)
Jump Shot attempts to offer a full portrait of Sailors’ life, and it becomes clear that Sailors had other priorities that colored his approach to life and basketball. He moved to the middle of nowhere in Alaska because his wife had emphysema and asthma and her doctor said she would fare better away from the polluted air of cities. He hunted game on horseback during the summer and coached local high school sports the rest of the year. He became a girls’ basketball coach and pushed for women to be allowed to play the game full court because his daughter was a gifted athlete. (In the early days of women’s basketball, the game was 6-on-6, and only three women from a team were allowed in the offensive half because they were considered too frail to play full court.)
“They did what he taught them to do,” Sailors’ son, Dan, says in the film. “Forget about being ladies on the basketball court.”
Hamilton depicts Sailors as an unfussy retired Marine captain with deep allegiances to his family, his faith and his country. The fact that Sailors wound up helping to change basketball started as an adaptive strategy. At 5 feet, 10 inches, Sailors was much shorter than his 6-foot-5 brother. His jump shot allowed him to be competitive when they played against each other.
With archival footage from college basketball games in the 1940s and pro ball in the 1950s, Hamilton illustrates how much Sailors seemed like a time traveler from the future. With his disruptive ballhandling and pull-up jumper, Sailors raised the hackles of New York Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin, who didn’t like the way he was changing the game. Sailors ushered in an era of dribbling and kineticism that eventually replaced a game defined by set plays, lots of passing and very little running. A photo of Sailors in Life magazine, feet well off the ground, elbows bent toward the basket, with the ball leaving his hand, captures the same form that players like Michael Jordan, Kevin Durant and Steph Curry would later rely on.
The issue that Jump Shot raises but fails to address is how the tension between tradition and innovation in the NBA became so associated with race when one of the champions of such innovation was a traditional white guy. During the post-film Q&A session, Hamilton told the audience he learned that Sailors was the one white player who would socialize with Chuck Cooper when he integrated the Boston Celtics in 1950, but he’d left it out of the film. There’s an unexplored connection there, between Sailors’ embrace of newness and creativity and the way black players are often excoriated as harbingers of those very things. (See: NBA commissioner David Stern instituting a dress code as hip-hop’s influence on the league grew.)
Still, Jump Shot works as an effective argument for inducting Sailors into the Hall of Fame. Sailors acolytes mounted a campaign to get him inducted into the 2015 class, but it failed, and Sailors died in 2016. I’m willing to bet that with the release of this film, his name will be on the lips of voters for the upcoming class.