The story of basketball great and Wyoming hero Kenny Sailors is a familiar one to many in Laramie. Now a new documentary is spreading the legend far and wide.
“Jump Shot,” directed by Jacob Hamilton, made its world premiere in early March at South by Southwest, a film festival in Austin, Texas.
Co-produced by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, the film follows Sailors from his career at the University of Wyoming to his service with the U.S. Marines during World War II, his stint as a professional basketball player and his decades as a coach and teacher in Alaska.
Hamilton collected interviews with Sailors over five years, from 2011 until his death in Laramie in 2016 at the age of 95. The documentary also includes archival photos and footage. Former Wyoming basketball player Fennis Dembo appears in the film, along with Curry and fellow professional superstars Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki, among others in the basketball world.
Hamilton is based in Austin and works as a cinematographer in the film industry, and “Jump Shot” is his first feature-length documentary. He first learned about Sailors when he heard an audio clip on the internet of Sailors talking about his basketball career. Sailors is credited with inventing the jump shot, now an indelible component of the modern game.
“I was blown away by the fact that someone actually invented the jump shot,” he said. “You didn’t realize that the game of basketball existed without it.”
He said he was immediately drawn to Sailors’ story and flew to Laramie to meet him. As they discussed a potential documentary, Sailors emphasized that his life was about more than just basketball.
“There are a lot of things that could define who he is, particularly the one that everyone wants to talk about, which is the jump shot in basketball,” Hamilton said. “That’s the main hook through his story. He defined the game, but basketball never defined him.”
Invention by necessity
Sailors was born in 1921 in Nebraska, moving to Egbert, a small town in eastern Wyoming, in 1929. During his childhood, he learned the game of basketball by playing against his significantly taller older brother, Bud, who was 6-foot-5.
In order to get a shot off, the six-inches-shorter and five-years-younger Sailors developed a method of shooting by leaping straight up and releasing the ball with one hand raised up over his head. The traditional shot at that time was called the set shot, in which the shooter didn’t leave the floor.
Sailors continued to refine his shot as he led the University of Wyoming to the national championship in 1943, a season in which he was the National Player of the Year and the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. His No. 4 jersey hangs in the rafters at the Arena-Auditorium.
He served in the South Pacific with the Marines from 1943-1945, returned to UW for another All-America season and then played five seasons of professional basketball, including with the fledgling National Basketball Association. In 1951, he became a professional hunting and fishing guide in Jackson and then Alaska.
He formed the first Alaska state girls’ basketball tournament and then coached the Glennallen High School girls’ team to three-straight championships, finally retiring in 1999. He returned to Wyoming because of his wife’s ailing health.
In his later years, he was a fixture at Cowboys and Cowgirls games and practices in Laramie. In 2012, he was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, calling it one of the biggest honors he received.
Connecting to the past
As Hamilton was putting the documentary together, a producer shared it with a man who had a connection with Curry and Durant, who also eventually saw it.
“After they watched it, they were just as inspired by Kenny and who he is and what he believed in,” Hamilton said. “They said, ‘We’ve got to be part of this.’”
Hamilton filmed the players reacting to footage of Sailors in his prime and ahead of his time.
“They were super-impressed with the moves Kenny was doing 70 years ago,” he said.
“Jump Shot” made its premiere March 11. A second screening was sold out, a third screening in a larger venue was packed, Hamilton said, and the film was selected for an end-of-festival Buzz Screening, for films generating audience excitement.
“It’s been nothing but positive reactions from both audiences and critics,” he said. “We couldn’t be more thrilled that the film is being received the way that it is.”
The documentary is headed to the Freep Film Festival April 11-14 in Detroit, Michigan; the Dallas International Film Festival April 11-18 and the Hill Country Film Festival April 25-28 in Fredericksburg, Texas.
Hamilton, who thanked UW for participating in the project, said he’s expecting to add more screenings to the schedule, perhaps including one in Laramie. Negotiations are underway for distribution, though nothing is settled yet.
According to Boomerang archives, friends described Sailors as a deeply religious man. Friend Bill Schrage once recounted a conversation he had with Sailors about his selections for the NCAA Final Four. For Sailors, the Final Four had nothing to do with sports. His were God, husband, father and U.S. Marine, with basketball somewhere down the list.
Hamilton said he hoped the film would challenge audiences to consider their own priorities while remembering a man who exemplified sportsmanship, played a pioneering role in the game of basketball and cared about the people around him.
“No matter how old you are, or where you’re from, or what gender you are, you’re able to connect with him and his story,” Hamilton said.