By Jacob Sahms
In Houston, Texas, Jacob Hamilton played every sport he could. But his athletic career rolled to a close in high school, just as his film career found its foundation. In high school, he’d always found himself more moved by movies than his friends, and a multimedia class introduced him to editing. Editing his friends’ highlight videos led to joining the athletic department’s film development team at Texas A&M where he studied engineering. But after graduation, he moved to Austin to pursue filmmaking full-time. In 2011, he searched for the subject for his first documentary, a short film, aimed at pursuing a character who would captivate the audience. When he came across a two-minute interview with the eighty-something Kenny Sailors, he knew there was a story that crossed the boundaries of his love for sports and for storytelling.
Kenny Sailors is the subject of Hamilton’s full-length documentary, Jump Shot, depicted in thanks to help from basketball luminaries like Steph Curry, Bob Knight, Kevin Durant, Nancy Lieberman, Larry Shyatt, and Lou Carnessca. In a documentary that explains why Sailors invented the jumpshot in the late 1930s and how his career through the University of Wyoming changed basketball forever, Hamilton captured a man who represented so much more than a career in basketball.
“I remember hearing in the interview clip how Kenny was watching the Final Four with a friend and the friend asked him what Kenny’s Final Four would be,” remembered Hamilton. “The friend expected to hear about a list of powerhouses, the schools expected to win, and instead, Kenny said, ‘God, husband, father, U.S. Marine.’ Immediately, I thought, this guy gets it, well beyond basketball. I thought he was the person to make the character-driven documentary about.”
In the first introduction that the audience has to Sailors, the World War II veteran enters the high school gym and picks up a basketball ball from the top of the key. Casually, he shoots and lays it in, then fumbles the ball and reduces the crew to laughter as he struggles to regain control of it. He’s in his nineties at this point, and is quick to point out to everyone that his game isn’t what it once was, chuckling deeply. It’s this self-deprecating sense of himself that makes Sailors captivating, beyond basketball, permeating everything in the film. Hamilton says that this is just who the inventor of the jump shot was.
“He’s part of what we know of as the greatest generation. We don’t see much of that anymore. We did an early screener with some of his closest friends and family two years ago in Laramie. We didn’t have Steph, Dirk, or Nancy Lieberman yet. One of his close friends walked up with tears in his eyes, and gave us huge hugs. He said, ‘Thanks for giving me another eighty minutes with my friend.’ To have someone who knows him so well say that the film had allowed him to spend time with Kenny that he never would’ve had – that’s a high stake moment for us.”
In an incredible, connective way, the film found its way to today’s basketball luminaries, thanks to relationships and the power of both basketball and faith. Producer Mary Beth Minnis was connected to the chaplain for USA basketball, and shared the early version of the film with him. He excitedly responded, telling her that there were some people he wanted to share it with in case they would watch it.
“The chaplain thought it worth putting in front of these guys to see what God would do,” Hamilton explained. “I know Steph watched while on the plane to China for one of their preseason games. For Steph, there’s the draw for basketball. He’s arguably one of the best shooters of all time. We just hoped for an interview but he’s like, ‘This is great, how can i get more involved? What else can I do to be part of this?’ That’s largely because Kenny was a faithful husband, a US Marine, an advocate for female athletes, and a man of deep faith. It checked all of the boxes for him. Once he saw the film, he saw it was much more than a basketball story.”
For the Durant connection, Hamilton explained that they took the film to Durant’s home, thanks to the connection made by the chaplain. He shared how they showed the film on his laptop in the backyard, blowing out the speakers on his laptop. At one point, Durant asked them to stop the film so that he could pause it, rewind it, and replay a move that Sailors was effectively using on hapless defenders. “KD just kept saying, ‘I was working on this exact move in practice this week. He was doing this sixty to seventy years ago. This is crazy!’”
Hamilton knows that the story packs a punch, having poured over the interviews for hours, listening and watching as the stars of the game respond to Sailors’ story. “He was shorter in a big man’s game with lots stacked against him. But in the end, his story is even bigger than basketball.”
Watch the film now, through April 18, at https://www.altavod.com/movies/jumpshot. Ten percent of the proceeds and one hundred percent of the “Give” funds go to benefit the Convoy of Hope for COVID-19 meals in underserved communities.