Who invented basketball’s jump shot?
Ten years ago, director and cinematographer Jacob Hamilton would’ve answered the question like most of us might: No one. “I thought it had always existed,” he says.
And then he heard about Kenny Sailors.
For the last nine years, Hamilton’s worked on bringing Sailors’ remarkable story to light—a story that goes well beyond basketball and delves into the man’s commitment to family and faith. That story is called Jump Shot: The Kenny Sailors Story, and it’s available through video-on-demand as of today.
Plugged In had the opportunity to talk with Hamilton about Kenny Sailors, how NBA superstar Steph Curry became one of the film’s executive producers and the difficulty of putting a bittersweet period on Sailors’ remarkable story. (He died during the film’s production.) The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Paul Asay: I had never heard of Kenny Sailors before watching your documentary. How did you hear about this remarkable guy?
Jacob Hamilton: So, I came across Kenny’s story in 2011, actually. I’m a cinematographer by trade. Normally I’m behind a camera working with a director, helping them reach their vision. And I was reaching a point where I was curious what it would be like to be on the other side, and getting to direct. I started searching for documentary ideas, particularly ones that I could do well in the short format. And I came across a two-minute interview with Kenny. It was just audio, there wasn’t any video or anything like that. And I think it was titled “The Man Who Created the Jump Shot.” And being a sports fan, I was kind of like shocked and surprised to learn that somebody had invented the jump shot, because like most people, I thought it had always existed, [that] it was part of the game of basketball when Naismith created it.
So I clicked on it and listened to it, and it was an intriguing interview. But I fell in love with this man, Kenny Sailors. I’m like,”This man’s incredible. What an amazing man, very lucid, what an incredible character.“ So I started doing some research, and I came across an article [in which Kenny and a friend of his are watching the Men’s NCAA Tournament.] And Kenny’s friend asked him, “Hey, Kenny, who’s in your Final Four?” And Kenny’s response was, ”God, husband, father, U.S. Marine.” And when I read that in the article, and saw that basketball wasn’t on that list, I was like, ”OK, there is something much deeper here than just a basketball film about this man.” Obviously basketball would be a part of it, but I really wanted it to be a character-driven documentary. And that’s kind of how we got to where we are today.
Asay: What was it like to meet Kenny for the very first time?
Hamilton: So he was 90 when we met. He was 90, getting ready to be 91—
Asay: And he doesn’t act it at all. It was amazing to see him dribble and shoot baskets like he was, at that age.
Hamilton: It was. It was kind of terrifying while we were filming because sometimes you don’t know if they really can do what they say they can do. But yeah, he did it. And it was incredible to be able to sit down and spend time with him. There have been very few instances where, in the moment, you think to yourself, I am standing with a living legend right now. That’s what it felt like. And obviously he was an incredibly kind man. What you see in the film is [a man] who is true to who he is. And so we had a wonderful time getting to talk about his life and basketball and food—he loved to eat—and also his faith as well.
Asay: You got some pretty big-name NBA stars on screen as well: Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki, and obviously Stephen Curry, who’s one of the film’s executive producers. How did their involvement come about?
Hamilton: One of our executive producers, Mary Beth Minnis, was connected to the chaplain for the men’s USA basketball team. And she was able to share an early version of the film with him. And in [this version of the film], he saw that the Steph Currys and the Kevin Durants and the Dirk Nowitzkis aren’t in it. He very much enjoyed the film, so much so that he said, ”I know some people that should see this. I don’t know what they’re going to do with it, I don’t know if they’d even watch it, but let’s just see what happens. Let’s see what God does when we put it in front of them.“
And so one of those individuals was Steph Curry. For us, we were approaching arguably the greatest jump shooter of all time. And how cool would it be if he was going to be in our film that was titled Jump Shot about the guy who created the jump shot. He watched the film, and very much enjoyed it, and he agreed to be in an interview with us, which was absolutely incredible and amazing. What we didn’t anticipate, though, was him asking how he could be more involved with the film.
Obviously, he’s drawn to Kenny’s story from the basketball connection.But also, I think why he was more interested in being involved beyond just the interviews was just Kenny and his character; how Kenny was a faithful husband and how he was a loving father. He served his country in World War II as a U.S. Marine, he was an advocate for women’s sports, [and] he was a man of deep faith as well. And I think all those things—the whole package of Kenny—it just made sense for Steph to come on to help champion his story and be a voice.
Asay: This is not a “Christian” film, but Kenny’s Christian faith comes through so clearly. Was it important to show that aspect of the man on screen?
Hamilton: Absolutely. Kenny Sailors’ faith is every bit a part of who he is, just as he is a basketball player or the father or the husband or friend. This film wouldn’t exist without getting to explore some of Kenny’s faith. And it was important for me that his faith was relatable to people.
I am a Christian: I always hear this analogy that you can be Christian and a carpenter. It doesn’t mean you have to build a “Christian table.” And for me, I can be a Christian but not have to make Christian film. But it’s [also] always important for me to create art that has purpose and room for discussion when it’s over. I don’t want to spell out things for audiences, because I believe that they’re capable of figuring things out for themselves. And I want to encourage a conversation. But ultimately, Kenny’s faith is a huge part of the film, and my hope is that he earns the right to be able to share his faith with audiences.
Asay: You were involved with this story for nine years. And in some ways, it doesn’t end on the happiest of notes. [Kenny Sailors died in 2016]. Was this a particularly difficult story to tell because of that?
Hamilton: Yeah. It was challenging on a number of different levels. I’ll start with the emotional side of it, because you are building a relationship with somebody and you’re walking with somebody through life. And to lose a friend like I did with Kenny, it’s really tough. I would have loved to have shared the completed film with him, which I never had that opportunity to.
But then from the filmmaker’s side, there’s the part where you have to put your head down. And you have to keep going. And even on days where you don’t feel like you want to, because maybe a lot of hope has been let out of the bag. So, yeah, that was definitely a tough time. And you want to be able to mourn and take some time, but also you got to keep moving.
When we went to capture Kenny’s memorial service and his funeral, it was really hard for me, because … I wanted to be there wholeheartedly and just celebrate his life. But at the same time I’m having to focus on, “Are our cameras positioned in the right place? Are we capturing the right moments? Are we building a scene?” So that balance was really difficult.
The other thing that was really interesting to me, and you brought up the ending of the film, it’s not a happy ending. But I think that’s very relatable to what life is like for a lot of people. We don’t always get what we want. And you know, Kenny’s passing, I can look at with a perspective of hope because I know that he is no longer in any pain. He’s probably jumping as high as he was when he was in his prime. But he’s hanging out with his Savior. He’s with his family. And friends again. It’s a great reunion, so I have peace in that.
Asay: The Christian message, as we’ve talked about, is pretty understated in this film, though obviously there. If you were going to advise Christian filmmakers creating an explicitly Christian movie, are there things they could or should be doing to tell a more resonant story?
Hamilton: I’ll preface it with this: There are so many ways to tell a story, there are so many audiences that want to be reached. And so our film might not connect with somebody because of what they believe, whereas another film that is very direct it might be a perfect match for that person. I’ll just say that I don’t think one way is right or the other.
But I can tell you maybe what I prefer. And for me, I enjoy movies that don’t spell it out completely for me. A lot of times that [some Christian movies spell things out]. I don’t know if they give enough credit to the audience.
Look at how Jesus taught. He taught through parables. He taught through stories. And didn’t always completely explain, “This is exactly what this means.” … He used [parables] to teach a lesson that was something far beyond the scope and the picture of what was happening in that story.
And I think that that’s ultimately what we hope, or at least what I hope as a filmmaker, that [when] people walk away with in this film, they’ll see a man who arguably defined the game of basketball, created what we know as the jump shot today. But the game never defined who he was. He was living for something bigger than himself. And if people can walk away with that message … to me that’s a win. To see Kenny and some of the decisions he made … he walked the walk, not just talked the talk. You can see that in his life. And I think that speaks to a lot of people.
Jump Shot is available now on various platforms.