Nobody can know for sure who invented the jump shot. It’s one of those elements of basketball that seems ubiquitous, because the most common way to get that round orange ball through that 18-inch diameter rim is to line up to face the basket, square your shoulders, bend your knees, and lift off toward the ceiling while firing the sphere in the general direction of the hoop.
It, after all, is so very obvious.
James Naismith invented basketball in 1891, and surely, one might think, the jump shot has been utilized since that wintry day in Springfield, Massachusetts, 127 years ago. That’s what filmmaker Jacob Hamilton—and, probably, most people born after World War II—could have assumed, anyway.
But then Hamilton listened to a 2008 episode of NPR’s StoryCorps that featured Kenny Sailors, the man most credited with inventing the jump shot. Hamilton grew intrigued. And why not? Sailors’ explanation in that 2008 interview is wonderful, especially when he talked about how his talented older brother, Bud, helped him develop a shot that was born out of desperation.
“He’d work out against me sometimes even though he was five years older,” said Sailors, who was 13 at the time of his invention. “The good Lord must have put it in my mind that if I was going to get up over this big bum so I could shoot, I would have to jump. It probably wasn’t very pretty, but I got the shot off. And it went in.”
This was in 1934, four decades after Naismith’s invention, underneath a rim made of iron that was attached to the family’s wood-shingled windmill in Wyoming. More than 70 years later, Hamilton sat transfixed listening to the interview and fantasizing about the possibilities. He searched around the Internet to see if Sailors’ story had been told, and when he decided there wasn’t extensive research on the man, Hamilton called Sailors to see if the nonagenarian would work with him on the project Hamilton had in mind—a short film that would re-introduce the world to one of basketball’s most important figures.
“As I got to know him a little more, I realized there were more layers to him and that there might be something more than just a short film here,” Hamilton told the Daily Dot. “I quickly realized he had become a forgotten figure. People didn’t know who he was or what he did for the game of basketball. It’s a great injustice that nobody knew who the man was. I needed to make sure the world knows. If I don’t, I don’t know who will.”
That’s why Hamilton expanded his short film, as seen below, and began working on a feature-length documentary called Jumpshot: The Kenny Sailors Story.
There was another reason for Hamilton to continue this passion project that had been conceived in 2011. Not only has Sailors—who died in January at the age of 95—been forgotten by the general basketball fan, but the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame also has failed to recognize him. Hamilton hopes that will change April 4 when the Hall of Fame announces the results of the next class of inductees, and he hopes that his film will have played a role in getting Sailors his recognition.
“I thought it was fascinating that he was forgotten by the average American citizen—even the basketball world didn’t know he existed,” Hamilton said. “We thought if we brought his story to light, we could make enough noise that the Hall of Fame and the NBA might recognize this man for what he did.
“We definitely had hopes that it would turn the tide, but we wouldn’t look at this film as a success or not if he didn’t get in. Ultimately, we’re trying to portray who this man is.”
There’s little question that the short film has bestowed at least some recognition on Sailors. Hamilton’s two-minute clip below that advocates for Sailors’ HOF inclusion has more than 156,000 views on YouTube, and Hamilton hopes that kind of online activity will make an impact with those who make the final decisions on the Hall of Fame.
Though Sailors conceived of the jump shot when he was 13, he continued to improve his form into college at the University of Wyoming, which he led to the NCAA title in 1943. Most players of the time used a flat-footed, chest-level set shot—players were basically forbidden to leave their feet when shooting—but when this photograph appeared in Life magazine in 1946, the jump shot basically went viral more than six decades before the term “going viral” entered the lexicon.
Though his first professional coach, Dutch Dehnert of the Cleveland Rebels, told Sailors he’d never get anywhere with that leaping one-hander, the next generation of pro basketball stars proved that Sailors would remake the game. Eventually, we’d see this kind of mastery from players like Steph Curry.
“What I found was that a lot of guys shot some variation of a jump shot, a running shot off one foot or what have you,” Jerry Krause, co-author of The Origins of the Jump Shot, told CBSSports.com in February 2015. “But Kenny’s shot is the shot we see today. Was he the first? I don’t think anyone could ever say that for certain. But what you can say, and I’m very comfortable saying this, is that Kenny was the first player to really develop the jump shot and use it consistently. The jump shot we see today is Kenny’s shot.”
But at least 10 others, including players like Glenn Roberts in 1930, have some sort of claim that either they invented or innovated the jumpshot. In fact, Ty Clark, Jumpshot’s creative producer, put together a 99-page report detailing everybody’s claims.
Not even Sailors was sure.
But when asked by fans throughout the years if he was the one who invented it, Sailors remembered a quote from longtime DePaul University basketball coach Ray Meyer.
“Sailors may not have been the first player to jump in the air and shoot the ball,” Meyer said many years later, “but he developed the shot that’s being used today.”
Said Sailors to NPR: “That’s the way he put it. And I like that.”
But will the recent online attention and advocacy for Sailors be enough to get him into the Hall of Fame next month? Will Sailors finally be remembered in an institution that will celebrate him to people who otherwise would forget?
“With all the attention we’ve gotten, we’re relevant,” said Hamilton, who plans to complete the feature-length film later this year and have it ready for a festival release in spring 2017. “Now that we’re relevant, Kenny is being nominated to get into the Hall of Fame. This is something people are talking about. This story was forgotten for a long time, but things are happening now. [A Hall of Fame induction for Sailors] would be a great thing for the film. But it would be an even better thing for Kenny’s family.”
Screengrab via Jacob Ryan Hamilton/YouTube