Jump Shot


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Jump Shot
"There's so much great material here that it would be impossible to make it into a dull film."

Did you know that there was a time when basketball didn't involve jumping? For outsiders to the sport - and even some players - it's a bizarre notion. The tactical focus of the game was all on marking and moving around other people to get a clear, long, low line for shooting at the net. Then, one day, a five foot seven inch player with a six foot five inch brother decided to leap straight up in the air to take a shot, and nothing was ever the same again.

That man was Kenny Sailors and this documentary sets out to tell his story. Commencing filming when he was a very sprightly 91-year-old and staying with him until his death at 95, it takes in a broad sweep of US history and has a powerful personal story to tell alongside the story of the sport. As Sailors, who provided a substantial amount of interview material for the film, remarks, the jump shot - captured in a famous photograph when first performed professionally - was not invented in one instant. He spent years perfecting it, learning to control his momentum so that he could jump straight up in the air after a run rather than moving forwards and potentially colliding with another player. And it wasn't his only contribution to the sport. This film takes in his other tactical innovations as a team captain as well as the way he championed the women's game and persuaded others that girls were not too delicate to run the full length of the court. It also looks at how he created opportunities for indigenous Alaskan girls (he uses an unfortunate term for them, a product of his age, but his good intentions are clear), drawing on his own experience to show them they could still play even though they tended to be short.

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Basketball has always been, first and foremost, a poor people's sport; little equipment is needed to start playing and it's possible to build up good basic skills without the need for expensive coaching. Back in the Great Depression it was a good option for Kenny and his brother, who grew up in Hillsdale, Wyoming, and therefore gained an advantage they were unaware of - the additional toughness that comes from training at altitude. When he took his team on a tour of the country their success made them legends. Then came the Second World War and all those sporting heroes went away to fight. Sailors' natural leadership skills saw him rise to the rank of Captain after just four years in the Marines. The importance to him of his military brotherhood is reflected in the film and hints at a broader arc in his life - the sense of fulfilment that he found in serving others.

The film also takes in the love that dominated Sailors' life, and how he gave up his sporting hero status to move to Alaska for the sake of wife Marilyn, who suffered from severe asthma and emphysema and was not expected to live. Reinventing himself as a professional hunter and coaching basketball in school clubs, Sailors showed real resilience. He also risked fading into obscurity. A campaign eventually arose to have him recognised by the Basketball Hall of Fame ye it doesn't seem to have been of great importance to him, his focus being on the amazing things that the sport had done for him rather than the other way around.

There's so much great material here that it would be impossible to make it into a dull film. Jump Shot sometimes suffers from being overly sentimental - always a risk when directors get this close to their subjects - and it drags out at the end as if struggling to decide which emotional moment to close on, weakening its overall impact. On the plus side, it's well illustrated with a mixture of present day and archive footage, and it includes interviews with a number of big names in the sport (both on and off the court) yet has the sense not to feature them just for the sake of it, bringing them in only when their contributions add something useful to the narrative.

Sailors himself is easy to like, an easy-going yet principled man whose religious beliefs have always inspired him to try and help others. His deep love of his sport helps to make the film accessible even to those whose knowledge of it is limited. For basketball fans, the film is a must.

Reviewed on: 13 Mar 2019
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Jump Shot packshot
A documentary about Kenny Sailors, the proclaimed developer of the modern day jump shot in basketball.

Director: Jacob Hamilton

Writer: Jacob Hamilton

Starring: Kenny Sailors, Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant

Year: 2019

Runtime: 80 minutes

Country: US


SXSW 2019

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