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Kevin Durant, Steph Curry back 'Jump Shot' documentary on Kenny Sailors

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry dribbles the

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry dribbles the ball up court against the Nets during the second half of an NBA basketball game at Barclays Center on Sunday, Oct. 28, 2018. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Kenny Sailors was sitting in a barbershop in Wyoming in 2011 when the subject turned to the jump shot, as it did often during his long life in and around basketball.

But he was having none of it, insisting there were many things he had done in his life “more important than that stupid jump shot.”

True, to a point, including being a longtime high school coach in Alaska who helped pioneer girls’ participation in that state.

But Sailors, who was 91 at the time, also understood that there was no escaping what history would remember him for: inventing, or at least popularizing, the jump shot.

It all is documented in a new film called “Jump Shot,” executive produced by the greatest 21st century master of that art, Stephen Curry, with interviews with the likes of Curry, Kevin Durant, Bob Knight, Nancy Lieberman, Lou Carnesecca, Dirk Nowitzki and the late Bob Wolff.

The film originally was to have a theatrical release during the Final Four earlier this month, but the COVID-19 pandemic erased that plan.

Instead, it will be available for rental for 72 hours at JumpShotMovie.com, from Thursday through Saturday.

Sailors died in 2016 at age 95, but the filmmakers got plenty of footage of him in 2011 and 2015, still sharp and still an old-school country boy who grew up in Wyoming and later spent 36 years in Alaska.

He was good company, and a good sport about the subject at the center of the documentary: Did he or did he not invent the jump shot?

It is complicated. Sailors first mastered the technique in attempting to shoot over his taller brother in the 1930s, but he was quick to admit he was not the first person ever to think of leaving the ground while shooting.

That was not the preferred method of the era. The two-hand set shot was. But many players experimented with more dynamic shots, notably Hank Luisetti, who at Stanford in the late 1930s unveiled a running one-hander.

“I will promise you the words never passed his mouth that  ‘I invented the jump shot,’ ” said David Goldberg, an associate producer on the film and a friend of Sailors since interviewing him for a book on pioneering basketball stars.

Goldberg, who grew up in Bethpage, lives in Smithtown and is a historian of the sport, said the crux of Sailors’ contribution was that his jump shot was a close facsimile of a modern one, and that his popularized the strategy.

Sailors already had led Wyoming to an NCAA title in 1943, after which the Cowboys beat NIT champion St. John’s, with both victories coming at Madison Square Garden.

But the jump shot’s biggest moment was a photo in Life magazine in 1946 of Sailors in mid-air shooting against LIU at the Garden, having returned to Wyoming after serving in World War II.

“What Kenny did was give it its coming-out party,” Goldberg said, “because of the combination of the uniqueness of the shot, Madison Square Garden and Life magazine.”

In the film, basketball luminaries including Curry are shown studying Sailors’ form in the picture and marveling at its perfection.

“There really is no question THE jump shot, in capital letters, underlined, was created by Kenny Sailors,” Goldberg said.

Durant, then a teammate of Curry with the Warriors, came on board after being shown the unfinished film on a tablet in his backyard.

“K.D. watches the whole thing, emotionless, and doesn’t say a word,” Goldberg said. “And when it ends, he says, ‘I’m in. You tell me what you need me to do.’”

Sailors was more proud of his dribbling and defense than his jumper. After watching him play, Curry said the way Sailors’ game stands out as fundamentally different from his peers’ is the way Curry hopes his game stands out today.

Sailors was a good player in the fledgling NBA, but he played for seven teams in five seasons in an era marked by franchise instability.

Eventually, he moved to Alaska and opened a big-game hunting lodge in addition to coaching and teaching in tiny Glennallen.

During those decades, he largely was forgotten in basketball circles, which has contributed to what friends and fans consider a glaring slight: He is not in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

The film depicts a failed effort to get him in in 2015 before he passed away.

Goldberg called Sailors’ omission the single most glaring for anyone in any sports Hall of Fame.

A case can be made for him as a player and an innovator, and has been, loudly and for many years. So far, though, no dice.

The hope is that the film and its A-list supporters of Sailors will make a difference in a future Hall of Fame vote.

“Everybody who knew Kenny loved him; everybody who was exposed to Kenny through the film or peeking at the film loved him,” Goldberg said. “All of a sudden there was nobody saying no to being involved with it.

“When somebody suggested they show it to Steph, that really obviously changed the scope of the project.”

Sailors faced skepticism from coaches and players in the 1940s that his innovative shot could work. But, eventually, a generation inspired in part by that signature picture in Life followed his lead and modernized the game.

“Something not discussed in the film is that Kenny said it was five, six, seven years before there were other guys doing it,” Goldberg said.

“He had no impact on his peers. But he impacted 14-year-old kids who were out there playing. They were the ones who would come along and do it.”

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