the poster hung above my bedroom dresser, a painting realistic in its details but abstract in concept, kareem abdul-jabbar’s head and shoulders tilted to the left as he threw a hook shot against a sky background dotted with clouds.
In hindsight, my wall was covered with athletes doing what defined them. magical johnson smiling; James Worthy leaping for a slam dunk, the ball held directly above his head like the Statue of Liberty’s torch; michael jordan in the original air jordan poster, captured mid-flight, arms and legs spread wide in a pose that became the logo worn on millions of high top sneakers. kareem with his heavenly hook.
The greatest of the greats don’t just have one style. they have a signature, an indelible stamp that means exactly who they are.
It can be an item of clothing, like Abraham Lincoln’s top hat or Tiger Woods’ red Sunday shirts. can be a familiar instrument like b.b. king guitar, lucille. it can be as simple as one word: “yes!” by marv albert
To make something so simple seem so distinctive, it has to be done over and over again, through solitary repetition and on stage when the whole world is watching. I’ve seen that rhythmic skyhook so many times that it’s burned into my head like an image left on a computer screen too long. your left leg is straight, right knee comes up, left arm is extended, right arm comes up with the ball, and finally the wrist moves to add the backspin, the seams rotate as the ball arcs toward the hoop and falls through the net.
not that abdul-jabbar created the skyhook. but sometimes it is better to perfect things than to do them first. Liza Minnelli got the first shot at “New York, New York,” but Frank Sinatra’s version is the one you hear the most at Yankees and Knicks games. In basketball, where talent ultimately trumps all else, victory belongs to the appropriators rather than the innovators.
you’ve probably never heard of dean berry. He was a backup guard for the Georgetown Hoyas and played just 50 minutes in the 1995-96 season. But in practice he taught Allen Iverson the crossover dribble move that Iverson used so effectively in the NBA.
We can thank George Mikan and Cliff Hagan for the origins of the Abdul-Jabbar hook shot. Abdul-Jabbar has no recollection of ever seeing Mikan, the Minneapolis Laker who was the NBA’s first dominant big man. but he did use the drill that is named after him and it involved throwing a hook from the right side with his right hand, then a hook from the left side with his left hand and repeating as he slowly backed away from the basket. abdul-jabbar saw them make use of the hook shot as a player for the st. louis hawks, a reminder that the hook can be used effectively at all levels of the game.
abdul-jabbar’s greatest encouragement to continue working on the hook was when he began playing in fifth grade, and often found himself competing with older boys, just as tall and more physically developed than himself.
“It was the only shot I could fire that didn’t hit me in the face,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “So I learned to trust him early on, and he was always something I could get out of, even in traffic.”
while practicing in new york city gyms and playgrounds, he expanded his shooting range. The NCAA banned the slam dunk when Abdul-Jabbar was at UCLA, so he used the hook to set scoring records and win 88 of his 90 college games.
Milwaukee Bucks broadcaster Eddie Doucette gave the shot its heavenly name during Abdul-Jabbar’s early professional years with the Milwaukee Bucks, and it stuck when he moved to Los Angeles and continued to rely on the shot hook as the primary weapon for his assault on Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time NBA scoring record. Every time the showtime Lakers couldn’t get out on the fast break, Magic Johnson would simply raise his fist, signaling it was time to get the ball to Kareem. In hindsight, it really wasn’t fair to go from one of the best fast breaks ever unleashed in the NBA to a plan B that was the most effective shot in the history of the game. It was like following Larry Holmes’ jab with Mike Tyson’s uppercut.
I can still hear legendary Lakers announcer hearn describing the play:
“give it to kareem. he’ll turn left, he’ll shoot right. he’ll turn left, he’ll shoot right the 12ft skyhook is good!”
Which begs the question: If scouts told them what the play was with their fists and hearn could see it coming from his seat above the west sideline on the set, why couldn’t opposing defenders anticipate it and stop her? ?
For one thing, unlike a jump shot where the proper technique is to align the shoulders to face the basket, the skyhook was released with the shoulders perpendicular to the rim, forcing the defender to go through the ring completely. jabbar’s body to get to the ball. As an added deterrent, Abdul-Jabbar extended his left arm to ward off opponents.
Then there was the element of time. To hear Abdul-Jabbar describe it, you’d need a graphing calculator to project the right time and place to block the shot.
“When you shoot, you make people wait for you to come up,” he said, “and if they wait until you start shooting, they’ll have to judge distance and time, and it’s gone before they can get to it. That’s the beauty of it to me. You’re in control because of when and where you’re going to drop it. The defense has to see that and calculate everything before they have a chance to block it.”
As if that didn’t pack enough thoughts into a defender’s brain, he also had to worry about the counter attacks developed by abdul-jabbar. if a defender played him too far to the right to take off the hook, he would simply swing to his left to fire a jump shot or, in later years, a left-handed version of the skyhook.
Double-teaming him wasn’t an attractive option during his seasons with the Lakers, because he could have had three other stars on the court with him at any given time. Among the options he had to move on to over the years were Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Norm Nixon and Jamaal Wilkes.
“That gave people the option of ‘how do you want to kill yourself?'” said abdul-jabbar. “Do you want me to do the take or do you want one of those guys to do it?”
So that meant abdul-jabbar faced more individual coverage than any of his abilities had a right to see. and a single defender had no chance of stopping him.
“I don’t remember it ever being blocked by someone who was protecting me,” said abdul-jabbar. “Maybe some people came, they came to help where I couldn’t see them, but if I knew where someone was, that person wasn’t going to block that shot, because I always had my body between them and the ball before I released the ball, and it’s impossible to get to her manute bol was [five] inches taller than me and i shot several at him and made them without him blocking.
“no one really challenged me to take it off. wilt [chamberlain] was pretty good too. wilt tried to time it and he could really jump, but he just couldn’t make it in time.”
It seemed like the take always started the same and ended the same. however, among the thousands of attempts, there are a few that stand out in my mind. that also requires a special talent. John Stockton set the NBA record for career assists from him, but it’s hard to remember any single pass among the 15,806.
not so with kareem. she managed to mix in some drama and even a bit of emotion in between the repeat. Well, maybe he wasn’t that thrilled on Oct. 12, 1979, when he skyhooked near the top of the key to give the Lakers the win in Magic Johnson’s first pro game, prompting Johnson to wrap abdul-jabbar in a bear hug as if they had just won the championship. kareem calmly reminded him that there were 81 games left.
at the first lakers game i saw in person, on march 28, 1982, abdul-jabbar beat the cleveland cavaliers with a skyhook at the buzzer. The following year he made a critical skyhook in an overtime playoff victory at Portland, then let out a yelp as he ran back to the bench, where the magic greeted him with a high-five for a long time.
There was even more excitement with the hook shot that froze the Lakers’ Game 6 win at Boston Garden that handed over the 1985 championship in an NBA Finals that began with the Lakers being trampled by the Celtics and Abdul -jabbar being tagged as over the hill.
Abdul-Jabbar’s personal favorite came in the same building 11 years earlier, a spectacular late hook that helped the Bucks beat the Celtics in a Finals game.
And, fittingly, it was a hook shot that broke Chamberlain’s scoring record on April 5, 1984.
abdul-jabbar’s skyhook is one of the iconic moves of all time, like george gervin’s toe twist or hakeem olajuwon’s dream move. the modern game has nothing like it, either in status or effectiveness. Ironically, the San Antonio Spurs, the team derided for having such a deteriorated style, have two of the signature shots remaining: Tony Parker’s teardrop and Tim Duncan’s mid-range jumper off the wing. (why do old school announcers go crazy over bank shot? is the game so much worse without it?)
The true test of a signature move is when you can recognize it the moment someone else tries it. (for example, it’s pretty easy to see the influence of michael jackson in these usher dance moves). When Abdul-Jabbar took a seat on the baseline at a 2004 Lakers game during his brief stint as a Knicks scout, Shaquille O’Neal took notice and threw a hook shot down the lane as an instant tribute, then noted to abdul-jabbar to make sure he got the tribute.
o’neal calls the skyhook “one of the most effective shots” in the history of the game, which makes you wonder why he never adopted it himself.
“My father made me shoot all the time,” O’Neal said. “Being a hip-hop kid, he didn’t want to do it.
“we’re different. we like to be much cooler.”
abdul-jabbar admits it’s “not a macho shot” and realized it was going out of style even when he first learned it in the 1950s. but he doesn’t understand the modern player’s reluctance to incorporate it into his game.
“I used it to become the leading scorer in nba history,” abdul-jabbar said. “There has to be something about it that works.”
There’s a lot to be said for travel being made easier by having a set destination. one of the reasons abdul-jabbar always seemed to be one step ahead of the defense is that he knew exactly what he was going to do with the ball. michael jordan incorporated elements of this as he began to rely more and more on his failing jersey, and in the last two years you’ve seen kobe bryant become more adept at getting to his sweet spots and then getting up to shoot. /p>
lebron james seems to improvise every time, and there is a sense of wonder when we discover his capabilities along with him. but lebron and kobe are perimeter players, almost destined to shoot below percentages. Kareem was a 56 percent shooter of his career and only had one season, the last in 1988-89, in which he missed at least half of his shots.
so while the last generation have found more exciting ways to score, they haven’t found anything more effective. the skyhook will still belong to abdul-jabbar. and, not coincidentally, so will your high score record.
j.a. Adame is a contributor to espn.com
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