LeBron James: Making History

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's signature sky hook notably absent in NBA's copycat world

There is no shortage of imitation in basketball. So why is the most successful shot of all time extinct?

Around the NBA, players and coaches have historically embraced stealing, or to characterize it a bit more respectfully, copycatting. 

Many years ago, when gravity-bound players discovered that shots could actually be made by leaping simultaneously, the jump shot replaced the set shot. After Bill Sharman instructed the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers to report to the gym on the morning of each game to run a few light drills — and then they proceeded to win a record 33 straight games — the “shootaround” was adopted by every team.

Once Tim Hardaway tricked defenders in the 1980s by dribbling left and then quickly shifting right, or vice-versa, kids flooded the schoolyard to mimic the ankle-breaking crossover. And when Stephen Curry stretched his range near midcourt and made routine long-distance shots seem as simple as layups, the 3-pointer spread along with the floor.

The lesson here: Any trend or skill or tactic that helps teams and players win and prosper is immediately seized by others and becomes a revolution. Although there is a very curious and noticeable exception.

Oh, you can go ahead and say it. That shot is dead.”

— Dominique Wilkins, on the sky hook

The sky hook is the most lethal weapon in NBA history. And the man who created that shot became famous, wealthy and legendary. And that shot was so successful over all the nights and seasons and decades that it helped him score more points than anyone. And therefore, based on that mountain of evidence, that shot became a prime candidate for copycatting, because this is a league that borrows unapologetically.

But the sky hook can only be found in a resting place, coincidently up in the sky, as in hoop heaven, unlikely to be seen rolling off the fingertips of elite scorers again.

“Oh, you can go ahead and say it,” offered Dominique Wilkins, one of many victims of the sky hook. “That shot is dead.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the author of that shot, of course, and today, at 75, he is both amused and perplexed by its extinction. And if the famously private man allowed a peek into his soul, you might find some annoyance as well. Pride does have a way of rising to the surface, no matter how much someone tries to conceal it. How can he ever experience a sincere form of flattery if nobody bothers to imitate his art?

“I used it to become the leading scorer in the history of the NBA,” he said. “There has to be something about it that works.”

Oh, it worked, enough to make Abdul-Jabbar a six-time MVP, win six championships and place him on the short list of greatest-evers. But that was then. And the game changed, multiple times since he retired in 1989. And much like many aspects of bygone eras, that shot isn’t trendy, or cool, won’t sell sneakers or get a social media following, all the things a new generation prioritizes and embraces.

Sky hook’s success helps Abdul-Jabbar soar

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar created his nearly indefensible shot that came to be known as the sky hook.

LeBron James, one might assume, has scored in a hundred different ways over two decades in the league. He’s on pace to leapfrog Kareem this season for first place on the all-time scoring list and will do so without ever mimicking the signature shot unless, as a tribute, he sky hooks the record-breaking attempt. 

Anyway, it would be correct to say LeBron doesn’t fit the profile of a hook-shooter. He’s not a seven-footer camped out near the paint. Those types are the prototypes, yet given a choice, they’re more likely to be found stashed outside the 3-point stripe these days. 

Abdul-Jabbar was asked: If you played today and was told to skip a few sky hooks and mix in some 3s (Kareem made one for his career, in the 1986-87 season), how would that fly with you?

He tried to be diplomatic.

“If my coach thought that was best for the team, I’d give it a chance. But I was so effective in the post that it would be like telling Steph Curry to stop shooting 3s and do only layups.”

Joel Embiid is the game’s best low-post center but uses the hook infrequently, and mostly as a last-ditch. Embiid studied VHS tapes of Hakeem Olajuwon while growing up in Cameroon and therefore never saw a hook.

The reason young kids don’t learn the sky hook is everyone is so enamored with the 3-point shot. So they don’t want two points, they don’t want to work with their back to the basket.”

— Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Karl-Anthony Towns is the self-proclaimed greatest shooting center ever, but there’s a suspicious absence of a certain shot in his collection. The Minnesota Timberwolves’ center had a good excuse for that when asked: “Nobody ever taught me the sky hook.” 

He’s typical of today’s scoring big man, who’s more likely to play facing the basket. The rump-to-the-rim center is a dinosaur of the 1970s. Blame Ralph Sampson for that. When the slim 7-foot-4 center went rogue and began dribbling beyond the paint and pulling up for mid-range shots in the early ‘80s, he was quickly copycatted. Look who followed: Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, etc., all of whom became franchise players, influencers and Hall of Famers.

With the exception of Dwight Howard, who used a baby hook in his prime, and a few lesser players, tall men steered away from the shot as they would a sixth foul.

“The reason young kids don’t learn the sky hook is everyone is so enamored with the 3-point shot,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “So they don’t want two points, they don’t want to work with their back to the basket. They want to go out there in the stratosphere and shoot 3-pointers. They don’t seem to understand that the closer you get to the basket, a lot more of your shots will go in. That’s the first thing I learned, so I worked on that hook shot and learned how to get position close to the basket where I could get my hook shot off.”

Take a look back at Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's legendary career with 70 of his best trademark sky-hooks!

When Kareem was in grade school, a foot taller than his classmates, he practiced the Mikan Drill, a continuous motion of left and right-handed layups. From that, a hook shot evolved, which wasn’t unusual as many post-players in the ‘60s used the hook. However, as he grew taller, it became the sky hook — so named because Kareem, with his long reach, released the ball among the clouds, well above the rim line.

Two years after he arrived at UCLA, college basketball had outlawed the dunk. The new rule gave him one less option to score, which actually enhanced the sky hook. Once he reached the NBA, the shot was his meal ticket. It was virtually unstoppable.

At its release point, only a select few players had the reach to attempt to block it, primarily Wilt Chamberlain. Abdul-Jabbar added variations — shooting with the left and right hand, using a slight hip and shoulder fake to throw defenders off balance and using his off-arm to create space between him and his man.

“I’d get my body in between that person and the ball and that person wasn’t going to block the shot,” he said. “They have to judge the distance and time it, but the shot is gone before they could catch up to it.” 

The sky hook had no predators, then, so Abdul-Jabbar used it without abandon, getting high-percentage buckets. He averaged 30 per game or more in four of his first six seasons, doing this during the Golden Age of big men (meaning he had a stiff challenge almost every night).

“It was just an incredible shot,” said Rick Barry, the Hall of Famer, whose underhand free throw has also dodged duplication. “And he was so good from the baseline, which was amazing, because you had no backboard help. That shot was the length of his whole body, plus his arm. Crazy how good it was.”

On May 10, 1974, Kareem knocks down his signature shot to force a Game 7 against the Celtics.

By the mid-1980s, Abdul-Jabbar was the last to employ the hook as his go-to move as Bob Lanier, Willis Reed and others had retired. Meanwhile, the face-the-basket revolution, led by Sampson and Ewing, was in full effect. 

The sky hook had epic moments, though. Abdul-Jabbar beat Boston at the buzzer in double-OT in Game 6 of the 1974 NBA Finals. He hooked another buzzer shot in Magic Johnson’s first NBA game, and Magic famously jumped into the arms of a shocked Abdul-Jabbar, who gently reminded the rookie there were 81 more games to play. Another hook in 1984 (over 7-foot-4 Utah Jazz center Mark Eaton) erased Chamberlain from the top spot on the all-time scoring list. 

It’s safe to say the sky hook consumed the majority of his 38,387 career points, an astonishing degree of dependence, much like Nolan Ryan’s fastball being heavily responsible for baseball’s all-time strikeout record. 

In 1984, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar hit his trademark sky hook to become the NBA's all-time leading scorer.

The shot was good enough for Abdul-Jabbar. For others? Not so much. 

“Think of all the things the NBA copied because it had some success,” said Barry, “except this.”

‘It’s not a hard shot to learn’

The current all-time scoring leader knows that title won’t last much longer, but he’s not exactly counting down the days. Abdul-Jabbar is at peace. He spends part of his life absorbing the news, using insight to express himself through social and political commentary for various publications, and managing his health. And about that: He survived prostate cancer, leukemia and heart bypass surgery in recent years.

Asked about mortality and the fragility of life, Abdul-Jabbar said: “When we first have to deal with the failings of our body, we see it as a betrayal. My body, which brought me so much success and pleasure during my life, has gone rogue. But maybe those physical failings can bring a different kind of success because you are forced to focus on the internal person.”

One form of wisdom that hasn’t been passed along was the sky hook. He was open to coaching possibilities after retirement but those never materialized; executives thought of him as aloof and figured he’d have issues communicating with players.

“The irony is every coach I ever played for would tell you that I was coachable, meaning I listened to what they said and did my best to implement their strategies,” he said. “I’ve always been the ultimate team player. But some of the press at the time resented my involvement with civil rights and went out of their way to portray me as the stereotypical Angry Black Man.

“Owners at that time didn’t want to risk any association with political or social controversies. They weren’t looking to change the world, just increase their bottom line. Today, I’m quite content writing, hanging with friends, and doing some couch coaching in front of the TV.” 

The Lakers did hire him as a special assistant in the mid-2000s to tutor teenaged center Andrew Bynum and, just maybe, teach him the hook. In four years together, Kareem found Bynum respectful and polite, but ultimately not driven. Bynum, he said, was more passionate about dissecting car engines, not basketball strategies. The sky hook stayed with Kareem. Since then, nobody asked to borrow it.

In the mid-2000s, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar worked to teach Lakers center Andrew Bynum the sky-hook.

“It’s not a hard shot to learn,” he said. “It gives you all the fundamentals. It teaches you how to use footwork, feet and hands, how to use the backboard. Guys who can play with their back to the basket, that’s a valuable guy, not somebody you can just discard. That’s somebody who can win games.”

That’s somebody who’s clogging the lane, according to a revamped game that now relies on 3-pointers and isolation plays. Each time Victor Wembanyama, the 7-foot-4 French teenager projected as the next great big man, dribbles between his legs and shoots a fadeaway 3-pointer as an entire league gushes, the sky hook sinks another foot in the grave. 

And in a moment that was foretelling, the final points of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s career, which set the all-time record … came on a dunk.

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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