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The Skyhook

PERFORMANCE: 9.7

STYLE: 8.9

OVERALL: 9.3

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook was unstoppable, even when you knew it was coming. Left leg sweeping across the lane, ready to root itself to the ground like a tree trunk. Right leg bending 90 degrees at the knee, suspended in mid-air. Right arm tucking behind the head before slowly unfurling straight in the air. Left arm raising to protect the inside of the ball, then sweeping down into your air space like a floating shield. The same thing, every damn time. And every time, the defense was hopeless.

PERFORMANCE: 9.7

We can’t pinpoint the exact percentage Abdul-Jabbar shot on his patented move, since his heyday predates the internet itself. Our best guess comes via one intrepid blogger named “LamarMatic” who tracked all of Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhooks from the 1983 playoffs. He played in 15 playoff games that season, including 10 against Hall of Fame centers Artis Gilmore and Moses Malone. The results: an even 50 percent on skyhooks while scoring 1.06 points per possession. (For comparison, only two teams scored at least a point per possession on post-up plays during the 2019-20 season). Those efficiency numbers seem like a conservative estimate for his entire body of work, given Abdul-Jabbar’s age (he was 35, the oldest player in the playoffs) and the quality of competition he faced.

Abdul-Jabbar claims nobody has ever blocked his skyhook head-on. “Maybe a few people got to it, coming to help where I couldn’t see them, but if I knew where someone was, that person was not going to block that shot, because I always got my body in between them and the ball before I released the ball, and it’s impossible to get to it,” Abdul-Jabbar told then-ESPN writer J.A. Adande. He’s wrong that nobody blocked the skyhook — here’s a clip of Wilt Chamberlain swatting the skyhook twice in one play, and here’s one of Ralph Sampson doing the deed — but he certainly captured the feeling any opponents had at the time. It felt unblockable, and there’s nothing more demoralizing than a move that has no defensive counter.

The most important reason the skyhook became unstoppable is also the most boring: Abdul-Jabbar is tall. He was listed at 7’2, but he played much bigger than that. When he fully extended his right arm and leaped into the air off his left foot, he could reach higher than any human ever could. He once told astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson that his release point on the skyhook was “about 10 feet to 11 feet in the air.” That seems about right.

Crucially, Abdul-Jabbar still had the arm strength to give the shot some arc while spinning it off his middle and index fingers. That separates the skyhook from a more traditional jump hook, which tends to be shot on the way up and lacks the soft backspin of the skyhook. It’s easier to think of the skyhook as a one-handed, one-legged, sideways jump shot released at 11 feet, where nobody could block it.

Getting to that point was the key. As Abdul-Jabbar told Adande: “When you shoot it, you force people to wait for you to go up. And if they wait until I started to shoot it then they’d have to judge the distance and time it, and it’s gone before they can catch up to it.”

That all happens because of two other key elements of the move. The first is that wide lefty step across the lane, which creates that barrier between Abdul-Jabbar’s body and the defender. The best way to disrupt the hook is to force him to take that step backward and at an angle, throwing him off-balance. If you made that leg look like this, you had a chance.

Kareem Abdul Jabbar Action Portrait Photo by Rich Pilling/NBAE via Getty Images

But that rarely happened. Because Abdul-Jabbar made it a point to step through defenders instead of around them, his left leg stood straight up like an oak tree. They were stuck yielding him space, like so.

Milwaukee Bucks v Washington Bullets

Or falling back when the full force of his weight ricocheted off their sides.

Milwaukee Bucks v Philadelphia 76ers

That leads us to the final hidden key of the skyhook’s effectiveness: that off arm. Say you do everything perfectly as a defender. You pushed Abdul-Jabbar out on the block. You didn’t let him easily use his left leg to power through you. You’re in his space as much as you possibly can be. Your arm is extended outward to alter the shot. Even if you do all that, you still have no chance to block the shot because Abdul-Jabbar’s other arm is sweeping downward to swipe you away.

Detroit Pistons v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
Los Angeles Lakers v Washington Bullets
Boston Celtics v Los Angeles Lakers Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Abdul-Jabbar’s success in hiding that off-arm is the most underrated reason why the skyhook has faded into obscurity. Imagine Abdul-Jabbar replicating that very motion over and over in a world where any fan can slow down high-definition video and point out uncalled offensive fouls. Consider the uproar James Harden gets for his own foul hunting, especially on drives to the basket. That noise would be 10 times louder for Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook. The league would legislate that motion out of the game with a snap of the finger.

That’s at least a more plausible explanation for the shot’s demise than the OK Boomer-style ones Abdul-Jabbar himself offers. At first, he blamed kids emulating high-flyers like Michael Jordan and Julius Erving. From a 1988 New York Times profile:

‘’One main reason is the kids growing up today all want to be like Michael Jordan and Dr. J and Dominique,’’ he said, referring to Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins. ‘’They want to show great and obvious athletic ability and jump high and shoot jumpers and throw the ball down.’’

Nowadays, he redirects the same argument to different kinds of players.

“Everyone is so enamored with the three-point shot. So the kids, they don’t want two points. They don’t want to work with their back to the basket. That’s not cool. They want to go out there in the stratosphere and shoot three-pointers.”

Has Abdul-Jabbar ever considered that the reason people don’t shoot hook shots anymore isn’t because it’s not cool, but because it’s impossible for anyone else to put together all the elements necessary to make it a great shot? Speaking of ...

STYLE: 8.9

I’ve never understood the argument that the skyhook isn’t cool. Are these people out of their minds?

Interviews with a half-dozen coaches revealed many of the same answers. The game has changed. It’s a tough shot to learn. It’s not cool. “Teams just don’t walk it up and drop it in the post anymore,” said Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry. Added Thunder assistant coach Mark Bryant: “You aren’t going to get any commercials shooting the skyhook. Only [Kareem] got commercials shooting the skyhook.”

[...]

“The kids don’t like doing it,” Bryant said, laughing. “It kind of boils down to that.”

Lest you think it’s just a few grumpy coaches, even Shaquille O’Neal admitted his generation “likes to be a lot cooler.”

Which hook shot do you think looks cooler? This ...

Or this?

Which shot do you try more when shooting around? It sure as hell ain’t O’Neal’s.

Abdul-Jabbar’s even has an incredible name: skyhook. That’s the term Bucks broadcaster Eddie Doucette used to describe the iconic shot Abdul-Jabbar made to win Game 6 of the 1974 NBA Finals.

It’s a bit misleading to say that moment was the first usage of the term, as is legend. There’s audio of Doucette using it all the way back in 1970, and you can also hear Pat Summerall (yes, that Pat Summerall), saying “The sky hook is good!” on the TV call. Regardless, read Doucette’s explanation for how he coined the term and tell me this doesn’t sound dope as hell. (Emphasis mine):

“When he went to that baseline and went up for that shot, it was kind of almost eye level with me,” Doucette said. “It felt that way. Everything became slow-motion when he went up for that shot on the baseline. Took it in stride. Went up off his left leg. Perfect balance. Right hand fully extended. Ball on the fingertips. Launched that shot. And as he launched it, it just hit me. ‘That ball is coming out of the sky. That’s a skyhook.’ That’s how it happened. I never gave it any thought. But I had to be in a position where I was located that would inspire me to think that it would be coming out of the sky.”

The idea that the skyhook isn’t cool, then, never sat with me. The real issue is Abdul-Jabbar wasn’t considered cool, not the shot itself. The shot itself is a thing of beauty. As Oscar Robertson once said, ‘’It’s almost a ballet-type shot. There’s so much rhythm and balance in it. It’s almost like a pirouette.”

I’m more sympathetic to the idea that the skyhook isn’t as “macho,” to use Abdul-Jabbar’s words, as a slam dunk or a power move. The idea that one can perfect the skyhook if they just devoted enough attention to it cuts two ways. The shot may look beautiful, but a supremely athletic and strong dude might feel that he doesn’t need to resort to such tricks to do his thing.

This is the same phenomenon that explains why several all-time greats and peers were slow to accept Stephen Curry’s brilliance even as the masses quickly embraced him. His technique was impeccable, but his physical stature seemed ordinary. He didn’t look the part of a superhero. He was no giant.

Like Curry, Abdul-Jabbar’s signature move was to shoot over defenders, not shove them out of the way. But unlike Curry, Abdul-Jabbar did seem like a giant compared to everyone else. Perhaps it would have been more “macho” if he used that physical advantage to plow through his opponents rather than use finesse to succeed. Maybe that’s what O’Neal and others mean when they suggest the skyhook isn’t “cool.”

But if that’s how NBA players really define “cool,” consider me the opposite of Miles Davis. If NBA players could look this iconic shooting a hook shot, I think they’d all do it.

OVERALL: 9.3

Basketball is a technical sport, not a physical one. The best players look like artists and dancers, not boulders. Even Zion Williamson defies our imaginations because of his agility at his size, not because of his body type.

So let this be a call to give the skyhook more love. Instead of grumbling that nobody uses it anymore, let’s appreciate how lucky we were that Abdul-Jabbar made it look so flawless.

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