Hooked: What happened to the NBA’s most difficult (and unstoppable) shot?

It’s been 25 years since former Milwaukee Bucks center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired. Actually, his last game was 25 years ago on this very date. With that in mind, NBA.com’s Rick Braun went out in search of answers as to why Kareem’s most potent weapon has yet to be picked up by another center. – Jeremy

Kareem met with media in Milwaukee in early March. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kareem met with media in Milwaukee in early March. (Photo by Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

Picture, if you will, someone dominating the PGA Tour with a new, high-tech driver – and none of the other players ever bothering to try that club.

Or a professional bowler dominating that sport’s tour with a new, technologically advanced bowling ball – and all the other players sticking with the older technology.

Maybe think in terms of baseball. A pitcher develops a new pitch that darts sharply at the plate, rendering hitters helpless – and not a single other pitcher tries to learn the pitch.

Think back to professional football in the 1960s. Pete Gogolak and his younger brother Charlie created a revolution in place kicking. Until these Hungarian siblings introduced “soccer-style” and its much higher success rate, kicking in the NFL was a straight-on job with success only a 50-50 proposition outside of 35 yards. Now imagine every NFL general manager deciding to stick with straight-on kickers.

Absurd, right?

Yet that’s what we have in the National Basketball Association.

25 years ago today (June 13, 1989) Kareem Abdul-Jabbar walked off an NBA floor for the last time. When he left, he took with him the most unstoppable weapon professional basketball has ever seen. Abdul-Jabbar was the first to perfect the sky-hook. He’s also the last. Over the course of Abdul-Jabbar’s 20-year career, no one could emulate his No. 1 weapon. In the 25 years since, no one has even tried.

Think about that. The No. 1 weapon of the No. 1 all-time scorer, and not a single player is attempting to utilize it. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Maybe that’s been surpassed by surrender.

So why is the skyhook gone? Opinions vary. Some think the shot is too hard to master.

“The sky-hook was a really unique shot,” said former Boston Celtics forward Kevin McHale, now the coach of the Houston Rockets. “It’s a hard shot. Kareem had a strong wrist, great touch. Believe me, if that was teachable a lot of people would be (shooting it). A lot of people have tried to teach it, but not many people have done it.”

Bucks broadcaster Jon McGlocklin played alongside Abdul-Jabbar for the Hall-of-Famer’s six seasons in Milwaukee. Why does he think we haven’t seen the sky-hook since Kareem retired?

“I’ll tell you why: It’s too hard,” McGlocklin said.

Really?

“I think it is.”

McGlocklin played in an era where the game was different. Low-post play was much more common. Although he was a shooting guard known for his long jumpers in his NBA days, McGlocklin was a 6-5 center in his college days at Indiana. It was the same era in which Abdul-Jabbar came of age. Hook shots were prevalent, although no one was shooting the sky-hook that young Lew Alcindor perfected.

“You don’t have many low-post players anymore that develop moves with their back to the basket,” McGlocklin said of today’s game. “The sky-hook is the hardest shot in basketball. Even back then, when Cliff Hagen shot hooks, (Bob) Pettit shot hooks, Richie Guerin shot hooks, Jerry Lucas shot hooks. Not like Kareem, but they all shot hooks – there was more of a low-post game. Even the guards were low-post in the earlier game. Then, in the later ‘70s and ‘80s and ‘90s the game changed and you have less of that.

“So it’s the combination of that, and it’s the most difficult shot in basketball to perfect. It’s one-handed; it’s not straight on, where you’re seeing the basket and you’re facing up and doing all these fundamental things. So it’s such a hard shot to shoot that I don’t think anyone has given the time and effort to do it like Kareem did.

“I think he was even ahead of his time. Even though more guys shot the hook then, no one shot it to the proficiency and the quantity of Kareem. Nobody.”

When Abdul-Jabbar retired following the 1989 Finals, Michael Jordan had just completed his fifth season. Jordan became the Gold Standard for a basketball player, which meant every kid growing up was working on cross-over dribbles, pull-up jump shots and drives to the basket that might become dunks as they grew bigger and stronger.

Before Jordan, Julius Erving – Dr. J – had developed the high-flying game of dunks that had fans jumping from their seats. Today’s top player is LeBron James – a bigger, stronger version of Jordan. There have been star big men in the years since Abdul-Jabbar – Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, Shaquille O’Neal, Dwight Howard immediately come to mind – but other than Olajuwon shooing jump-hooks, none were known for anything resembling a sky-hook.

“But Kareem did it a different way,” McGlocklin said. “It became the sky-hook because Kareem’s release was here (raising arm straight up), with wrist. Most guys that would shoot the hook – all the guys I named before – would do it like this (shoulder level). Nobody did it like Kareem, a high, pinnacle, one-handed – which made it even harder to get to because now you’re releasing it from so high up. Nobody could get to it. No one’s ever done it before him or after him.

“They all tried. But nobody had it at that level. Kareem did something no one had ever done. To the magnitude – even when the other guys shot the hook earlier, no one did it to that magnitude in terms of efficiency, in terms of volume. Nobody. And nobody did it from up there. So those are all the reasons. It’s a hard shot to learn how to shoot.”

While McGlocklin first said “It’s too hard,” he softened on the idea that it can’t be taught or learned.

“I think you can learn anything if you’re willing to do it,” McGlocklin said. “But do you think guys today are going to take the time to learn?”

Imagine, though, how many millions there are to be made by the 7-footer who could add that weapon to his game. Of course, Abdul-Jabbar had more to his game than just a sky-hook. He was a top rebounder, defender and shot-blocker. He had a nice jump-shot turning away from the sky-hook. He was a fine passer, averaging more than four assists per game in nine seasons and at least three assists in 15 seasons.

But his signature weapon – the tool he used to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer – was the sky-hook. And no one’s developed one since.

“I’ve been wondering that for a long time,” said Kurt Rambis, a Lakers assistant coach who played seven seasons alongside Abdul-Jabbar with Lakers in the ‘80s. “We don’t know if kids just don’t feel comfortable shooting it; if there’s not enough teachers out there who know how to teach it properly; big guys possibly playing facing the basket now.

“You see all these seven-footers now facing the basket, rather than learning to play with their back to the basket. It could be a combination of all of that. But we’ve often wondered that. It’s something that was so potent, it looks so effortless when he shot it, to be able to do it at such a high level for such a long period of time … and nobody even tries. Even when he was playing, nobody was really trying to do it.”

And, Rambis notes, Abdul-Jabbar put up those 38,387 points while always being the No. 1 focus of the opposition’s half-court defense.

“The amazing thing to me, the thing that would give it so much credibility is that you know on the top of everybody’s scouting report was how they were going to defend Kareem,” Rambis said. “What were they going to do with Kareem? How were they going to try to counter that hook? But everybody tried and guys played against him for years and nobody figured out how to defend it. It’s not like something that was in the league and out. It lasted for a loooong time, and nobody figured out how to defend it.”

And for the last 25 years, nobody has figured out how to emulate it, either. That comes as a surprise to the man who shot the sky-hook at such a high level for all those years.

“Yeah, it’s teachable. I learned it,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “I wasn’t that smart when I was in the fifth grade, I know that. But that’s when I learned it. They showed me a drill, I did the drill. It was George Mikan’s drill – right hand, left hand, right in front of the basket, off the glass. You learned how to use both of your hands and you learned how to use the glass and you get your footwork together. So that’s what you’ve got to do to master the hook shot.

“I learned that shot in the fifth grade and by the time I entered the ninth grade it was there and I could use it. Anyone else can learn it. It’s certainly not rocket science.”

He’s correct about that. It’s not rocket science. Rocket science is still around. The sky-hook apparently is gone.

7 Comments

  1. Like Kareem said he started learning that shot in fifth grade Before he gained his height! Kareem also developed a left-hand sky hook in the final years of his career as a counter move. Ralph Sampson while he was still in college was offered video of Kareem on how to learn the shot. He turned it down! Look at his career and how it could have been so much better. You have to remember Kareem was an innovator way before his time in many things. He skipped with a weighted heavy rope, he studied martial arts (Jeet Kune Do) with Bruce Lee, et al. Look at how Magic crushed the soul of the Celtics with his “junior, junior sky how, lol…. I respect Jordan greatly, but I can easily make arguments for Kareem, Russell or Chamberlin to have been the greatest player of all time… Lebron and Kobe have a lot of work left to do (no guarantee Kobe will ever return to his former glory and likely not) and don’t even deserve to be in the sentence with the other four.

  2. Kareem was not just one of the top three players ever. He was also proud and thoughtful man who stood up for what he thought right, much like Russel and Brown. He also wrote books, is very knowledgable about Jazz and its history. In short, a thoughtful, well read person beyond his great sports career. I hear he was misery for media people, which I think he paid for after retirement.

  3. Pingback: NBA Finals, Sky-hook, Rod Higgins, Damian Lillard, Pete Newell | Basketball Intelligence

  4. Thanks for putting Kareem back where he needs to be, in the conversation of G.O.A.T I agree with David… Russell, Kareem, Wilt in that order then you can argue Jordan, Isaiah, Bird, Magic… Then you can consider Kobe, Duncan, Lebron and whoever. Russell should be number one based on his, Rings, size, limiting Wilt number of rings, winning as a player/coach and as a coach making him the first African American to win as a coach, not to mention coaching the team you were playing for. Plus Wilt always gave Russell the nod for G.O.A.T Wilt also said that Kareem was the first and only player in his life he told his team he was going to need some help to check. The skyhook was a unstoppable thing of beauty which he could extend all the way to the 3 point line. He is the best two way player and center the league probably will ever see. I am a coach and it is so hard to get younger players to invest in footwork as well as playing with their back to the rim. These days kids want to be Kobe and Lebron taking difficult shots and unnecessary cross overs. I’m afraid that the Kareem’s of the next generation are gone.

  5. You see so many players pivot with the quick turn around jumpers today. A lot of them fall back jumpers. The hook shot provides a much more stable base with a more consistent shot and it’s not hard to learn.

  6. Kareem shouldn’t just be IN the conversation for Greatest of all Time — the conversation should end with him.

  7. If you have a shot you can make 50+% of the time like the skyhook, wouldn’t someone be interested in learning that shot???

    I think the current centers are simply idiots for not doing so.

    Pau Gasol would be able to extend his career if he learned this. The skyhook is also a mid-range shot. This would have been perfect for him to use when he is at power forward, where he needed to shoot midrange shots but failed.