The skyhook

With his back to the basket, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar takes a quick right-handed dribble. Then swiftly turns to his left as his outside arm follows the lead of a ball that is ascending toward the sky as the rest of his body begins to form into a shot that continues to marvel the world of sports.

The skyhook.

There is nothing like it. No one has done it to the perfection that he did. It is the most unstoppable shot in basketball history and no one uses it. It's apparent the skyhook shot has virtually vanished from existence, thus leaving everyone from John Wooden to Abdul-Jabbar contemplating why.

There were a lot of skyhook shooters before the Abdul-Jabbar era, such as George Mikan and Clifford Hagan , but Abdul-Jabbar was the last of them. He took the skyhook shot from his predecessors and shot it to another level. Indefensible he made it, as he made it his own.

Jerry West and Bill Walton agree opponents cannot defend the skyhook. And they shake their heads as current basketball players continue to drive to the basket, shoot out-of-range shots and play outside the fundamentals of the game. Today's game is far from how these two Hall-of-Famers played it. That alone has facilitated the loss of the most amazing shot in basketball.

“You look at today's game,” said Walton, a two-time NBA champion. “Guys want to dribble a hundred times and then jack up an ill-advised triple clutch impossible to define spinner or an ill-advised three-pointer. So where's the team game, where's the fundamentals, where's the feeding the post, where's the execution at the perfect opportunity?”

That is one of the reasons the skyhook has been pushed away from the game of basketball, according to Walton. And West's opinion is pretty much the same.

“Today everybody wants to dribble and do jump shots all day,” said West, who is also an NBA champion. “The greatest shot in the history of this game was Abdul-Jabbar's. It was unstoppable. You could not guard it. It was just incredible how he could do it. And you would think that some young big kid would learn to do something like that. But for whatever reason, they forgot.”

“The shot is almost extinct and you wonder why sometimes,” West said.

Abdul-Jabbar believes the skyhook's turn toward extinction started taking place just before he began playing at the high school level, thinking he picked it up right at its last moment of vitality. As players became more skilled, they became more aggressive in attacking the basket as the game began to spark images of what it has evolved into today.

“In the 50's a lot of people used it, especially in college. And the whole practice of getting closer to the basket for higher percentage shots was a lot more involved than it is now,” said the Hall-of-Famer Abdul-Jabbar.

Abdul-Jabbar was taught the skyhook shot by a young man in his parish while in fifth grade. He practiced it habitually from that point on.

“After a week or two of practicing it, I pretty much had the mechanics of the footwork down, in a primitive way, but I had it down,” he said.

By the time he joined the varsity team as a ninth grader, the skyhook was second nature to him as he relied on it often. And he perfected it throughout those years.

But as the style of basketball continued to slightly differ from how it was played while he was growing up, Abdul-Jabbar didn't -- as he slowly appeared to be the lone practitioner of the skyhook.

Mitch Kupchak , the Lakers ' GM and a former opponent/teammate of Abdul-Jabbar, believes Abdul-Jabbar used the skyhook so much because the dunk was illegal while he was playing at the collegiate level. "Players could not be aggressive toward the basket so they used the skyhook," he said.

Once the dunk was made legal again, everybody wanted to dunk, which brought back the more-aggressive-to-the-hoop style of play we now see today.

When Abdul-Jabbar played at UCLA, he used the skyhook to win three consecutive NCAA championships under legendary head coach John Wooden.

Wooden's strategy was that he did not want Abdul-Jabbar to take a couple of steps prior to shooting the skyhook. He wanted him to get the skyhook off as quickly as possible at a range that didn't force him to use more than his fingers and wrist once his teammates supplied him with the ball, said Wooden, owner of a record 10 NCAA championships.

“He's very intelligent, he was patient, he kept the ball close and kept it away, once he'd get inside, you can't stop him,” Wooden said. “Once he gets the ball, no further than eight or nine feet, there is no defense, if you go straight up... I like the ball close to the body. I want the hand, elbow and knee close, in line (and) up quick.”

When Abdul-Jabbar reached the NBA, the skyhook was a weapon no defense was ready for. His skyhook shot left head-tilted opponents and wide-eyed spectators awestruck. It was his principal weapon for 20 years in the NBA. He used the skyhook constantly while claiming six league championships, complementing his number of MVP awards. It also helped him take over the league's scoring record, which he still holds with 38,387 points.
Walton said the word "defend" should be eliminated when discussing the skyhook.

“You were helpless,” he said. “It was indefensible. You had to have multiple players on him and even then he could get it off and his range was unlimited.

And because Abdul-Jabbar shot the skyhook to perfection, with his forearm out to create room between himself and the defender while his left leg propelled him to the peak of his jump as his right arm powerfully raised up his hand to softly release the shot, opposing teams had no chance of grounding him.

“Kareem has that unbelievable left leg, that I spent every waking moment dreaming about trapping, trying to figure out a way how to beat this guy,” Walton said. “And I played my absolute best against the guy and he still torched me for 50 every time we played. That guy's left leg belongs in the Smithsonian.”

But the skyhook was not only shot right-handed. Abdul-Jabbar learned it by practicing “the Mikan drill” which required the use of both hands to shoot the skyhook. That way it could be shot from any angle on the basket.

“The whole concept of being ambidextrous with the basketball is part of mastering it,” Abdul-Jabbar said.
His mastery of the skyhook abled the Los Angeles Lakers' coaching staff to create new plays for their captain in hopes of throwing off teams who began designing traps and defenses for his shot off the right block.

Bill Bertka , former longtime Lakers' assistant coach, said in the early 1980's the coaching staff designed a number of plays for Abdul-Jabbar to shoot the skyhook on the left block, which made the shot even more effective because of its versatility.

“On this block over here (sketching the right one), he'd always wanna step into the lane here, which was deadly,” Bertka said. “Anytime he got that, it was money in the bank. But they took that away. And that's when he developed this drop step on the left block. A counter move. Kareem had the shot mastered to perfection and with his agility and shot concentration, you couldn't reach the shot.”

While Abdul-Jabbar was frustrating opposing teams, his teammate Earvin “Magic” Johnson noticed how effectively he could use the skyhook. So Abdul-Jabbar showed him the mechanics of it and Johnson used it timely during his career.

However, Johnson was essentially his last student regarding the skyhook. Players who entered the league after his retirement in 1989 desired to play in more of a way that is the style of today's game, according to Abdul-Jabbar. And that is why the skyhook has practically vanished.

“It doesn't have the visual appeal to the younger generation,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “They've watched Dr. J , Michael Jordan , I think they wanna play the game that way. Dribble toward the basket rather than with their back to the basket.”

Wooden said the reason players have diverted from the skyhook is because they want to hear the oos and awes.
“If they dunk, they're gonna get a lot of cheer,” Wooden said.

Therefore, the manner in which basketball is being played today is an attack-the-basket style, and it is continuing to extinguish the skyhook from the game.

Bertka said players like style and the skyhook requires a style of play that is not popular.

With popularity playing a role, West said all the game needs is for one superstar to begin shooting the skyhook and that's when it will start to be seen again.

“I think everyone is waiting for the next good hook shooter, a regular hook shooter to step into the league,” West said. “If somebody started shooting it again, I think what you would see is the other players trying to emulate it and making it a shot in their repertoire because you just can't guard it. If you shoot it right, you can't guard it.”

That next good skyhook shooter might be Andrew Bynum . He is the Lakers' seven-foot center who just finished his rookie season with Abdul-Jabbar around helping teach the organization's young talent how to improve their play in the frontcourt.

Bynum, who can shoot the skyhook with both hands, has been working on improving his consistency with it for one simple reason.

“It's an unstoppable shot, that's the only reason. You can't block it,” said the 18-year-old Bynum.

But learning how to shoot the skyhook correctly hasn't come easy.

“It's a tough shot to do, you've gotta have the touch. It's a specialty shot,” Bynum said.

However, he's fighting against that desire of wanting to see the hoop before making a move.

“He's of his generation so he wants to face the basket and shoot three-pointers,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “Yeah, I think it has a lot to do with the whole idea of it not being fashionable. It's highly practical, it's not very fashionable.”

Bynum agreed that the skyhook is not seen anymore because it's not in style, but the dunk is.
“I think guys are a little bit more athletic now, so they like to dunk more,” Bynum said.

Time will tell if it will be seen again, because fashions emerge and re-emerge in the world. Maybe it's only a matter of time until the skyhook will be in style again. Because, according to the man who is illustrious with the skyhook, it's the only shot that is impossible to guard.

“You have to know where and when it's going up and that's impossible to predict,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “It's gone before they can react to it.”

written by Eric Stitt