Why you should care

Because what could have been dismissed as a gimmick led to the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.

There he stands — all 16 feet and 1,500 pounds of, well, not him, but a bronze replica of him, anyway: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. His likeness is a permanent fixture outside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles where the Lakers play, depicting what he’s best remembered for: his storied skyhook.

Abdul-Jabbar — who entered the NBA in 1969 as Lew Alcindor, the much-heralded first overall pick out of UCLA — was a spindly, 7-foot-2 force at the center position who had led the Bruins to three straight national titles, as well as 88 victories in 90 games. And yet, for all his talent and natural gifts on the court, he also possessed a single tool — his trademark hook shot — so dominant that rivals simply prayed that he would miss. After all, no one could jump high enough to block it from its release point before arcing up to at least 12 feet in the air. And to alter its course on the descent would have made it as good as two points, because that would have constituted an illegal goal tend. It was “the single most unstoppable shot in the history of the game,” Abdul-Jabbar’s fellow Hall of Famer Rick Barry tells OZY. “There’s never been anything like it.”

That ball is coming out of the sky. That’s a skyhook.

Eddie Doucette, original announcer for the Milwaukee Bucks

How the shot evolved to take on almost mythical proportions is up for debate. (A representative for Abdul-Jabbar did not make him available for comment.) But a solid nickname probably helped. Enter Eddie Doucette, the original announcer for Abdul-Jabbar’s first team (the Milwaukee Bucks) and the man who helped bestow the illustrative moniker for the shot that some pros (in practice, at least) and recreational players still try to mimic today. Just a couple years ago, Doucette reminisced about the birth of the term, remembering how the shot was released from Abdul-Jabbar’s fingertips and that “as it launched, it just hit me: ‘That ball is coming out of the sky. That’s a skyhook.’”

Ken Levine/Corbis

CBS commentator Brent Musburger tries to interview members of the Lakers, including coach Pat Riley, owner Jerry Buss and player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (far right) in 1987.

As it turns out, Abdul-Jabbar didn’t invent the hook. Many point to Hall of Famers George Mikan and Cliff Hagan as the creators; Abdul-Jabbar merely perfected it after years and years of practicing it, dating all the way back to grade school in New York City. (He rotated his arm in a full arc before releasing the ball, and flicked his wrist for backspin, whereas others typically kept their arm almost parallel to their body and then basically pushed the ball toward the basket.) That the NCAA banned dunking after his sophomore season at UCLA only emboldened his efforts to make it his signature move. And his ability to consistently sink it over and over again en route to six NBA championships and MVP awards, as well as becoming the league’s all-time leading scorer — a record that, far and away, stands today — was at least as important in propelling the shot to its historic status. Even other greats of the time were known to have used the shot, including legendary teammate Magic Johnson during a key playoff moment.

The 67-year-old hasn’t given up on trying to reintroduce his famous shot to basketball.

And yet, for all of Abdul-Jabbar’s awe-inspiring success, the skyhook never did quite become a lasting phenomenon in the NBA. It’s not that the hook shot has disappeared entirely from the league, but it is employed much less these days given the evolution of the game and the way defensive schemes have progressed. While some big men still use it occasionally, most of the tallest players prefer to score with front-facing shots like guards, rather than with post moves and their back to the basket. “You could certainly score on it today,” says Chris Ballard, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, “but it couldn’t be your primary weapon.” And another reason Abdul-Jabbar’s unique technique is rarely put on display anymore: It’s perceived as outdated. Even Abdul-Jabbar has acknowledged that the skyhook has gone out of fashion and is more a finesse skill than “a macho shot.” (Nevertheless, he has countered with pragmatism: “I used it to become the leading scorer in the history of the NBA. There has to be something about it that works.”)

But even though the 67-year-old’s famous move is fading, that doesn’t mean he’s given up on trying to reintroduce it to the sport. As recently as 2013, Abdul-Jabbar made a special visit to Phoenix to help the star of the WNBA’s Mercury, 6-foot-8-inch Brittney Griner, with the skyhook. And the retired pro, who played in the NBA for 20 seasons before writing several books and being named a global cultural ambassador for the U.S. by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, also founded an organization that provides educational opportunities and literacy programs to underserved populations. Its name? The Skyhook Foundation, of course, and its mission is to “Give Kids a Shot That Can’t Be Blocked.”

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