Why the skyhook isn't a part of today's game

Chris Mannix
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar uses the skyhook against the Mavs' James Donaldson in 1988. (AP)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar uses the skyhook against the Mavs' James Donaldson in 1988. (AP)

Where has the skyhook gone? Don’t ask Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The master of the move is as befuddled as anybody as to why the weapon he used to score a large chunk of his NBA-best 38,387 points has disappeared.

“I think it has to do with the way they are teaching the game,” Abdul-Jabbar told The Vertical. “They are not teaching kids how to post up. Everyone wants to shoot 3-pointers. It should be part of every [big man’s] game. It’s not.”

Where has the skyhook gone? Don’t ask NBA coaches. They don’t understand its disappearance, either. 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.”

Where has the skyhook gone? Players shrug, too. Grizzlies center Marc Gasol prides himself on a diverse offensive repertoire. He shoots standing hooks and running hooks. An old-school, Kareem-style skyhook? “Not in a real game,” Gasol said, laughing. “I don’t know where the ball might go.” Anthony Davis has the long, 6-foot-11 frame ideal for the shot. “I’ve never tried it,” Davis said. “Never thought about it, either.”

Strange, isn’t it? The NBA is the ultimate copycat league. Coaches steal plays from other coaches. Players hijack moves from other players. The rise of San Antonio gave way to more teams preaching unselfish offense; the imprint of Mike D’Antoni’s Suns teams is everywhere.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar works against the Celtics’ Robert Parish on Dec. 11, 1987. (AP)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar works against the Celtics’ Robert Parish on Dec. 11, 1987. (AP)

Yet the most unstoppable move in NBA history is just … gone. Granted, it’s difficult to learn. Abdul-Jabbar didn’t have a teacher. He learned hooks by practicing the Mikan drill — a rhythm and timing drill for big men, named after Hall of Fame center George Mikan — and watching another Hall of Famer, Cliff Hagan, flip up a few. In elementary school, Abdul-Jabbar regularly went up against taller kids; the skyhook was the only shot he knew he could regularly get off.

So he practiced — a lot. He took it to UCLA and set scoring records with it. He took it to the pros and watched frustrated opponents struggle to defend it. One on one, Abdul-Jabbar said, no one ever blocked it. Wilt Chamberlain thought he could time it. He couldn’t. Manute Bol had five inches on him. He never touched it. He broke Chamberlain’s scoring record in 1984 with it and won the series-clinching Game 6 of the ’85 Finals with it.

So why don’t players work on it? Some do. They just get discouraged, quickly. “The balance is the tricky part,” Gasol said. “You have to understand perfectly where you are. Once you commit to that shot, especially from the set position, you have to be very precise.” Added Thunder forward Enes Kanter, “If you don’t stay low and you don’t stay balanced, a defender can push you and you take a crazy shot. It’s hard.”

The hook remains a valued weapon. After practices, Bryant, the Thunder’s big-man coach, regularly works with players on hooks. “I think the hook is the best shot in the world,” Bryant said, “especially when you have your shoulders squared up in the middle of a guy’s chest. There is no way in the world you can block it. So you can get real comfortable with it. I love the hook.”

And the skyhook?

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

Indeed, coaches agree: If the skyhook is going to return, Abdul-Jabbar is going to have to bring it back. “Kareem would have to take a young kid, grab him from [a young age] and teach him,” Bryant said. Abdul-Jabbar has worked with a few players over the years. Former Lakers center Andrew Bynum was one of them.

“He wanted to learn it,” Abdul-Jabbar said. “He was doing pretty good, but I think he lost interest in the game. It was coming along to where he could use it as a tool and he could have a good career. If he was using that shot, it would have been a good strategic [shot]. But I guess other things beckoned him.”

And so it goes. Today’s big men like to dunk. They like to shoot 3’s. They don’t want to learn the skyhook. Gasol can’t think of anyone he played against in Europe utilizing the shot; Davis didn’t play against anyone in high school or college that attempted it. Players still marvel at how effective Abdul-Jabbar was with it but seem content to let him be known as the only one to master it.

“What he did with the fakes, that’s the complete opposite of me,” Gasol said. “I’ve worked on it. It’s hard to be that consistent with it. And I have good touch. It’s hard to stop, but it’s just such a hard shot. For him to be that consistent and that efficient with it, there’s a reason he’s the only guy to do it that well.”

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