I caught myself day dreaming about sky hooks yesterday. I’m not sure why. Long day in the office? Not enough *real* basketball to keep my mind occupied? Whatever the case, I was specifically thinking about Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the NBA’s all time scoring leader — and his supposedly unstoppable go-to move. First, why hasn’t anybody copied the sky hook? Second, why isn’t Kareem — a six-time MVP and champion — discussed more in G.O.A.T. debates? (Seriously, look at his basketball-reference page.) And finally, it occurred to me that almost every book I’ve read on basketball history has a section on Kareem. His career arc was interesting for multiple reasons, but mostly because he spent most of the 1970s as the league’s best player and most of the 80s as a champion with Magic Johnson receiving more of the credit.
With that in mind, I thought I’d scrap together some of the better stuff I’ve read on Lew Alcindor/Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is likewise a dominating player. He is not the defensive force that Russell or Walton was, but he is so consistently good on offense that he changes the texture of every game he plays…
He was very tall and his height was a matter of some conjecture. He listed his height as 7’2″. Other very tall young men, seven feet even, who had played against him, swore he was at least 7’4″. Some, not given to exaggeration, said he was surely 7’6″. What most people did not see was the grace, the agility so rare in any man, but truly astonishing in a man of his height; they saw only the height, which was greater than their own. Failing to see the grace, they also failed to see the passion, which was brilliantly concealed, hidden behind two layers of masks, first a protective eyepiece which was a mask to the face, and then the face itself which was a mask to the soul. They saw the lack of emotion and decided that Kareem did not care as they cared…
His play had, if anything, too much consistency to it. His good games were forgotten, his bad ones remembered. He had played for much of his career on weak teams or on teams poorly designed for him. Often too much depended on him, and because he was so dominating a force, opposing teams always knew that the key to stopping the Lakers was stopping Kareem. His teams, strong in their regular-season records, tended to wear down in playoff games. Opponents always based their strategy on stopping him and he rarely got very much help from referees. He was held, fouled and elbowed more than any otehr player in the league, all with the semitacit approval of the referees; for in truth, if they did not allow his opponents some small advantage there would be no way of stopping him.
[T]hen came the ballyhooed challenge of the Milwaukee Bucks and Lew Alcindor (who wouldn’t change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar until 1971) in the division finals. The rookie from New York (a high school legend at Power Memorial on 61st Street) was already a handful in the post. He possessed an unstoppable sky hook, but [Willis] Reed was much stronger and could muscle him just enough to disrupt his flow. Making Alcindor’s playoff homecoming even worse was the booing he endured at the Garden. Maybe the city’s basketball fans still harbored a civic contempt for Alcindor’s attending UCLA instead of staying home and making St. John’s an instant title contender. Stanley Asofsky called that theory “a lot of bullshit.” The razzing, he said, was more about the young Alcindor being the enemy of the Old Knicks, plain and simple.
But Kareem wasn’t there because his relationship with Pat [Riley] was strained. When Kareem retired in 1989, they were barely speaking. Kareem felt Pat’s demands on the players were unreasonable, that he had pushed them over the brink. Pat was the one who’d predicted a repeat win after we got the 1987 title, then came up with the term threepeat after the 1988 one, boldly raising the bar higher and higher.
Whenever I think about Kareem, I regret the way I dealt with him as a coach. To this day, I feel bad that I said he didn’t play hard enough. He and I laugh about this now, and we are very close (something he is not with many people; some feel he is difficult and aloof, but they don’t really understand how shy he actually is. What I couldn’t see or, I guess, accept is how easily the game came to him, how effortlessly. To say he is a student of the game doesn’t even begin to tell you the story. He is like a Rhodes scholar. He corresponded with Wilt Chamberlain at Kansas when he was in fourth grade. He knew that his coach at UCLA, John Wooden, had been known as the “Indiana Rubber Man” when he’d played, which was long before Kareem ever stepped on the court at Pauley Pavilion…
He was very precise in everything he said, and he hated stupid, obvious questions. He may have been aloof, but he was never disrespectful. Never. Beginning in the fifth grade with some drills the great Laker center George Mikan used, he developed and perfected the most unique and effective shot in the history of basketball, the Sky Hook. Why no other big man has ever really learned to do this remains a mystery to me.
[T]he night before Game Four, Lew came over to my place and he and I were sitting around with two other people I had invited over, talking and telling stories. So Lew came out and said, “I’m going to go up to New York after we win tomorrow and see some of my people up there.”
So I looked at him in shock. I had known Lew for a while and he had always been a quiet, modest type of guy, so I was surprised that he said something like that. So I said to him, “Whoa, wait big fella. What do you mean when you win tomorrow?”
So he stuttered a little, like he forgot what he had said. Then I said to him, “Well, shit, we’re going to have something to say about that!”…
Lew’s prophecy of going to New York the next day proved accurate. He not only went up to New York to visit his family and friends, he also chose this occasion to announce that he had change his name to a Muslim one and would now be called Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Everyone was stunned and some didn’t like it, including some players. But I have always felt it is up to individuals to choose the names they want to be called by.
I can still hear the legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn describing the play:
“They give it to Kareem. He’ll swing left, shoot right. He swings left, shoots right … the 12-foot skyhook is good!”
Which begs the question: If the scouts told them what the fist play was and Hearn could see it coming all the way from his seat high above the western sideline at the Forum, why couldn’t opposing defenders anticipate it and stop it?
For one thing, unlike a jump shot in which the proper technique is to line the shoulders up to face the basket, the skyhook was released with the shoulders perpendicular to the hoop, forcing the defender to come all the way across Abdul-Jabbar’s body to get to the ball. As an added deterrent, Abdul-Jabbar extended his left arm to ward off opponents.
Then there was the timing element. To hear Abdul-Jabbar describe it, you’d need a graphing calculator to project the right time and place to be to block the shot.
“When you shoot it, you force people to wait for you to go up,” he said, ” 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’s, for me, the beauty of it. You’re in control because of when you’re gonna release it and where. The defense has to see that and calculate everything before they get an opportunity to block it.”
As if that didn’t crowd enough thoughts into a defender’s brain, he also had to worry about the counter moves Abdul-Jabbar developed. If a defender overplayed him to the right to take away the hook, he would just spin back around to his left to shoot a jump shot or, in later years, a lefty version of the skyhook.
The fact that UCLA won the national title during all three seasons Alcindor played is merely the third-most interesting detail of his college career; the fact that the NCAA outlawed dunking due to his dominance is probably second. But to me, the thing that will always be most unfathomable about Alcindor was his very first game, played when he was an ineligible freshman: UCLA was coming off back-to-back national championships. As an exhibition, the Bruin varsity — ranked no. 1 in the nation — opened the season by scrimmaging the freshmen team. Alcindor had 31 points, 21 boards, and eight blocks. The freshmen hammered the varsity by 15 points; the no. 1 team in the country could not beat a player who could not yet play. As an ineligible 18-year-old, Alcindor was (at worst) the fourth or fifth-best basketball player in the world. So I guess talent does matter, sometimes.
But that’s how it went through the 1970s. We kept hoping someone would supplant [Kareem] and nobody did. Kareem’s public stature suffered for four unrelated reasons: the goofy combination of his afro, facial hair and goggles added to his detachment (it almost seemed like a Halloween mask); his trade demands (Milwaukee finally obliged in 1975) made him seem like just another petulant black athlete who wanted his way (the public perception, not the reality); 1977’s sucker punch of Kent Benson went over like a fart in church; and his ongoing battle with migraines made fans wonder if he was looking for excuses not to play. So what if the goggles were a result of his eyes getting poked so many times that doctors worried about permanent damage, that Benson elbowed him first, that Milwaukee had a lousy supporting cast and no Muslim population, that his headaches left him unable to function? Kareem never received the benefit of the doubt–not from anyone, not once, not ever. People grumbled that he didn’t give a crap, mailed in games, played on cruise control, failed to make teammates better and only cared about money. That perception faded once Magic turned the Lakers into the league’s most entertaining team, breathing life into Kareem’s career in the process. Sports Illustrated ran a January 1980 feature with the headline “A Different Drummer” and the subhead “After years of moody introspection, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is coming out of his shell.”