Kareem’s skyhook shot was virtually unstoppable. Why didn’t it catch on?

OPINION: The shot may not be cool enough for today's NBA stars, but it helped make Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the NBA's all-time leading scorer — a record that will soon be eclipsed after 38 years by current Lakers star LeBron James.

Los Angeles Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33) hooks a shot over Portland Trail Blazers' Jim Brewer (52) during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles on March 12, 1980. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon, File)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

The longer you live, the more you understand the mindset of preceding generations, the old-timers who complain that young’uns nowadays lack proper knowledge and respect for the past. 

Kids laugh and sneer at grainy highlights from the 1950s, unconvinced that a Hall of Famer such as George Mikan could really play. But like their nut-hugging short-shorts, Mikan and his peers emblemize a period that’s incompatible with modern basketball. 

The LeBron Age is in its latter stages and we’re a generation removed from the Jordanic Era. The current obsession with three-point baskets ties directly to Stephen Curry, hoops’ greatest descendant from a lineage of deadeye shooters. Virtually everyone now wants to pull up behind the arc, including 7-foot-4 Victor Wembanyama. Widely projected to be the consensus top draft pick and next great player, Wembanyama continues the evolution of fluid big men who can shoot from deep.

That’s not Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, though he has held the NBA scoring record for 38 years. Anyone who watched him knows why: He was unstoppable. 

But his back ‘em down style of play hasn’t aged well. Post players in today’s game often pass the ball out for three-point attempts, instead of going up for two-pointers like Kareem did for every basket except one. Yet it’s reasonable to conclude he couldn’t be guarded in 2023 better than he was 50 seasons ago, when he averaged 30 points per game. 

The same would hold true for competent big men who could emulate Abdul-Jabbar’s skyhook. But few have tried and none have succeeded.

That signature shot propelled him past Wilt Chamberlain as the career scoring leader on April 5, 1984. Nothing about the physics and geometry in Kareem’s shot-making calculations have changed. Science is science. Shooting from an arm fully extended high above your head, while your shoulders are perpendicular to the hoop and your free arm wards off the defender, leaves your opponent with hopes and prayers but no chance of a block. 

So, forgive oldheads who don’t understand why the skyhook is extinct. We’re not talking about the two-handed set shot, which gave way to clearly superior technique. Short of a rim-rattling dunk, we’re talking about the game’s most lethal weapon.

“I used it to become the leading scorer in the history of the NBA,” Abdul-Jabbar told ESPN. “There has to be something about it that works.”

Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (33) uses his arm to block Washington Bullets Elvin Hayes (11) during first period of NBA game in Los Angeles, Jan. 6, 1980. During the game, Abdul-Jabbar became the NBA’s fourth all-time scorer with 25,194 points. (AP Photo/Randy Rasmussen)

He concedes “it’s not a macho shot.” Fellow Hall of Fame center Shaquille O’Neal said he didn’t use a hook shot regularly because, “being a hip-hop kid, I didn’t want to do it. We’re different,” he said. “We like to be a lot cooler.”

What’s more boss than methodically swishing skyhooks against hapless and hopeless defenders? It’s like telling them what you’re gonna do before you do it. And both of y’all know they can’t stop it. Baseline, mid-block, top of the circle … no matter. Buckets.

I can accept players’ lack of skill , but their lack of will is confounding. They’re evidently opposed to any personal cost that include the loss of cool points. The reluctance is most evident at the free throw line, where Rick Barry shot underhanded at 89.3% — good for fourth place on the NBA career list. O’Neal was a notoriously poor free throw shooter (52.7%). He had nothing to lose if he switched to a form deemed better by physicists. 

But no. “I told Rick Barry I’d rather shoot zero percent than shoot underhand,” O’Neal told Business Insider. “I’m too cool for that.” 

Granted, underhand free throws are also known as “granny style.” But a dominant hook shot seems dated more than it seems effeminate. It was falling out of favor as Abdul-Jabbar mastered the craft in the 1960s, after building the foundation as a New York City schoolboy practicing Mikan drills.

The skyhook “is not a hard shot to learn,” Abdul-Jabbar told NBA.com. “It gives you all the fundamentals. It teaches you how to use footwork, feet and hands, how to use the backboard. Guy who can play with their back to the basket, that’s a valuable guy, not somebody you can just discard. That’s somebody who can win games.”

But the shot never became fashionable and maybe never will. Basketball’s loss.

Modern seven-footers prefer to combine elements of Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, Patrick Ewing, etc., blessed bigs with ballhandling ability and Hall of Fame jumpers. While the Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid can punish defenders down low, he’ll dribble between his legs and shoot a trey, too — like players a foot shorter.

LeBron James is on the verge of supplanting Abdul-Jabbar as the NBA’s career leading scorer, and Michael Jordan is generally considered the GOAT. Only those two players are consistently ranked higher than Captain Hook on all-time lists. While there’s no denying their athleticism, creativity and basketball IQ , nor their incredible influence on the game, Abdul-Jabbar was just as brilliant. 

He won six MVPs to complement his six NBA titles. But he lacks the legacy of multiple copycats. Players would rather be like Mike or ‘Bron, or KD or Giannis, or whoever else instead of Kareem. 

I guess that’s circle-of-life normal, the way generations tend to clash as they grow older. Disagreements on style and taste, between what’s cool and what’s fool, can show up around clothes, music and celebratory moves. Abdul-Jabbar sounded like a geezer when he criticized James’ big balls dance last season. “Why do you need to do a stupid, childish dance and disrespect the other team on the court? It doesn’t make sense,” he said in a video post

That’s harmless. But you know what really doesn’t make sense? 

No one shoots the skyhook.

Can’t teach these kids nothing.

Deron Snyder, from Brooklyn, is an award-winning columnist who lives near D.C. and pledged Alpha at HU-You Know! He’s reaching high, lying low, moving on, pushing off, keeping up, and throwing down. Got it? Get more at blackdoorventures.com/deron.

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