Before Kareem’s scoring record falls, let’s appreciate the skyhook
When Kareem Abdul-Jabbar swung to his left at the baseline and unleashed his trademark skyhook on April 5, 1984, on a neutral court in Las Vegas, he was about to make history. But who could have guessed how long that history would last?
That night against the Utah Jazz Kareem broke Wilt Chamberlain’s NBA career scoring record, a mark that once seemed unapproachable. Wilt broke Bob Pettit’s record on Feb. 14, 1966, and eventually left the game with 31,419 points after the 1972-73 season, and his record – pro basketball’s counterpart to baseball’s career home run record, only less controversial – stood for 18 years and 49 days.
Kareem’s status as No. 1, with an eventual total of 38,387 points when he retired in 1989, has lasted 38 years and 302 days as of Wednesday. The guy who is about to break it, current Laker LeBron James, wasn’t born until 269 days after that historic hook.
And, with the passage of time and our natural recency bias – which is, to be sure, the main driver of every G.O.A.T. argument on social media these days – it’s easy to forget the magnitude of Kareem’s achievement at the time, as well as how out of reach it has seemed for so many years.
Start with the skyhook, and maybe the observation from Lakers broadcaster John Ireland a few nights ago that LeBron was tossing up hook shots in pre-game warmups represented a sign of respect.
The skyhook might have been – no, not might have been, was – the single most unstoppable shot that didn’t involve dunking. It was the anti-dunk, actually, a shot Kareem mastered at UCLA (when he was known as Lew Alcindor) after the NCAA rules committee outlawed the dunk before his junior season, 1967-68.
The administrators involved didn’t come right out and say it was a reaction to one player – their reasoning was that the dunk “was not a skilled shot” – but they didn’t have to. You wonder if, years later, any of them ever acknowledged their roles in unleashing a monster.
Alcindor and UCLA dominated the game anyway as the John Wooden dynasty was ramping up: 30-0 his sophomore year (freshmen weren’t eligible then), 29-1 his junior year, 29-1 his senior year, national champions all three, and he was consensus player of the year as a sophomore and as a senior. (Before you ask, Houston’s Elvin Hayes won it that middle year.)
And that skyhook – left leg planted, right knee raised, right arm sweeping to a release point between 10 and 11 feet, swish! – was the gift that kept on giving to the Bruins, the Milwaukee Bucks in the first six seasons of his NBA career and the Lakers for the last 14. Put it this way: Kareem’s skyhook outlasted the NCAA’s prohibition of dunks by 12 seasons.
That shot helped produce six championships, six MVP awards, 19 All-Star appearances in 20 seasons and a legacy that will remain long after he slips to No. 2 on the all-time scoring list.
He’s still got it, by the way. Those “Showtime” Lakers held a reunion last September in Maui, and Mychal Thompson – then Kareem’s teammate and currently Ireland’s analyst on Laker radio broadcasts – posted a photo on Twitter of Kareem tossing up a skyhook during one of their sessions in the gym with the heading: “STILL an unstoppable shot… at 75… ”
“It’s not a hard shot to learn,” Kareem said last year on former teammate Byron Scott’s podcast. He has talked of developing those skills when he was younger while doing the George Mikan Drill, the time-honored practice regimen for big men of alternating shots with the right hand and with the left hand while moving further away from the basket.
“That will give you all the fundamentals, give you the footwork, how to use either hand and how to use the backboard,” he said on that podcast. “It teaches you everything about using that shot.”