Alexander: Before Kareem’s scoring record falls, let’s appreciate the skyhook

Alexander: 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… ”

STILL an unstoppable shot… at 75…

— Mychal Thompson (@champagnennuts) September 19, 2022

“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.”

In today’s game, the skyhook is almost a relic. In fact, the classic low-post center is almost a relic in what has become a game of multi-talented, multi-position big men. And consider: Kareem played the last 10 seasons of his career with the 3-point line … and he was 1 for 18 from behind the arc. LeBron is a career 34.4% shooter from 3-point territory, and through Tuesday’s game at Madison Square Garden 6,690 of his points have come via 2,230 3-pointers.

The game has changed. But Kareem, who extended his career by practicing yoga and emphasizing flexibility, played until he was 42, while LeBron is still going strong at 38.

Miami Heat president Pat Riley coached Kareem with the Lakers and had a close view of James’ four seasons and two championships with the Heat, and he told ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne that their common longevity came from a hunger to win championships.

Both men have also been active in their pursuit of social justice. Kareem, who came of age during a time of intense activism and learned from such giants as Bill Russell, Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali, to this day maintains a significant platform through his Substack newsletter and is just as apt to speak out about politics or pop culture as he is to opine on sports.

And yes, there have been times when he and LeBron haven’t quite been on the same page,

“Obviously Kareem has had his differences with some of my views and some of the things that I do,” James said during the Lakers’ preseason media day in September.

“But at the end of the day, to be able to be in the same breath as the guy that wore this same uniform, a guy that was a staple of this franchise along with Magic (Johnson) and Big Game (James Worthy) over there for so many years, especially in the ’80s, and a guy that does a lot off the floor as well, I think is just super duper dope, for myself to be even in that conversation.”

It’s maybe a little solace for Lakers fans in what has been a challenging season, that the top four players on the all-time scoring list and seven of the top 11 all wore the purple and gold either for a long time or a little. After Kareem and LeBron, Karl Malone (one season in 2003-04) and Kobe Bryant are third and fourth. Wilt is still seventh, Shaquille O’Neal is 10th and Carmelo Anthony, a Laker last year, is 11th.

And it will be an appropriate tribute if LeBron does dust off a hook shot to score the record-setting points, since Kareem’s skyhook was the most dependable late-game option ever.

“We don’t win championships without the greatest player in the history of the game, who had the greatest weapon in the history of the game,” Riley told ESPN’s Shelburne. “The skyhook was unstoppable. Last minute of the game, it’s going to one guy.

“Kareem was the guy, and he’ll always be the guy.”

Through all the years, with all of the greats who have graced the NBA, we’ve still never seen anything like it. And we might never see it again.