THE VANISHING HOOK SHOT : In the Evolution of the Game of Basketball, a Shot That's Hard to Stop Has Almost Become Extinct

Times Staff Writer

In the National Basketball Assn., what goes up doesn't necessarily come down. What goes up sometimes comes right back, with a frightening and seemingly unnecessary force. Oof !

In the old days, when the game still had center jumps and guys with crew-cuts, the laws of physics were more easily observed.

Oh--gather round, youngsters--what days those were! Mighty parabolas were launched from all corners. Men swept across the lane, arcing magnificent lobs from behind their heads. Yes, they did! The game was a bit slower than it is today, true--the NBA's idea of a fast break then would make the Rose Parade look like a sprint--but it was regarded as far more elegant (leave Jungle Jim Loscutoff out of this for the moment). In those days, they had hook shots.

The hook shot has a small--small? He's 7-2 but there's only one of him, OK?--national preservation society in Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, so you still hear of it from time to time. But his hook is regarded as such a novelty in these times that nobody even thinks to call it just a hook. It's a sky hook, as if he invented or modified something. But back in the old days, everybody was lofting these beauties.

Bill Sharman, president of the Lakers and caretaker of the last remaining hook-shooting institution, remembers George Mikan, Ed Macauley, Clyde Lovellette, John Kerr and Cliff Hagan. Get the ball, take that little step and lift an extended arm--the one behind your head and away from the defense--toward the basket. It was an inverted finger roll, a reverse dunk--you couldn't block it with an oar. It was the prettiest two points you'd ever see.

But you don't see it much anymore. Kevin McHale of the Celtics hooks occasionally. Kareem-mate Magic Johnson has been working on a "junior, junior, junior sky hook," but that's about it for this once-important piece of artillery.

"A shame," Sharman says.

Somehow the game went from "over your head" to "in your face." A sociologist might make something of that observation. A sportswriter, though, ought to call around.

Sharman, in lamenting the hook shot's disappearance, explained: "In the 30s and 40s and early 50s, the teams would seldom run or fast-break. So when they would set up on almost every play, it was much harder to get a good, easy shot and many players were forced to use the hook shot. Today, almost all teams try to run and fast break at every opportunity. This places more emphasis on facing the basket and offers less opportunities or necessity to use the hook shot."

Like the sociologist, the sportswriter finds that times have changed. Pete Newell, former Cal coach and now with the Golden State Warriors and all-around basketball scientist, said that times didn't change with any particular president's term, though, but rather with a rules change. "That's always the way," he said. "The rules people are the real innovators in this game."

Newell, who remains enough fascinated by the shot that he tries to teach it in his big-man camp for NBA centers and forwards, said: "It happened about 15 years ago, when they changed the interpretation of the screen. It then allowed you to go down and pick a guy, and rarely was there an offensive foul. It was the birth of motion offense. It creates a shot in the vicinity of the basket so there's now lots of jamming."

In short, there's no longer room for the big man to maneuver, to take that step and extend that arm.

"It became that the only way to defend was to zone," Newell continued. "It got so you just couldn't stay with the guy (in a man to man). Up to two-five years ago, 90% of college and high school teams were playing some kind of zone. And when you have a zone, you have no room for the center. The coaching concept became, 'If you're gonna beat me, beat me over the top.'

"With the emergence of the zone defense, there was no real room for post men to maneuver. He moves and somebody else--some fainting Phil, I call them--takes the offensive foul and falls down. It got to be the way to play defense was to fall down. Seriously, coaches were spending as much as 30 minutes a practice on taking the charge."

And so the lane became an unsightly clot of people. The elegance of the hook shot was thus lost. It became you-dunk-I-dunk. "How much of that can you watch?" Newell wonders.

Basketball was evidently much easier to look at before this particular evolution. Sharman recalled the fun of seeing Hagan, "probably the greatest hook-shooting forward of all time."

Hagan, who played for the St. Louis Hawks from 1956 to 1966, was so identified with the shot that Vitalis used him and his hook shot in a commercial. Hagan was teaching the kids how to shoot one. "And then we go comb our hair," Hagan recalls.

"When I played, the hook shot was just a must," said Hagan, now the athletic director at his alma mater, the University of Kentucky. "It was virtually unstoppable. I don't understand why it's not there today, the way it extends the big man's capabilities."

Hagan picked it up as kid. He saw somebody use it at Western Kentucky and he went to work on it himself. He admits, it's not the easiest thing to perfect.

"It's contrary to everything you do, to lay the ball out on your palm, behind you," he said. "It's just a strange feeling until you develop that touch. And you have to shoot about 5,000 of them before you believe you have."

Hagan used it in all kinds of situations, off the fast break or out of the corners, wherever he was. "I'd hook either way, and it was virtually unstoppable," he said. "It's an amazing thing to see somebody hitting it across the free throw line. It's a beautiful thing."

But the NBA is probably not the place to learn it. Even college.

"Who's going to teach him that," asked Hagan. "A coach who never shot the hook shot? A guy throws up his first hook shot, it looks bad, the coach is really on him. You really need to start it in high school."

Sharman agrees that the hook shot--"the most difficult shot of all to really develop to become effective in important games"--is not to be used without some kind of learner's permit. And where do you get that?

"I don't believe many coaches teach it or even encourage the younger players to practice it much anymore," he said. "I believe they feel the jump shot is easier to teach and develop and can be used in more places on the court and at longer range."

Still, here is Kareem, sparse head of hair and his hook from on high. Cap'n Hook.

"I just can't believe more people haven't gone to school on Kareem," said Newell, of the NBA's all-time leading scorer. So far, only Magic has bothered with it.

Magic admits that he tried it with some trepidation, but watching Kareem neutralize defenders for so long encouraged him to practice it. By last season, he was throwing up one or two a game.

"You have to learn to shoot it," he cautions.

But once he had it in his arsenal, he could no longer understand why more players didn't pick it up.

"I sit back and watch Kareem do it and it's just a beautiful shot," he said. "It doesn't matter who's on you. People ought to wake up on this."

Magic said that it's probably natural as the best players go from high school to college to have their way under the basket, to face up and go over. But in the NBA there comes a time he's not the biggest guy on the court. "And there you go," he said. "Time to think of something else." And why not the hook? "Hardest shot in the game to block."

You may remember Magic's mini-sprint from the sideline to the lane in Game 4 of the NBA final series last year, tossing up a 10-foot running hook shot for the deciding points in the last two seconds. Larry Bird does.

"You're probably going to get beat (by Los Angeles) on a skyhook," the Celtic said at the time. "But you don't expect it from Magic."

It could be that Magic is more than the caretaker of a shot headed the way of the set shot. He could be signaling a new popularity for it. Newell expects a reemergence, thanks--wouldn't you know it--to the rules makers.

"This time it's the three-point shot," he said. "It's changed every part of the game, from play to recruiting. Before, it was how fast and how big was he. We still want that, but no longer exclusive of how well he can shoot. With the three-point shot, it's now hard to win without that shooter.

"Louisville didn't adapt, for example. Didn't think it needed to. And didn't make the 64 (entrants in the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. tournament). Now a coach asks, 'Can he shoot?' It's changed recruiting drastically."

And it will change the game. Teams still run fast breaks but Newell notices that even with Nevada Las Vegas' Runnin' Rebels, the wing men run up and then bounce back to the three-point line. Suddenly the inside, the area beneath the basket, looks roomy. A post man has space to negotiate, perhaps to hook.

Newell expects some of the slower big men to compensate with this shot, the game's great neutralizer. Newell claims some success with Milwaukee's Randy Breuer, who resembles Kareem only to the extent that both top 7-feet. Newell has worked with Breuer on it at his summer camp and doesn't pretend that he has created a new Cap'n, but certainly an improved Breuer.

So maybe the shot can be reclaimed from the NBA's past, when players did it by hook and by crook, before the game became a race downcourt and a vault over the rim. There's surely a hair product commercial to be done somewhere. Not by Kareem, of course, but perhaps by his hair apparent.

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