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

March 06, 1988|RICHARD HOFFER | 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."

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