For 34 years, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s 38,387 points stood as the gold standard of NBA records. It was a record many thought would never be broken. LeBron James did the unthinkable when he broke Kareem’s longstanding record on Feb. 7, 2023 to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. It was a crowning achievement for King James, and deserved all the accolades.
But let’s not forget the greatness of Kareem. His all-time scoring record may have been broken, but his basketball accomplishments remain unmatched. And his signature skyhook is still basketball’s greatest offensive weapon. It was graceful. It was lethal. It was poetry in motion. Above it all, it was unstoppable. Everyone in the arena knew the skyhook was coming, yet nobody could stop it. You could hear legendary Lakers play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn describe the shot as only he could. “The ball goes inside to the Kareem. He swings left. Shoots right. Skyhook from 12 feet … good!”
Kareem’s skyhook helped him win six regular-season NBA MVPs and six NBA championships during his 20-year Hall of Fame career — 14 with the L.A. Lakers and six with the Milwaukee Bucks.
We could have a legitimate debate on what’s the best move in basketball. You make a strong case for Hakeem Olajuwon’s dream shake. Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway. George Gervin’s finger roll. Tony Parker’s floater. But there’s simply no argument here when it comes to the effectiveness and the surgical precision of Kareem’s skyhook.
The Showtime Lakers dynasty in the 1980s was best known for its free-wheeling, fast-breaking offense. Magic Johnson was the maestro of basketball’s version of the Greatest Show on Earth. Magic would yo-yo up and down the court, hitting a streaking James Worthy on the wing for a slam dunk or finding Byron Scott for a 3-point shot or throwing an alley-oop to Michael Cooper. But when the Lakers were forced to slow down and play half-court offense, Magic would signal for the “fist play,” which means the ball is going inside to The Captain and let him do what he does best. Swing left, shoot right. Skyhook from 12 feet. Good.
Kareem’s skyhook played pivotal roles in game-winning situations. The skyhook beat Boston at the buzzer in double-overtime in Game 6 of the 1974 NBA Finals. He hooked another buzzer-beater in Magic’s NBA debut in 1979, a game in which Magic famously jumped into the arms of Abdul-Jabbar, who then reminded the rookie there were 81 more games to go. In the series-clinching game of the 1985 NBA Finals at Boston Garden, 38-year-old Kareem knocked down skyhook after skyhook to exorcise Celtics demons and lead the Lakers to their first Finals victory over their hated rivals in nine meetings. And when Kareem broke Wilt Chamberlain’s all-time scoring record in 1984 in Las Vegas, he went to his signature shot.
Abdul-Jabbar explained the genius of the skyhook to former Los Angeles Times columnist and ESPN writer J.A. Adande in the most scientific way.
“When you shoot it, you force people to wait for you to go up. And if they wait until I started to shoot it then they’d have to judge the distance and time it, and it’s gone before they can catch up to it. That’s, for me, the beauty of it,” Abdul-Jabbar told Adande. “You’re in control because of when you’re gonna release it and where. The defense has to see that and calculate everything before they get an opportunity to block it.”
When it comes to combined basketball resume — from high school to college to pro — Kareem is still the undisputed champion.
At the high school level, Kareem — then known as Lew Alcindor — led Power Memorial Academy to a 79-2 record and won three straight New York City championships. In college, Kareem led UCLA to three straight NCAA titles and was named national player of the year three times.
UCLA went 88-2 in the three seasons Abdul-Jabbar played on the varsity squad. Only a ridiculous NCAA rule prevented Abdul-Jabbar from winning four NCAA titles because at the time freshmen were not allowed to play on varsity. UCLA went undefeated in 1967, going 30-0 and winning the national championship, then 29-1 in each of the next two seasons.
Kareem was part of college basketball’s “Game of the Century.” On Jan. 20, 1968, UCLA took on the Houston Cougars in the first nationally televised regular-season college basketball game, with 52,693 in attendance at the Astrodome. Houston was led by future basketball Hall of Famer Elvin Hayes.
Hayes scored 39 points and had 15 rebounds, while Kareem, suffering from his eye injury, was held to just 15 points as Houston won 71–69, ending UCLA’s 47-game winning streak. Kareem got his revenge two months later in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament, where UCLA defeated Houston 101–69 en route to winning the NCAA title.
In four years at UCLA, Abdul-Jabbar scored 2,325 points. He averaged 26.4 points per game in an era when there was no 3-point shot and players weren’t allowed to dunk a ball. If we added up Abdul-Jabbar’s UCLA points with his NBA total, he would have finished with 40,712 points.
LeBron broke Kareem’s all-time scoring record during his 20th NBA season at 38 years old. A remarkable accomplishment for LeBron that shouldn’t be minimized. LeBron was averaging 29.9 points per game when he became the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. Just for context, when Kareem was 38 he averaged 23.4 points and started 79 games. Kareem went on to win NBA titles at ages 39 and 40 before retiring at 41 after the Lakers were swept by the Detroit Pistons in the 1989 NBA Finals.
Kareem believes he could have played longer, but explained to ClutchPoints that the travel grind became unbearable. “I didn’t even get to ride in airplanes. I mean, charter planes, you know? We had to get up at six and five o’clock and go take a commercial flight,” he told CluthPoints.
“Man, these guys don’t know how well they’re treated, you know? It’s a big difference now,” he continued. “It’s just that I know now that I can see since I retired that if we had flown in charter jets, I could’ve played a couple more years and played well. … I think that was the toughest thing to deal with, you know, just the grind of the schedule and having to get those early morning flights.”
The skyhook is not hard to learn. According to Kareem, it teaches you how to use footwork, hand-and-eye coordination, extension and follow through. He tried teaching it to other centers who came after him (like Andrew Bynum). But for whatever reason, it never stuck. Today’s players would rather emulate Stephen Curry’s low-percentage 3-point shot than the high-percentage hook.
Kareem was gracious after LeBron surpassed his record. He said he was glad he was able to be in the arena when it happened and be part of the historic moment.
“Wilt wasn’t able to be in Las Vegas when I broke his record,” said the 75-year-old Hall of Famer. “To me, I did it the right way and make sure that LeBron knew that I supported what he was doing. This something very special. Happy to help him celebrate it.”
Kareem added, “You saw how emotional LeBron was. This was something he had to work for. It was part of what he wanted to do with his career.”
While the basketball world celebrated LeBron’s achievement, let’s take a moment to remember and appreciate the greatness of the man who held the NBA’s all-time scoring record for nearly four decades. Take a bow, Cap.