The poster hung above my bedroom dresser, a painting lifelike in its details but abstract in concept, the head and shoulders of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar leaning to the left as he tossed a hook shot against a backdrop of a cloud-spotted sky.
In retrospect, my wall was covered with athletes doing what defined them. Magic Johnson smiling; James Worthy soaring for a dunk, the ball held straight above his head like the Statue of Liberty's torch; Michael Jordan in the original Air Jordan poster, captured mid-flight, his arms and legs spread wide in a pose that became the logo worn on millions of high-tops. Kareem with his skyhook.
The greatest of the great don't just have a style. They have a signature, an indelible stamp that signifies exactly who they are.
It can be an article of clothing, such as Abraham Lincoln's stovepipe hat or Tiger Woods' red Sunday shirts. It can be a familiar instrument like B.B. King's guitar, Lucille. It can be as simple as a single word: Marv Albert's "Yes!"
In order to make something so simple seem so distinctive it has to be done over and over again, through solitary repetition and on stage when everyone's watching. I've seen that rhythmic skyhook so many times it's burned in my head like an image left on a computer screen too long. His left leg is straight, the right knee comes up, the left arm extends out, the right arm rises up with the ball and finally the wrist flicks to add the backspin, the seams rotating as the ball arcs to the hoop and drops through the net.
It's not that Abdul-Jabbar created the skyhook. But sometimes it's better to perfect things than do them first. Liza Minnelli had the first crack at "New York, New York," but Frank Sinatra's version is the one you mostly hear played at Yankees and Knicks games. In basketball, where talent eventually overrides everything else, victory belongs to the appropriators more than the innovators.
You probably never heard of Dean Berry. He was a reserve guard for the Georgetown Hoyas who played only 50 minutes in the 1995-96 season. But in practices he taught Allen Iverson the crossover dribble move that Iverson used so effectively in the NBA.
We can thank George Mikan and Cliff Hagan for the origins of Abdul-Jabbar's hook shot. Abdul-Jabbar doesn't have memories of watching Mikan, the Minneapolis Laker who was the NBA's first dominant big man. But he did use the drill that was named for him and consisted of shooting a hook shot from the right side with the right hand, then a hook from the left side with the left hand and repeating while slowly moving further away from the basket. Abdul-Jabbar did see Hagan use the hook shot as a player for the St. Louis Hawks, a reminder that the hook could be used effectively at all levels of the game.
The greatest encouragement for Abdul-Jabbar to keep working on the hook was when he started playing in fifth grade and usually found himself going against kids who were older, just as tall and more physically developed than him.
"It was the only shot I could shoot that didn't get smashed back in my face," Abdul-Jabbar said. "So I learned to rely on it early, and it was always something that I could get off, even in traffic."
As he practiced in the gyms and playgrounds of New York City, he extended his shooting range. The NCAA banned the dunk when Abdul-Jabbar was at UCLA, so he used the hook to set scoring records and win 88 of his 90 collegiate varsity games.
Milwaukee Bucks announcer Eddie Doucette gave the shot its heavenly name during Abdul-Jabbar's early pro years with the Milwaukee Bucks, and it stuck as he moved on to Los Angeles and kept relying on the hook shot as the primary weapon for his assault on Wilt Chamberlain's all-time NBA scoring record. Whenever the Showtime Lakers couldn't get out on the fast break, Magic Johnson would simply hold up a fist, indicating it was time to get the ball to Kareem. In retrospect, it really wasn't fair to go from one of the best fast breaks ever unleashed on the NBA to a Plan B that consisted of the single most effective shot in the history of the sport. It was like following up Larry Holmes' jab with Mike Tyson's uppercut.
I can still hear the legendary Lakers announcer Chick Hearn describing the play:
"They give it to Kareem. He'll swing left, shoot right. He swings left, shoots right the 12-foot skyhook is good!"
Which begs the question: If the scouts told them what the fist play was and Hearn could see it coming all the way from his seat high above the western sideline at the Forum, why couldn't opposing defenders anticipate it and stop it?
For one thing, unlike a jump shot in which the proper technique is to line the shoulders up to face the basket, the skyhook was released with the shoulders perpendicular to the hoop, forcing the defender to come all the way across Abdul-Jabbar's body to get to the ball. As an added deterrent, Abdul-Jabbar extended his left arm to ward off opponents.
Then there was the timing element. To hear Abdul-Jabbar describe it, you'd need a graphing calculator to project the right time and place to be to block the shot.
"When you shoot it, you force people to wait for you to go up," he said, " 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. 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."
As if that didn't crowd enough thoughts into a defender's brain, he also had to worry about the counter moves Abdul-Jabbar developed. If a defender overplayed him to the right to take away the hook, he would just spin back around to his left to shoot a jump shot or, in later years, a lefty version of the skyhook.
Double-teaming him wasn't an appealing option during his seasons with the Lakers, because he might have had three other All-Stars on the court with him at any given time. Among the options he had to pass to over the years were Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Norm Nixon and Jamaal Wilkes.
"That kinda gave people the choice of 'How do you wanna commit suicide?'" Abdul-Jabbar said. "You want me to get the shot off, or do you want one of those guys to?"
So that meant Abdul-Jabbar faced more single coverage than anyone of his skills had a right to see. And a single defender stood no chance of stopping him.
"I don't recall it ever being blocked by somebody who was guarding me," Abdul-Jabbar said. "Maybe a few people got to it, coming to help where I couldn't see them, but if I knew where someone was, that person was not going to block that shot, because I always got my body in between them and the ball before I released the ball, and it's impossible to get to it. Manute Bol was [five] inches taller than me and I shot a number of them on him and made them without him blocking it.
"Nobody really presented a challenge to me getting it off. Wilt [Chamberlain] was pretty good, too. Wilt tried to time it and he could really leap, but he just couldn't get there in time."
It seemed as if the shot always started the same and ended the same. Yet among the thousands of attempts, there are those that stick out in my mind. That takes a special talent, too. John Stockton set the NBA record for career assists, but it's hard to remember any individual passes among the 15,806.
Not so with Kareem. He managed to mix in some drama and even a little emotion among the repetition. Well, maybe he wasn't so emotional on October 12, 1979, when he made a skyhook near the top of the key to give the Lakers the win in Magic Johnson's first professional game, prompting Johnson to wrap Abdul-Jabbar in a bear hug as if they'd just won the championship. Kareem calmly reminded him they had 81 games to go.
In the first Lakers game I saw in person, on March 28, 1982, Abdul-Jabbar beat the Cleveland Cavaliers with a skyhook at the buzzer. The next year he made a critical skyhook in an overtime playoff victory at Portland, then let out a yell as he ran back to the sidelines, where Magic greeted him with a drawn-out high five.
There was even more emotion that came with the hook shot that iced the Lakers' Game 6 victory in Boston Garden that delivered the 1985 championship in an NBA Finals that began with the Lakers getting stomped by the Celtics and Abdul-Jabbar being labeled as over the hill.
Abdul-Jabbar's personal favorite came in the same building, 11 years earlier, a dramatic late hook shot that helped the Bucks beat the Celtics in a Finals game.
And, fittingly, it was a hook shot that broke Chamberlain's scoring record on April 5, 1984.
Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook is one of the all-time signature moves, like George Gervin's finger roll or Hakeem Olajuwon's Dream Shake. The modern game has nothing close, not in status or effectiveness. Ironically, the San Antonio Spurs, the team derided as being so style-impaired, have two of the remaining signature shots: Tony Parker's teardrop and Tim Duncan's mid-range jumper off the glass from the wing. (Why do old-school announcers go crazy about the bank shot? Is the game that much worse without it?)
The true test of a signature move is when you can recognize it the moment someone else tries it. (For instance, it's pretty easy to see the influence of Michael Jackson on these dance moves by Usher.) When Abdul-Jabbar took a baseline seat at a 2004 Lakers game during his brief stint as a scout for the Knicks, Shaquille O'Neal noticed him and threw up a hook shot in the lane as an instant tribute, then pointed to Abdul-Jabbar to make sure he picked up on the homage.
O'Neal calls the skyhook "one of the most effective shots" in the history of the game, which makes you wonder why he never adopted it himself.
"My father made me shoot it all the time," O'Neal said. "Being a hip-hop kid, I didn't want to do it.
"We're different. We like to be a lot cooler."
Abdul-Jabbar concedes "it's not a macho shot," and realized it was going out of style even when he first learned it in the 1950s. But he doesn't understand the reluctance of the modern-day player to incorporate it into his game.
"I used it to become the leading scorer in the history of the NBA," Abdul-Jabbar said. "There has to be something about it that works."
There's a lot to be said about a journey being made easier by having a set destination. One reason Abdul-Jabbar always seemed to be a step ahead of the defense is that he knew exactly what he was going to do with the ball. Michael Jordan incorporated elements of this when he came to increasingly rely on his fallaway jumper, and in the past couple of years you've seen Kobe Bryant become more adept at getting to his preferred spots, then pulling up to shoot.
LeBron James seems to improvise every time, and there's a sense of wonder as we discover his capabilities right along with him. But LeBron and Kobe are perimeter players, almost destined to shoot lower percentages. Kareem was a 56 percent shooter for his career and had only one season -- his last, in 1988-89 -- in which he failed to make at least half of his shots.
So even while the latest generation has found more exciting ways to score, they haven't found anything more effective. The skyhook will continue to belong to Abdul-Jabbar. And, not coincidentally, so will the scoring record.
J.A. Adande is a contributor to ESPN.com
Join the conversation about "Secrets of the Skyhook."
In 1962, the Ole Miss campus erupted in violence over integration and swelled with pride over an unbeaten football team. Mississippi native Wright Thompson explores the tumultuous fall that still grips the state.