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NBA in Vegas: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar sets scoring record with sky hook

Updated May 3, 2020 - 6:37 pm

Editor’s note: The NBA planted its seeds in Las Vegas during the 1983-84 season and still has a growing relationship with the city. This is the second of a five-part series detailing the league’s history in Las Vegas.

It’s not a basketball shot. It’s a ballet move. That’s how veteran broadcaster Eddie Doucette, the man responsible for the term “sky hook,” describes it.

He won’t take any credit for it, though. That belongs to the player who mastered it, former Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who made a particularly noteworthy version of his signature shot inside the Thomas &Mack Center on April 5, 1984.

Los Angeles Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shoots a sky hook in a game against the Utah Jazz ...
Los Angeles Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar shoots a sky hook in a game against the Utah Jazz in Las Vegas on April 5, 1984. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

“He pushes off the left leg, right leg folded, left arm extended … right arm totally extended way at the top,” Doucette said. “Firm release. Beautiful follow-through.”

Even now, more than 36 years later, “It’s like everything is in slow motion,” he said.

Before a crowd of 18,389 on that particular Thursday night, Abdul-Jabbar used his sky hook against the Utah Jazz to surpass Wilt Chamberlain’s 31,419 points to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. He concluded his career with 38,387 points.

Perhaps no two of those points are more famous than those he scored in Las Vegas during the fourth quarter of the Lakers’ 128-115 victory.

He needed 21 points against Utah to eclipse Chamberlain’s unfathomable mark. He scored 22.

“We were all aware of it before the game that he could possibly break the record,” said former Jazz shooting guard Darrell Griffith. “He was going to do it against somebody.”

The Jazz hoped it wasn’t them.

Utah center Mark Eaton matched up with Abdul-Jabbar, and the Jazz’s guards abandoned their man to double the Lakers star whenever possible. But too often he caught the ball too close to the basket, where he operated with a precision that few in the sport’s history could match.

He scored 12 points in the first quarter and 16 in the first half, adding a hook shot in the third quarter to give him 18 points and a dunk in the fourth to equal Chamberlain. The sellout crowd buzzed with an anxious excitement as Abdul-Jabbar corralled a pass — and missed a sky hook on the right block.

Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar acknowledges the cheering fans after setting a new NBA ...
Los Angeles Lakers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar acknowledges the cheering fans after setting a new NBA regular season scoring record of 31,421 points during the game with the Utah Jazz in Las Vegas, Nev., April 5, 1984. The old record was held by Wilt Chamberlain at 31, 419. (AP Photo/Lennox McLendon)

But it need not wait much longer.

“A lot of times in sports, you don’t realize the significance of the moment. But this time, everybody realized the significance,” said Joe Hawk, the public-address announcer that night at the Thomas &Mack. “Really, you just got kind of tense and kept waiting.”

The Lakers secured a stop. On the ensuing possession, Abdul-Jabbar camped on the right block, pinning Eaton on his hip as Magic Johnson feathered a pass into the low post. Abdul-Jabbar dribbled once toward the lane as Jazz guard Rickey Green doubled from the weak side and pivoted back toward the baseline as he went into his familiar routine.

Push off his left leg, right leg folded, left arm extended, right arm totally extended way at the top. Firm release and, of course, the beautiful follow-through.

“You get to the point on anything that you do, if you’ve been doing it long enough, you understand what’s happening and everything becomes slow motion,” Doucette said. “And I saw this thing as I saw the first time that the sky hook reached full blossom in (1974), it became the same way again.”

Hawk was a longtime sports columnist and sports editor at the Review-Journal and has lived more than 40 years in Las Vegas. He considers that moment to be among the most memorable in the city’s sporting history, which includes several legendary title fights, a UNLV men’s basketball championship and a run to the Stanley Cup Final.

“For just the sheer anticipation, I think what that night meant and especially what it meant for one individual, I think it’d be the biggest one,” Hawk said. “This was a case where everybody showed up and they got exactly what they came for, which is a record set with an amazing, traditional shot by one of the most beloved players in the sport’s history.”

Abdul-Jabbar passed Chamberlain with 8:53 to play, prompting a stoppage, a joyous ovation and a congratulatory ceremony at center court. NBA commissioner David Stern was on hand in anticipation of the history-making event and praised Abdul-Jabbar as the “greatest.”

Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, right, congratulates Los Angeles Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ...
Basketball great Wilt Chamberlain, right, congratulates Los Angeles Lakers' Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before game, Friday, April 6, 1984 in Los Angeles for surpassing Chamberlain's NBA previous all-time regular season scoring record of 31,419 in Las Vegas Thursday. (AP Photo/Mark Avery)

Abdul-Jabbar humbly thanked the crowd before checking out of the game for good having made 10 of his 14 shots.

Abdul-Jabbar’s manager, Deborah Morales, declined an interview request on his behalf, but others fondly remember the most iconic NBA moment in the city’s history.

Like Doucette, who called the game on USA Network’s national broadcast and to this day maintains a friendship with the 7-foot-2-inch icon. Or Marc Ratner, then a local statistician tasked with tallying rebounds during each of Utah’s 11 home games in Las Vegas during the 1983-84 season.

“It’s so amazing that of all the games that were scheduled, it ended up here,” said Ratner, who admitted that his lasting memory of the Jazz playing in Las Vegas was that “Kareem broke the scoring record here with an assist from Magic (Johnson).”

Doucette began his broadcasting career by calling Bucks games during their expansion season of 1968-69. He recalled the excitement generated by the then-Lew Alcindor when he was drafted as the No. 1 overall pick in 1969. Abdul-Jabbar was brilliant while leading the Bucks to their first NBA title in 1971 — the same year Doucette invented the term “sky hook.”

“The shot is a shot that will never be equaled in the game of basketball,” Doucette said. “You think of how many people have a jump shot, have various creative shots that are often duplicated, sometimes intimated and sometimes not. But no one has really been able to duplicate the sky hook.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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