One of the first things they teach you in newspaperin’ school is how to ask the tough, intimate, often dangerous questions that can get your hat handed to you – with your head still in it.
Over the years, I’ve bravely – nay, foolishly – confronted gang members, accused murderers and powerful politicians with questions they preferred not to answer.
That’s why it’s hard to believe your humble correspondent punked out when it came to asking a relatively benign question last year when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was in the Triangle signing copies of his latest tome.
The basketball great is a serious-minded, reflective person, known for not suffering fools gladly, so I stuck to the topic of our conversation – his terrific young adult book that was only tangentially about basketball.
Had I been braver, though, I’d have asked him one of the two questions that keep me awake nights: How come nobody shoots a hook shot anymore? (The other question is “Who was the fifth Floater after Paul, Larry, Charles and Ralph?”)
If you’re anything like me, you will over the next three weeks watch about 1,100 hours of basketball on TV during the NCAA Basketball Tournament because the Triangle is well-represented.
You’ll also watch extremely tall players tie themselves into pretzels when they get the ball in the lane and attempt awkward-looking shots because they eschew the shot that made Kareem famous.
As executed by Abdul-Jabbar, it was the most beautiful and effective offensive weapon in basketball, possibly in sports. Ted Williams swinging a baseball bat? The only thing that comes close for pure athletic majesty.
Whenever Abdul-Jabbar received the ball at a certain spot on the floor, everyone within the same hemisphere as he knew what was coming – yet, it still worked, being both balletic and unblockable.
As with just about everything else wrong with basketball, I blame ESPN. When was the last time you saw a highlight featuring a hook shot?
I lacked the guts to ask Abdul-Jabbar why the hook shot has gone the way of three-for-a-penny cookies and Tin Pan Alley, but there is an interview online in which an intrepid reporter asked him that question.
“Kids aren’t learning it,” he said, employing his usual economy with words. “I learned how to do it in the fifth grade. It was easy. It enabled me to play for a long time.”
Another reason Abdul-Jabbar became so proficient with the shot is because the NCAA changed the rules to make it tougher for him to dominate games by outlawing the dunk shot. If you’re under 50, go ahead and look it up: there was actually a time when college players were not allowed to throw down powerful, jump-out-of-your-seat-and-scream-inducing dunks.
Can you imagine what ESPN highlights would look like if there were no dunks for its announcers to ooh and ahh over? The rule change implemented specifically to handicap Abdul-Jabbar simply made him better, forcing him to rely on finesse and footwork to get the ball into the basket.
As with just about everything else wrong with basketball, I blame ESPN. Every other basketball highlight on the network features some player throwing down an acrobatic dunk, yet when was the last time you saw a highlight featuring a hook shot?
Here’s a rule change they should consider: if a shot from 22 feet away is worth three points, why not make the game’s most graceful shot worth three as well?
Speaking of three-point shots, how is it that players who can knock them down while being knocked down are seemingly incapable of making with any consistency an uncontested free throw shot?
While on the subject of free throws and ineptitude, can they do something about the daps and high-fives every player must receive from all four teammates after each free throw, even the ones they miss?
Games would be 30 minutes shorter if referees assessed technical fouls for any dap given to a player after missing a free throw.
For a hook shot? I’ll run out on the court and give’em a high-five myself.
OK, enough complaining: let’s let the games begin!
Congratulations NCCU, UNC – and you, too, Duke.