Kentucky center Nick Richards had just dropped 25 points on visiting Fort Wayne in an 86-67 win Nov. 22. Seeking to explain his offensive outburst, the deep-voiced UK freshman told the postgame media horde that Wildcats assistant coach Kenny Payne had been working with him on a jump hook.
The exchange started me thinking about something other than Richards’ offensive repertoire.
Forget the jump hook, when’s the last time you saw a player at a high level of basketball shoot an old-school hook shot?
Once a staple of pivot play, the true hook shot — front leg steps into shot, back leg bent, shooting arm sweeping upward — seems to have gone the way of the pay phone.
What killed the hook shot?
There is a player from Kentucky basketball history whose success with the hook shot is said to have helped inspire Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s “skyhook.”
Cliff Hagan has a definite theory on why the shot that helped make him a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer has faded from modern basketball.
According to those who saw Hagan play in his glory days as a Kentucky Wildcats and NBA star, he was the Van Gogh of the hook shot.
“The best I ever saw,” former UK coach Joe B. Hall says.
Hagan was able to shoot the hook shot with either hand. Not only could the 6-foot-4 player make hook shots from the pivot, he could make them from out on the floor.
“The thing about Cliff, he didn’t even have to look at the goal (to make a hook shot),” says Frank Ramsey, Hagan’s UK teammate, NBA rival and fellow member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. “He could tell from where he was on the floor how he needed to (direct) his shot.”
As a student at Owensboro (Ken.) High School in the late 1940s, Hagan, now 86, first remembers seeing a hook shot while attending a Western Kentucky University game.
“I went to see the Hilltoppers and Bob Lavoy was, I think, about a 6-7 center,” Hagan recalls. “He threw up a hook shot, and I don’t think I had ever seen one. I couldn’t believe it.”
No one in Owensboro then had the expertise to teach the hook shot, so Hagan sought to instruct himself.
“I had access to the YMCA downtown in the summertime, and I remember going down there and just putting my back to the basket and really just doing a layup left-handed,” Hagan says. “Then, (I started) just turning my back to the basket and just turning to develop both hands, both arms. Then just moving out (on the floor).”
In the 1949 Kentucky Sweet Sixteen finals, Hagan scored a then-record 41 points to lead Owensboro to the high school state championship. “By then, I was shooting a hook shot,” he says.
After that ’49 state tournament, Hagan was flown to New York City to see the Kentucky Wildcats play in the NCAA Tournament East Region. In Madison Square Garden, a Yale forward named Tony Lavelli expanded Hagan’s conception of what the hook shot could be.
“He took hook shots from the forward position, we’re talking about 18, 22 feet out on the floor,” Hagan says of Lavelli. “I was like ‘My God, I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.’ That really made me fall in love with the hook shot.”
Playing for Adolph Rupp at UK, Hagan was a two-time, AP First Team All-American; contributed to an NCAA championship (1951); and averaged 24 points a game on an unbeaten team (1953-54).
He also perfected the shot that became his signature.
“I actually got to the point I could sit there with my back to the basket just outside the free throw line on the side, 4, 5 feet from the basket and just throw it up from behind my back without even looking,” Hagan says. “I knew where I was (in relation to the goal) from the lines on the floor.”
When the 6-4 Hagan broke in with the NBA’s St. Louis Hawks, an attempt was made to convert him to guard.
It didn’t work. Instead, Hagan carved out a stellar pro career — six-time NBA All-Star — from 1956-66 as a smallish forward. In the 1957-58 NBA playoffs, Hagan averaged 27.7 points in the postseason to help the Hawks (who are now in Atlanta) win their only championship.
In the pros, Hagan added a jump shot. Yet even when confronted by the shot-swatting Bill Russell or the 7-foot Wilt Chamberlain, he continued to employ the hook shot, too.
Against the giant Chamberlain, “I just had to loft the hook shot a little higher,” Hagan says. “You have to make those kind of adjustments.”
In the early 1960s, unbeknownst to Hagan, there was a very tall teenager in New York City monitoring the Kentuckian’s pro career.
A young Lew Alcindor had started to learn the hook shot through what is called “the George Mikan drill.” Named for the dominant big man of the early NBA, the Mikan drill was essentially comprised of shooting hook shots over and over with each hand while moving steadily away from the basket.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as Alcindor became known following his conversion to Islam, would go on to develop the most devastating hook shot in basketball history. The “skyhook” perfected by the 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar helped him score an NBA-record 38,327 career points.
In several interviews, Abdul-Jabbar has said that it was seeing Cliff Hagan succeeding in the NBA while employing a hook shot that persuaded him that the shot could be effectively deployed at basketball’s highest level.
“I have read that,” Hagan says, “but I have never talked to Kareem.”
Even among the most seasoned of Kentucky’s basketball observers, there are divergent theories on why the classic hook shot has all but disappeared from basketball.
Hall, 89, who coached Kentucky to the 1978 NCAA title, lays the decline on the fact traditional pivot play has been deemphasized in today’s perimeter-oriented hoops.
“If I was still coaching, I’d teach the hook shot,” Hall says, “because I believe in pivot play and I believe in the hook shot.”
Ramsey, 86, who was a vital cog in Red Auerbach’s original Boston Celtics dynasty, thinks the length and athleticism that modern basketball players bring to defense has rendered the hook obsolete.
“These guys today are so long and so athletic, you couldn’t get that hook shot off,” Ramsey said. “By the time you got (the hook shot) dialed up, they are just going to jump up and snatch it.”
For his part, Hagan also thinks the athleticism of the modern player has doomed the hook shot, but for the opposite reason.
“People are so athletically gifted today, they can use their speed and quickness to get around players and get their shots off,” Hagan said. “They don’t need the extra crutch (of a hook shot) to score.”
In Kentucky basketball lore, Hagan will forever be synonymous with the hook shot. So it must be a little melancholy for him to see that his signature shot has all but passed from the game.
“It’s sort of gone with the wind,” Cliff Hagan says of the hook shot.
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