Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was more than just player who thrived in the era in which he played, he was a player unlike any that anyone has seen since. Drafted into the NBA following the most decorated collegiate career in history, Abdul-Jabbar was a 7-footer with the grace and agility of a dancer, and the shooting range of a guard. He's perhaps the one player in history whom you could drop into any era of basketball and watch tear up the competition.
Yet the time in which Kareem actually played is long gone. It, and many of its defining characteristics, have been replaced by the version that we see today. Let's take a look at some of the trends that defined Kareem's playing days, and which ones we might see again some day.
No single player's shot has ever come to epitomize their career like the skyhook did for Kareem, and that's simply because pro-basketball has never seen a shot like it. As the history of the dunking ban clearly illustrates, the rule change actually benefited the big man by forcing him to develop other effective scoring methods away from the basket, and thus he developed a truly unstoppable weapon.
Sure other players have tried to work it into their arsenal – and some have succeeded to varying degrees – but no player has ever come close to using it with the frequency and range of Abdul-Jabbar. Using the lethal combination of his height, shooting touch, and agility, Kareem used the skyhook the way that da Vinci used oil paints and Mozart used the piano.
Since then, everyone else has pretty much given up on trying to replicate it. Modern players can dabble all they want, but just about every other big man since Kareem has adopted a two-footed jump hook as an easier — albeit less effective — hook shot. Someday there might be another center willing and able to develop another true skyhook, but I'm not holding my breath.
Back when he was still Lew Alcindor, Kareem put together the most dominant collegiate career that we've ever seen, and we can pretty safely assert that no one will match it anytime soon. He won the NCAA title for the UCLA Bruins in all three of his varsity seasons. Yes, I said three and not four. He didn't leave a year early, he just had to play on the freshman team his first year, as mandated by the NCAA
These days it's rare enough for a star college player to last more than one year at school let alone four, and the idea of telling some of these days' MVPs that they have to pay their dues before they can play varsity seems absurd because, well, it was.
Even if you forget about players playing as little college ball as possible for a moment, the notion of forcing teams to use roster spots on less deserving players when there are more talented freshmen available is impractical for just about everyone involved.
Let's get one thing straight. Kareem Abdul-Jabber was probably the most uniquely gifted player the basketball world has ever seen. However, part of the reason he dominated so thoroughly is because there simply weren't a lot of guys who could even come close to competing with him from a physical standpoint.
The year Kareem was drafted first overall (1969), there wasn't a single other seven-footer in the first round. There were six drafted in the first round last year. In his first 10 seasons, there were 21 other players who checked in at 7 feet or taller. There are 38 so far this season. So while Kareem was going to win in no matter what era he played, it would have been a bit tougher today.
We can look back through the rosy lens of nostalgia and pine for the past all we want, but if there's one thing that can be said for the improvement of basketball viewing, it's in the wardrobe. Wearing shorts that left little to the imagination, usually combined with white socks that came up, well, higher than anyone would wear socks these days, the players of yesteryear at least gave us something to snicker about.
High socks are now becoming more prevalent again, and look fine since they're not followed by several visible inches of hairy thighs. We can thank a certain 90s basketball legend for ushering in the new phase of baggier and longer shorts that don't look like they're testing the limits of thread strength on the seams. And fortunately, they're unlikely to make any sort of resurrection. Although it was getting a little out of control in the opposite direction for awhile, I think we can agree that we've reached a happy medium.
We talk often about how the training and natural athleticism of today's players would make them unstoppable if put in a time machine and dropped into a game 30 or 40 years ago. But would they be able to take the punishment? Before the increased television and media exposure put a spotlight on every game, the brutality that was on display on the court was off the charts compared to what we see today.
And we're not just talking about things like players throwing elbows under the basket, we're talking about straight-up assault. If Kermit Washington did what he did to Rudy Tomjanovich today, there would be Senate hearings about it.
You simply couldn't survive back then if you weren't willing to throw down. Even Kareem, who was hardly known for his aggression, punched and broke the jaw of rookie Kent Benson in 1977 (and broke his own hand in the process) in retaliation for a flagrant elbow. Kareem wasn't even suspended for the incident; he was essentially sentenced to time served while his hand healed.
Just imagine a pro-basketball player doing that today. Superstar or not, there's no way the league would be able to sustain the PR backlash if they didn't suspend him for at least half the season. But back then – hey, the other guy did start it.
Nothing like the good ol' days, right?
Are there any modern basketball trends that you hope don't make it into the future? Explain your reasoning in the comments, and then head to adidas Originals for more information on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Blueprint.
Craig Lowell is a Brooklyn-based writer. Since graduating from Holy Cross, he has written for Sports Illustrated, Deadspin, NBA TV, The Fan Hub, The Sports Post, and the North Adams Transcript.
[Image by Alexandra Cannon for Studio@Gawker]