Many of the NBA’s all-time great players had a signature shot that separated them from their counterparts.
From Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s legendary skyhook to George “Iceman” Gervin’s finger roll to Hakeem Olajuwon’s dream shake to Mark Jackson’s teardrop, several players left an unforgettable impact on the game with a signature move that will forever be etched in the minds of basketball aficionados around the world.
Now, Dirk Nowitzki has joined that group.
The Dallas Mavericks’ 11-time All-Star has perfected a signature move that he humbly describes as a one-legged, step-back fadeaway jump shot. Nowitzki said the shot was created a few years ago out of pure necessity and because he is challenged vertically.
“I was never the fastest guy beating somebody off the dribble, so I had to come up with something to create a little separation,” Nowitzki said. “The step-back is a good way of just creating a little separation and still get the shot over them.
“I’m 7 feet [tall] and there’s really not a lot of guys I can’t shoot over. So by creating a little separation usually they can’t get to it, and that’s how it started.”
However Nowitzki’s signature shot was born, it has become a hot button item of sorts in NBA circles. Over the past year All-Stars such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Love and Pau Gasol have all added the one-legged step-back fadeaway jumper to their repertoire, which is a nod of respect given to Nowitzki and what he has been able to accomplish during his 16-year career.
“Quite frankly, I’ve never seen it where you get a collection of really top players that go out of their way to copy a shot of one of the all-time greats and give respect to one of the all-time greats,” Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said. “It’s one of the marvelous gestures I’ve seen in the last two or three years.
“It’s very unusual. But again it’s an unmistakable gesture of respect, and it’s one of the coolest things I’ve seen in recent years.”
Sean Elliott, a forward who played 11 of his 12 NBA seasons from 1989-2001 with the San Antonio Spurs, isn’t surprised that other players are duplicating Nowitzki’s signature shot.
“We’ve all ripped off a little piece of Magic Johnson, a little piece of Larry Bird, a little piece of Michael Jordan,” said Elliott, a color commentator on the Spurs’ TV broadcast. “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
“This is a copycat league. Guys have ripped off each other’s moves in the past. It’s about teaching the next guy something else about the game.”
Gervin sure taught opponents a thing or two about his classic finger roll. The shot is simplistic in nature because the ball rolls off a player’s fingers, yet it is difficult to emulate.
Robert Reid, who attended Schertz Clemens High School in suburban San Antonio, was always fascinated with Gervin’s finger roll. So when Reid starred collegiately at St. Mary’s in San Antonio, he said he and Gervin used to play one-on-one.
“My dad was the head bartender at the Spurs Corral,” said Reid, a swingman who helped the Houston Rockets reach the 1981 and ’86 NBA Finals. “Ralph Reid got me a job hawking beer in the Spurs’ arena and there were many nights I didn’t reach my quota because I was watching [Gervin shoot] that finger roll.”
A Rockets teammate of Olajuwon, Reid also had a front row seat for the dream shake.
The shot mainly consisted of Olajuwon giving a defender the illusion that he’s going to shoot the ball from one direction, and then he’d quickly peel back and get his shot off in the opposite direction.
Meanwhile, Abdul-Jabbar used heavy wrist action to flick in what is commonly known as the skyhook. On the heels of that signature shot, Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 38,387 points.
“It was the most lethal weapon the game has ever seen,” said Walt Frazier, who led the New York Knicks to the 1970 and ’73 NBA titles. “It was unstoppable, and I saw a lot of them go in.
“Kareem had such a rhythm with that shot, and you couldn’t block it. He could always get to where he wanted to go because of the isolation, and that’s why I’m shocked more guys don’t utilize the hook shot.”
Nowitzki has frequently tinkered with the skyhook, but with mixed results. That’s probably why he says it might “stay in my lab” until he’s 45.
“We work on it a lot, but it’s the hardest shot there is in basketball to me,” the 35-year-old Nowitzki said. “That’s why nobody since Kareem has come up with shooting it on a regular basis at a high percentage — it’s a beast.”
Mavericks forward Vince Carter acknowledged that players who are owners of multiple signature moves — such as Jordan — are the ones who are constant headaches to try and defend.
“The toughest ones are the guy that have two or three moves that they like to use that keep you guessing,” Carter said. “Regardless of if you knew Kareem was going to use the skyhook or Dirk was going to do the one-legged step-back.
“It came down to when is he going to do it? And can you time it to block it?”
Mark Jackson’s signature teardrop was another memorable shot which was difficult to block.
Jackson used to slither through the lane and float the basketball high over the outstretched arms of helpless defenders.
Many of today’s players have perfected the teardrop, most notably the Spurs’ Tony Parker.
“If you’re a point guard, you’ve got to have a teardrop shot in your repertoire now,” Frazier said. “Mark Jackson started it and some other guys copied it.
“That’s what the Iceman used to do to get it off over the big guys. Ice, the way he used to do it, was so flamboyant. He really spun it and he could do it from 10 feet along the baseline.”
While there might not be a flamboyant bone in Nowitzki’s body, Carlisle knows his superstar’s one-legged step-back fadeaway jumper will be a topic of discussion in barber shops and on talk radio shows for many years to come. Especially because so many of the NBA’s other elite players have added that shot into their game.
“Dirk’s one-legged fadeaway is a classic shot, it’s a one-of-a-kind shot, and it leaves an indelible impression on historians of the game,” Carlisle said. “Bird had a step-back over on the right logo area, Dirk’s got the one-legged step-back, Jabbar had the skyhook, [Kevin] McHale had the turnaround jump shot and the jump hook.
“There are a lot of guys that had what you call signature shots, and they’re very memorable. But it’s one of the other reasons that Dirk will go down as one of the greatest ever.”