If you are old enough to remember when Michael Jordan had hair,
you probably recall the day in 1986 when he went one-on-one
against the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird in a playoff game. Jordan
dribbled between his legs once, then again. He faked a baseline
drive and Bird swiped at the ball, but Jordan pulled it back. He
seemed to throw a different move at Bird with every part of his
anatomy. His head bobbed, his shoulders twitched, even his
eyebrows seemed to dance. When he finally went up for a jump
shot, he was wide open, because Bird was still lunging at the
spot Jordan had vacated an instant earlier.
After that, the memory probably gets fuzzy. You can't quite
remember if the shot went in (it did), which is understandable.
The most memorable moves--ankle-breakers, as they're known these
days, in reference to the way a faked-out defender can get his
limbs contorted trying to change direction--are like that. The
ones that are replayed through the years, such as Jordan's
victimization of Bird or the series of feints that Houston
Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon used to fake the San Antonio
Spurs' David Robinson nearly into the mezzanine during one
sequence in the 1995 Western Conference finals, can make the
shot seem secondary. Sometimes the move is all that matters.
The great move, the hip-shaking, head-faking piece of
showmanship, leaves a defender looking as if he's roller-skating
on marbles. There's scarcely a player in the NBA who hasn't
frozen an opponent in his tracks one time or another, but only a
few own a maneuver that is instantly identifiable as their own.
"There are no new moves," says Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe
Bryant, who nonetheless seems to create one almost every night.
"Anything players do now, players did before." That's not
exactly true. Every move may be a variation of something that
already has been done, but great moves are unique because of the
personal twists that their creators add. No one executes a spin
move quite the way Earl Monroe did. There has never been another
player who could swoop to the basket like Julius Erving, with
the ball resting at the end of his fully extended arm like a
nest on the tip of a branch. In any generation only a few moves
are so distinctive that they seem to be the sole property of
their owner, and we have chosen the five current ones we think
best fit that description and still meet these guidelines.
A move can include a shot, but it can't be only a shot. Houston
forward-center Kevin Willis's jump hook, for instance, is an
efficient piece of business, as automatic as the sunrise, but it
doesn't qualify as a move because there is nothing special about
the way Willis frees himself for it. The same goes for some of
the classic shots of the past, like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's
skyhook or George Gervin's finger roll. But San Antonio point
guard Avery Johnson has a sleight-of-hand trick on the fast
break in which he deceives defenders by wrapping the ball behind
him as if to throw a behind-the-back pass and then brings it
back and lays it in. Now that's a move!
A great move has to lead to points. It's true that the basket
may not be remembered nearly as long as the move, but it has to
be there or the move is like a sentence without a period.
Jordan's fabulous drive against the Lakers in Game 2 of the 1991
Finals, when he went up with his right hand, switched to his
left and tossed in a layup as he fell to the ground, wouldn't be
replayed constantly if the shot had rolled off the rim.
A great move, Magic Johnson once said, "should make you want to
grab the guy sitting next to you and go, 'Oh, my goodness, did
you see that?'" In other words, to make our fab five, a move
must feature exceptional grace, quickness, power or
deception--or some combination thereof. When Washington Wizards
forward Chris Webber or Cleveland Cavaliers forward Shawn Kemp
frees himself for a vicious dunk by executing a low-post spin
move so fast that his opponent looks stiffer than Al Gore, it
ranks high on the "Oh my goodness!" scale. But when New York
Knicks center Patrick Ewing takes big, awkward strides into the
lane for a fadeaway jump shot, the needle doesn't budge.
The test of a move is whether it's still effective after every
scout in the league has alerted his team to it. "If the defender
knows it's coming but still can't stop it," says guard World B.
Free, who played in the league for 13 years, "that's when you
know you have a move." With that in mind, here in reverse order
are the five best signature moves in the NBA.
O'Neal is not exactly a man of a million moves, and some would
say his drop step consists of dropping the defender by slamming
him with his 313-pound body and then stepping over him on the
way to the hoop. But the truth is that his move is an impressive
combination of agility and power. He batters his opponent with
his massive hindquarters as he backs closer and closer to the
basket before hooking one leg around the defender and spinning
to the hoop faster than should be possible for a man his size.
By this time the opposing center is usually stumbling into the
photographers seated behind the baseline and his teammates are
scattering like terrified townsfolk, allowing O'Neal to finish
off with the violent dunk of his choice. "It's the most powerful
move in the game," says Olajuwon. "You can't stop it. Only the
referee, if he feels sorry for you, can stop it."
When Smith, the Atlanta Hawks' shooting guard, was in ninth
grade, he saw an older kid make a peculiar move in a
summer-league game. The player dribbled in one direction, began
to spin back the other way, seemed to change his mind, then
headed off in the original direction. Smith thought that the
player did it by mistake until he saw him lose his defender by
doing the same thing again and again. Smith adopted the move,
quickened the fake spin and made it his trademark. "It's on the
scouting report, it's the first thing they mention, and he still
gets away with it," says Miami Heat guard-forward Dan Majerle.
Smith, who's righthanded, usually starts the move by going left,
because defenders are more likely to go for the fake back to his
stronger hand. He dribbles with his body between the ball and
the player guarding him. Then comes the fake reverse of
direction, when Smith looks back over his left shoulder and
turns his body slightly. Even if the defender expects the move,
his instinct is to slide back to block the spin, and if he takes
so much as a half step in that direction, Smith is gone. "It's
not so much the move that makes it tough to stop, it's the way
Smith does it," says Chicago Bulls guard Ron Harper. "He knows
how to set you up for it, and he knows he can't use it all the
time. He picks his spots." It's probably the easiest of the top
moves in the league to miss because the fake spin is subtle and
done in the blink of an eye and because Smith generally doesn't
use it more than once or twice in a game.
"When I was at Pershing High in Detroit, the first few times I
tried the move in practice it didn't work too well," Smith says.
"My coach said, 'I'm tired of that move, try something else.'"
Smith obviously prevailed, and his coach, Johnny Goston, now
teaches Smith's hesitation move every year to the Pershing guards.
TIM HARDAWAY VS. ALLEN IVERSON
There are several players with warp-speed crossover
dribbles--Bryant, Damon Stoudamire of the Portland Trail Blazers
and Rod Strickland of the Wizards among them--but Iverson, the
Philadelphia 76ers' point guard, and Hardaway, his counterpart
with Miami, are the crossover kings. You've seen the move: They
walk toward the defender, casually switching their dribble from
right hand to left and back again, over and over. Finally the
opponent runs out of patience and commits to one side. In a
flash, Iverson and Hardaway cross the ball over to the other
hand and they're gone. It's hard to choose which one does it
better, but because there isn't room for two players with the
same move on our list, we, like that unfortunate defender, have
to commit to one side.
"It's Hardaway," says Boston associate coach Jim O'Brien. "His
crossover is absolutely paralyzing because it's really two
moves. He can go through his legs and go by you, or he can go
back the other way. If you lean one way, it's impossible to get
back." Hardaway's backers also point to the fact that Iverson's
move is close to being illegal. "He carries the ball every time
he does it," says Smith. Iverson was the subject of a memorandum
on palming sent to the league's referees last season, and during
a game against the Phoenix Suns in November 1996, referee Nolan
Fine called him for the violation while Iverson was dribbling
the ball up the court, without a defender near him.
But Iverson's success with the move is all the more impressive
because he's the subject of such scrutiny. In just his second
season Iverson has established his crossover as one of the most
identifiable moves in the league. When he used it to fake Jordan
almost to his knees last season, Iverson created one of the most
talked-about sequences of the year. "Hardaway's is still pretty
good, but Iverson's is more dramatic," says Trail Blazers
assistant general manager Jim Paxson. "Timmy's is more
functional and gets the same result. Iverson's has more flair."
Says Sixers assistant Gar Heard, "If it's oohs and aahs, it's
more about Allen."
Call us shallow, but we like oohs and aahs. Give credit to
Hardaway, a nine-year veteran who was toasting NBA defenders
when Iverson was still in junior high, for crossing over so
effectively for so long, but give the nod to Iverson. We agree
with Hawk Tyrone Corbin's opinion of Iverson's move. "He may
carry the ball, but I don't care," Corbin says. "It's like art."
When Jordan has the ball at the end of a game, says Allan
Bristow, the Denver Nuggets' vice president of basketball
operations, "whatever he decides to do is always the best move
of any player in the league." Since he returned from his brief
retirement, Jordan has decided on the fadeaway jumper more often
than any of his other moves.
The work before the shot makes the move. Jordan starts with his
back to the basket, then often gives a shoulder fake so quick it
looks almost like a muscle spasm. That freezes the defender for
the split second Jordan needs to turn and fire. Like a pitcher
who varies his pickoff move, Jordan has a variety of deliveries
to keep his defender off balance. He'll fake left and turn to
the right for the shot. The next time down he may reverse it. Or
he may sense the defender is expecting the fake and simply turn
Whenever Jordan turns to shoot, he releases the ball so quickly
that it's hard for an opponent to react fast enough to get a
hand in his face. Even if the defender does, Jordan has the
uncanny ability to hang in the air--when he leans back on the
fadeaway, it sometimes looks as if he's almost reclining--until
the defender gives in to gravity. "He gets so much lift on it,"
says Miami assistant Bob McAdoo, "he can get it over any guard
and even any 3 man [small forward] in the league."
The beauty of Olajuwon's move is its countless variations. Like
snowflakes, no two Dream Shakes are exactly alike. "He steps in,
gives you three or four fakes, goes up and under or goes to the
fadeaway," says Heard. "You don't know what shot he's going to
take because he has them all combined."
It seems odd that the most graceful, fluid move in the league
would belong to a center. When Olajuwon was learning the game,
he studied not just centers but also forwards and guards, and
it's obvious he has incorporated into his game moves that
typically belong to smaller players. He goes through a series of
spins, fake spins, pump fakes and up-and-under moves until the
defender finally bites. Then Olajuwon can finish off the move
with a fadeaway jumper, a short jump hook or a dunk.
In that memorable sequence against Robinson in the 1995
playoffs, he even held the ball out with his right hand, as if
to say, 'Is this what you're looking for?' before pulling it
back, spinning the other way and scoring.
Olajuwon's move is really a progression. If the defender doesn't
bite on the second fake, he'll go for the third. Or the fifth.
"There's nothing that compares to what Dream does," says Utah
Jazz center Greg Foster. "I think the quick guys are the ones
who have the most trouble guarding Olajuwon. They go for
everything. I think you have to play him like a slow player."
Which brings us to the most overlooked ingredient necessary for
a great move--the defender. The sight of the befuddled defensive
man adds immeasurably to the visual effect of the move. So, to
those poor defenders who are fooled into looking left while
their man goes right or who take flight upon being pump-faked
while their man calmly ducks under them for a layup, your
contribution isn't unappreciated. And may your ankles always be
The best moves don't have to take place in midair or at warp
speed. That's why, even though today's players are generally
more athletic than those of previous generations, the former
stars produced just as many brilliant maneuvers as Jordan & Co.
do. Even if you eliminate such memorable trademarks as Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar's skyhook and George Gervin's finger roll, because
they were shots not moves, NBA history is full of remarkable
fakes and feints. Some players, such as Elgin Baylor, Pete
Maravich and Dominique Wilkins, had so many moves that they
didn't rely heavily on any one of them, which is why they did
not make this list. If we were opening a museum of great moves
of the past, these would be our top five exhibits in ascending
KEVIN MCHALE'S POST-UP PACKAGE McHale's back-to-the-basket
footwork is the standard by which big men's low-post moves are
measured. He had moves and countermoves, depending on how the
defender reacted to each fake. If by some chance the opponent
wasn't thoroughly lost by the pivot, the pump fake and the step
through, McHale could throw a new series of moves at him, all
while keeping his pivot foot locked in place. Hakeem Olajuwon's
low-post moves get higher marks for artistry, McHale's for
EARL MONROE'S SPIN MOVE Almost everyone has a spin move, but no
one has the knock-kneed maneuver that unfailingly freed Monroe.
He would look arthritic as he dribbled down the floor and then
split a pair of opponents with a whirl to the basket. Today's
players should study a tape of Monroe to see that it's possible
to execute a killer spin move without carrying the ball.
JULIUS ERVING'S BEHIND-THE-BASKET DRIVES Dr. J was at his most
dangerous under the rim or backboard, where most players are
hopelessly trapped. With his long arms, remarkable body control
and ability to hang in the air, Erving found ways to spin in
layups even when he seemed penned in between defenders and the
baseline. He seemed to float in the air, waiting for an opening,
as if he were a hockey player behind the net.
BOB COUSY'S BEHIND-THE-BACK MOVES Even 7-foot centers go behind
their backs these days, but when Cousy started flashing his
moves (dribbles, passes, even drives) in the 1950s, they drew
gasps. Cousy was the father of flamboyant moves. "Have you ever
seen a guy other than Cousy throw a hook pass the length of the
court off a made free throw to a guy to score on a fast break?"
asks his former Boston Celtics teammate Tom Heinsohn. "I don't
think you have."
MAGIC JOHNSON'S NO-LOOK PASS One of the NBA's most enduring
images is that of Johnson leading a fast break, looking one way
as he whipped a pass the opposite way, usually to a teammate
streaking in for an easy basket. Magic's misdirection wasn't
always necessary, and sometimes he leaped to make a pass when he
didn't have to, but sometimes the best moves break all the
If there were a statistic for stunning moves per minute played,
the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant would surely lead the
league. Bryant, a 6'7" guard, has the ball handling skills to
lose a defender off the dribble, the body control to slither
around opponents and put up a soft shot, and the jumping ability
to improvise in the air. "Nobody can guard Kobe one-on-one,"
says Lakers coach Del Harris. "Nobody."
But a decade from now will there be one move that will be
instantly identified as Bryant's? Probably not. Many of the
league's young stars, like Bryant, 19, and Boston Celtics
forward Antoine Walker, 21, rely more on a variety of moves--and
the ability to create a new one in a split second--than they do
on a single, bread-and-butter maneuver. Bryant, for instance, is
a master of the double pump, avoiding the potential blocked shot
by hanging in the air and shooting while he's on his way down,
but he's just as likely to use a spin move to get to the basket
or a between-the-legs dribble and a shoulder fake to free
himself for a jump shot. Walker has similar versatility, and at
6'9" and 245 pounds he has the size and the strength to include
low-post moves in his arsenal.
But there are some potential signature moves emerging among the
younger generation. Opponents come away muttering about New
Jersey Nets rookie forward Keith Van Horn's deceptive first
step, which seems to get him from the foul line to the baseline.
Detroit Pistons fourth-year forward Grant Hill has a subtle
hesitation move that he uses on the fast break to freeze a
defender. Stephon Marbury, the Minnesota Timberwolves'
21-year-old point guard, has a knack for finding the trailer on
the break and then leaving a little drop pass for him.
Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs' rookie forward-center, is a
human how-to book of low-post moves, and his ability to finish
with either hand may be the most distinctive part of his game.
While Duncan uses finesse and technique, other young big men
rely more on speed and power. The baseline spin is among the
most popular weapons in this group, which includes Minnesota's
Kevin Garnett, 21, and fifth-year forward Chris Webber of the
Some of the newcomers to the league will no doubt eventually
develop moves that will come to be identified with them. But for
now many of them are willing to flout the conventional wisdom
that a consistent NBA scorer needs a pet move he can go to
repeatedly. "You have to have a lot of things in your bag that
you can pull out," says Bryant. "You might practice certain
things, but all the really good moves are spontaneous." --P.T.