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-Jab-bar'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.