Born: December 12, 1932
Position: Power forward
Milwaukee Hawks (NBA): 1954-’55
St. Louis Hawks (NBA): 1955-’65
“I never tried to be a team leader in basketball. I wasn’t a guy who did a lot of talking. I just wanted everybody to see that I worked hard, that I’d give my full effort all the time. In business, I try to surround myself with the best people and then let them do their thing.” And if that doesn’t succeed? “Then we all sit down, talk it over, and work things out.”
That’s a fairly accurate description Bob Pettit gave of himself in that interview with Jack Ramsay. Many have worked as hard as Pettit but none harder. You listen to him speak for any length of time and invariably he returns to the ethos of hard work, determination and consistency. These would be hallmarks of his Hall of Fame career.
Bob’s initial forays into basketball were strongly encouraged by his father, a sheriff in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Despite being cut from the high school team twice, the practice ultimately paid off as Pettit eventually made the squad and would subsequently led them to the Louisiana state title. A fairly successful stint at Louisiana State University followed where he averaged ho-hum 27 points and 15 rebounds a game in his time as a Tiger. His play in these years, however, was predicated on him being a back-to-the-basket, low post threat. And at 6’9″ he had the height, but with only a scant 200 lbs to that frame, he didn’t have the weight to succeed in the pros that way.
So, Pettit totally retooled his game upon entering the NBA and would prove to better than ever.
Despite the fears over his frailty, the Milwaukee Hawks selected Pettit 2nd overall in the 1954 Draft. The Hawks were abominably terrible the previous year winning only 21 games. Their leading scorer was Don Sunderlage with a sizzling 11 PPG. Pettit immediately seized the reins of the team and although they improved to only 26 wins his rookie season, Pettit put together spectacular production of 20.4 PPG and 13.8 RPG.
His success was accomplished thanks to abandoning his nature as a back-to-the-basket player and instead becoming a dangerous marauder. He was one of the first big men (not just in position but in actual height) to roam the court and thrive on constant movement. He had a tremendous mid-range jump shot and could score off the dribble with some skill but his biggest money maker was with the incessant attacks he made on the offensive glass and with off-the-ball cuts. Bill Russell, quite the authority on hustle and rebounding, had this to say about Pettit:
“Bob made ‘second effort’ a part of the sport’s vocabulary. He kept coming at you more than any man in the game. He was always battling for position, fighting you off the boards.”
Pettit further improved his game via weight-lifting. Despite popular opinion at the time that weights would ruin a player’s shot, Pettit was fed up with being abused by larger, stronger players. He vowed that from now on, he’d be the man dispensing abuse, and not the one taking it. Thanks to the rigorous weight training program, Pettit greatly improved his strength, eventually grew from 200 pounds to 240 pounds, and powered up the strength of his hands.
That improved hand strength now allowed Pettit to better maintain position on the boards where he made his living. He was masterful at gobbling up offensive rebounds for putbacks or, after getting fouled, free throws. Lakers forward Rudy LaRusso best described just how difficult it was to handle Pettit:
If he got the ball inside the foul line, he owned you. He was so tall, he could shoot the ball over you. He also had one-dribble moves to either side. And he was protected by the refs. It was horrible. Bailey Howell told me that he was at the game where Pettit made a free throw and the announcer said, “That’s Pettit’s 15,000th career point.” Bailey said, “yeah and 12,000 of them came at the foul line.”
Pettit made the All-NBA 1st Team and ran away with the Rookie of the Year award in the 1954-55 season. His physical transformation would occur in time for the 1955-56 campaign, but the good people of Milwaukee wouldn’t see it firsthand. The Hawks fled Milwaukee that offseason after facing dismal attendance for years. Owner Ben Kerner moved the club to St. Louis in hopes that the team (and his pocketbook) would finally succeed. The move turned out better than he could have imagined.
The Hawks’ stay in St. Louis got off to a excellent start for Pettit. On December 27, he absolutely torched the Celtics:
Bob Pettit, leading scorer in the National Basketball Association, dropped in 46 points Tuesday night, highest of the season… The 6-9 former Louisiana State great hit 17 of 27 shots from the field and 12 of 14 foul shots in recording the NBA season high.
But Pettit’s efforts were in vain as the Hawks lost the game 105-102. It was emblematic of that season. Pettit would end up leading the league in points and rebounds but the Hawks were still an incredibly thin roster. Pettit’s efforts were recognized with his first MVP award that season even though the Hawks finished 33-39. In the playoffs the Hawks came exceedingly close to making the Finals, despite the mediocre roster, thanks to Pettit. They survived 2-1 in the first round against Minneapolis. In the deciding Game 3, which was won 116-115 by St. Louis, Pettit poured in 41 points to lead the way. In the Divisional Finals, the Hawks even managed to go up 2-0 against Fort Wayne, but then dropped the next 3 games to lose the series.
That offseason, before the 1956-57 campaign, the Hawks finally delivered significant help for Pettit. Trading Bill Russell’s draft rights to Boston for Ed Macauley and the draft rights to Cliff Hagan was the first step. With a glut of big men now, the Hawks traded Willie Nauls to the Knicks for point guard Slater Martin. The revamped Hawks struggled initially but eventually gelled into a powerful unit. Even though they sported the exact same 33-39 record as the previous year, they were a far more formidable team.
Despite playing a huge chunk of the season with a cast on his broken wrist, Pettit averaged 25 points and 14.5 rebounds that season. During the postseason he averaged 30 points and 17 rebounds leading the Hawks to the Finals where they would lose in double OT in Game 7 to the Boston Celtics.
The loss was heartbreaking, but Pettit led St. Louis right back to the Finals the next season after a regular season record of 41 wins and 31 losses. The 1958 Finals would be nip and tuck. The Hawks’ four victories were achieved by a combined eight points. The series’ outcome was no doubt effected by Bill Russell’s nagging ankle injury but Pettit didn’t waste the opportunity and let a title slip away. In the decisive Game 6 in St. Louis, he produced perhaps the finest scoring performance in Finals history.
For the game, he finished with 50 points simply working the Celtics to death. In the final period, he went into overdrive scoring 19 of the Hawks’ final 21 points in the game. The last two points came on a tip-in with 15 seconds left, giving St. Louis a 3-point lead. Boston was able to knock down one more bucket, but the Hawks held on to win 110-109. The moment was the highlight of Pettit’s career.
After being upset by Minneapolis in 1959, Pettit and the Hawks would again appear in the Finals in 1960 and 1961 losing to Boston both times, including another 7-game series in the 1960 showdown. In the ’61 season, Pettit became one of the handful of players to average over 20 points and 20 rebounds in a single season. The next year (1962), he took home his fourth and final All-Star Game MVP as he dazzled the home crowd in St. Louis with 25 points and 27 rebounds. Wilt Chamberlain had 42 points and 24 rebounds the same game, but the East squad lost and besides, you have to give the people what they want, which was the MVP for Pettit.
As Pettit’s career wound down, he continued to be the focal point of St. Louis’s title hopes even as they added the seeds of their continued success past his retirement in Bill Bridges, Zelmo Beaty, Lou Hudson and Lenny Wilkens. Despite his advancing age, Bob provided perhaps his finest all around postseason in 1963. For the 11 games he played, he averaged 32 points, 15 rebounds and 3 assists.
The Detroit Pistons caught the brunt of his tour de force. In the 4-game series Pettit deluged the opponent with 31, 42, 36 and finally 35 points. In the 7-game showdown with the Los Angeles Lakers in the divisional finals Pettit torched the California squad for 38 points in Game 1.
But the outbursts from Pettit would ultimately be for naught as the Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and Rudy LaRusso triumphed in that series. Another heartbreaking 7-game Western Division Finals loss came the next season for Pettit and the Hawks. This time the culprit was the San Francisco Warriors of Nate Thurmond and Wilt Chamberlain. A knee injury limited Pettit in his final season (1965) to only 50 games. It was the first time he had ever missed an appreciable amount of games in his whole career. As the season progressed Pettit made it abundantly clear it would be his last.
Remarkably, his career ended in Baltimore on the bench. The Hawks were in the process of being bounced from the playoffs by the Bullets. St. Louis coach Richie Guerin removed Pettit from the game as time wound down and the Bullets held their lead. In his 1965 autobiography, Pettit recalled how incensed he was at the situation:
It was almost over. I was coming to the end of an 11-year career in the NBA. I was the leading scorer in the history of the game, the first player to score more than 20,000 points. I had been the scoring champion twice and twice was named the Most Valuable Player in the league. I had scored more points in the playoffs than any other player, but none of that could help me now. All that was in the past. In the present there was only frustration. I was ending my basketball career just as I had started it.
Pettit continued reflecting on his long basketball journey. Barely making the high school team. Constantly retooling his game to survive. His resignation that he hated ending his career on the bench, but that it was ultimately the judicious thing given his play that final postseason. He also made this curious observation:
The greatest thing that ever happened to me is that when I first picked up a basketball, I was terrible.
That statement summed up Bob Pettit. He began terrible, he ended hobbled. In between however, he did all he could to stave off the feeling of ineptness. He succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination cementing himself as one of the giants of professional basketball. He is the foundation of the bruising power forward being an offensive force instead of the resident hatchet man and goon.
Most remarkable about Pettit, though, was his combination of speed, skill, determination, and athleticism for a power forward. All of that added up to remarkable durability. He made the All-Star team every year of his career. He made the All-NBA 1st Team every year of his career, except his final season when he “only” made the 2nd Team. And impressively he averaged 25 points and 16 rebounds over the first half of his career. Over the last half of his illustrious career, Pettit upped the ante averaging 28 points and 16.5 rebounds. And along with Michael Jordan is the only player to retire having averaged at least 20 PPG every season of his career.
Despite that list of achievement, which Pettit was well aware of and proud of, he never viewed himself as particularly gifted or special. He always chalked his success up to his ability to just work his butt off. I disagree with his assessment that he had no special talent, but Pettit’s own view of himself, and his desire to compensate for that view, turned him into one basketball greatest players.
2x MVP (1956, 1959)
Rookie of the Year (1955)
4x All-Star Game MVP (1956, 1958-’59, 1962)
10x All-NBA 1st Team (1955-’64)
All-NBA 2nd Team (1965)
11x All-Star (1955-’65)
Regular Season Career Averages (792 games):
Playoff Career Averages (88 games):