Years Active: 1955 – 1965
Regular Season Stats: 792 games, 38.8 mpg
26.4 ppg, 16.2 rpg, 3.0 apg, 43.6% FG, 76.1% FT
Postseason Stats: 88 games, 40.3 mpg
25.5 ppg, 14.8 rpg, 2.7 apg, 41.8% FG, 77.4% FT
Accolades: 2x MVP (1956, ’59), 10x All-NBA 1st Team (1955-’64), All-NBA 2nd Team (1965), 11x All-Star (1955-’65), 4x All-Star Game MVP (1956, ’58, ’59, ’62), NBA Title (1958), 2x PPG Leader (1956, ’59)
“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 a spectacular campaign of 20.4 ppg and 13.8 rpg.
His success was due to virtually abandoning being 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 made the All-NBA 1st Team, which he would do until his final season, and ran away with the Rookie of the Year award in that 1954-55 season. Likewise, the Hawks were ran out of Milwaukee that offseason. Facing dismal attendance, 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 1st 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 season, 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 1st 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 and despite 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 2OT in Game 7 to the Boston Celtics. More on that thrilling series can be found here!
The loss was heartbreaking, but Pettit led St. Louis right back to the Finals the next season after a regular season record of 41-31. The 1958 Finals would be nip and tuck with the Hawks’ four victories coming by a combined 8 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 4th 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 including this sinewy layup…
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. Injuries limited Pettit in his final season (1965) to only 50 games. It was the 1st time he had ever missed an appreciable amount of games in his whole career. After his playing days he immediately moved back to Louisiana where he made quite the comfortable living as a bank executive. His initial salary of $55,000 was considerably larger than what most NBA players could ever dream of having in 1965.
Pettit is truly one of the giants of professional basketball. One of the foundations of the power forward position being an offensive force instead of the resident hatchet man and goon. Upon his retirement, Pettit was the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and 2nd-leading rebounder. He was the 1st player to top the 20,000-point mark and along with Michael Jordan is the only player to retire having averaged at least 20 ppg every season of his career.
And true enough he was miraculously consistent. During his 1st 6 seasons he averaged 25 points and 16 rebounds. Over his last 5 seasons he averaged 28 points and 16.5 rebounds. Like fine wine he got better with time, but for Pettit he never viewed himself as particularly gifted or special. He always chalked his success up to his ability to just work his butt off.