I’ve always been a fan of 50’s and 60’s basketball. It had an earnest charm to it. It was played mostly below the rim and at a pace that always seems achievable for us mere mortals. Although this should never be levelled as a criticism at the greats of the time. They were highly skilled, dedicated and faced many challenges – on and off the court – that modern-day players would never imagine. One of the most successful and perhaps most overlooked played in St. Louis almost his entire professional career.
Bob Pettit was born on 12th December 1932. He grew up in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, attended Louisiana State University, was taken with the second pick in the 1954 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Hawks, winning Rookie of the Year. He would win the first ever MVP award the following season in 1956 as the Hawks moved to St. Louis. Petit would go on to win the Allstar Game MVP a record 4 times (tied with Kobe Bryant). He played 792 games, averaging 38.8 minutes, 26.4 points, 16.2 rebounds and 3 assists. He was listed as 6ft 9in, 205lbs and came into the NBA as a Centre. He was quickly converted into a Power Forward. He won one NBA title, in 1958 and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971.
That’s a paragraph stuffed with stats, titles and records. Why don’t we talk more about Bob Pettit? Why did he only win one NBA title? Let’s take a deeper look at one of the greatest players in history.
Bob Pettit – Louisiana State University
Pettit wasn’t destined to be a star from an early age. He struggled to stay in his high school varsity team, his passion shone through and he continued to play in a Church League while he was cut. It wasn’t until a growth spurt that saw him gain 5 inches in a year that he nailed down a spot on the Varsity team. Now a 6ft7 senior he led the team to a state title and was selected to play in the annual North vs South All-Star game.
This all came together at the right time for Pettit. He was inundated with scholarship offers and was able to carefully choose the situation that would best suit him. He joined Louisiana State University in 1951. This is around 50 miles from his home in Baton Rouge. During his 4 years at college he would set many SEC and national records. Having to wait the first year before taking the court properly due to rules preventing freshman playing varsity basketball. The next 3 seasons saw him lead L.S.U to SEC titles and National Tournament final fours. When he graduated and entered the NBA draft in 1954, he became the first athlete from L.S.U to have their jersey retired. In his senior year he averaged over 30 points and 17 rebounds.
Bob Pettit – NBA Draft and conversion to Power Forward
When he was drafted by the Hawks to play in Milwaukee (soon to be St. Louis) he signed an $11,000 contract, estimated to be the biggest ever signed by a Rookie at the time. There were a lot of doubts as to whether he was big and strong enough for the NBA. Since his growth spurt, he had played centre. The Hawks coaching staff asked him to change his game. Moving him to Power Forward. In the modern NBA this is something players do frequently. However, in the 1950’s Centres largely played with their back to the basket, where forwards were expected to face up. Once again Pettit’s passion and work effort would see him through. Despite the Hawks lack of team success, it was clear Pettit was going to be a star. He would win his first NBA honours in his first season in the league. Taking Rookie of the year and winning a place on All-NBA. He would also be selected for the All-Star game, something he would do every single year of his career.
Bob Pettit – NBA Honours
Pettit and the Hawks would move to St. Louis the next season. He would continue to work hard and develop his game. Winning the newly introduced MVP award in just his second year in the league. Not bad for a player who changed position as a Rookie. For Pettit the honours kept rolling. During his 11-season career he would amass:
- Rookie of the Year
- 11 All Star Appearances
- 4 All Star MVPs
- 11 All-NBA selections
- 2 MVP Awards
- 2 Scoring Titles
- 1 Rebounding Title
- 1 NBA Championship
Given that he only played 11 years in the NBA, this is an incredible amount of silver wear. The only one that stands out as being perhaps a little low are the amount of NBA titles he won. Once again this can be attributed to when he played and who he played against.
Bob Pettit vs Bill Russell
Just 2 years after Bob Pettit was born in Batton Rouge, less than 200miles away in Monroe, Louisiana William Felton Russell was born. He would enter the NBA the season after Pettit won his first MVP title. “Bill” Russell would go on to dominate the NBA for the rest of Pettit’s career and beyond. It wasn’t just mere geography that kept these two players connected. 11 time NBA champion Bill Russell was actually drafted to Pettit’s St. Louis Hawks. Some draft day chicanery by Celtics coach Red Auerbach, which would later become known as the greatest trade in North American sports, would see Russell diverted to Boston instead of teaming up with Pettit in St. Louis. In return the Hawks got Cliff Hagan and established Celtics star centre Ed Macauley. Pettit and the Hawks were a stronger team after draft night, but you can imagine how a pairing of Russell and Pettit in St. Louis may have changed the next decade of Basketball? As it was, as competitors, they would face off numerous times in the regular season and NBA Finals.
Almost immediately Pettit found himself facing Rookie Bill Russell in the NBA Finals of 1957. Despite numerous end of game heroics from Pettit and posting almost 40 points and 20 rebounds in game 7, the Hawks would lose to the Celtics.
The next year saw a rematch. The Hawks took game 1 in Boston, but the series was far from over. Despite Russell spraining an ankle in game 2 and being out for the series, Boston would find themselves winning game 5 and staving off elimination. Back home in St. Louis the Hawks regrouped and went on to win in 6 as a Russell less Celtics ran out of steam. This would be Pettit’s only NBA title and the only time Russell would taste defeat in the Finals.
Russell and Pettit would face each other again in the 1960 and 1961 Finals. Russell would come out on top both times, leaving their head to head at 3-1 Russell. When Pettit retired in 1965 Russell still had 3 more titles wins left in him.
Bob Pettit – After Basketball
After retiring Pettit would go on to have a successful career in finance, retiring in 2006. In 1971 he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Bob Pettit – Quote
Let me leave you with this quote from the great man himself. It isn’t catchy but it goes someway to explaining how his approach to life allowed him to achieve consistent excellence.
“When you go out on the court whether it be for the championship or just a scrimmage, have confidence that your abilities and what you’ve learned in your drills are better than your opponent’s. This does not mean you should disregard your opponent. Before taking the court for any game, you should do a lot of thinking about what you have to do to beat your opponent and what he must or can do to beat you”