By John Hareas
Before the Big E or The Mailman, there was Bob Pettit. The Baton Rouge, La., native not only defined but revolutionized the power forward position in the NBA.
And he has his high school coach to thank.
“Basically, getting cut made me more determined,” said Pettit.
"When I did start getting coordinated, started getting size, I was a lot further advanced than a lot of these guys who picked it up and found it easy to start,” Pettit said.
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As unfathomable as it sounds, the Hall of Famer Pettit went 0-2 in his first two years of trying out for the Baton Rouge High School team and sitting in the stands only fueled his desire.
“Probably it was a good thing that I was not good to start with,” said Pettit. “If you walk out and you’re naturally good at something, you don’t work to develop it like you do if you’re struggling. I had to work very hard. I’d go home and practice two, three hours an afternoon just shooting around at a goal in the backyard trying to get better. When I did start getting coordinated, started getting size, I was a lot further advanced than a lot of these guys who picked it up and found it easy to start.”
The perseverance paid off as the 6-4 Pettit made the team his junior year and one year later led them to their first state title in two decades.
What followed was an All-American career at LSU where he averaged 27.4 points per game before joining the Milwaukee Hawks in 1954-55, the same season the NBA instituted the shot clock.
Pettit flourished under Danny Biasone’s invention, which opened up the game considerably, averaging 20.4 points and 13.8 rebounds en route to NBA Rookie of the Year honors.
Three years later and with the team based in St. Louis, Pettit led the Hawks to four Finals appearances in five years, all against the dynastic Boston Celtics.
It was in 1958 when Pettit and the Hawks broke through, defeating the injured Russell and the Celtics in a thrilling six-game series. Pettit scored an NBA playoff record 50 points in the Game 6 clincher, including an amazing 19 of the team’s final 21 points along with the game-winning tip-in with 15 seconds remaining.
“Bob made ‘second effort’ a part of the sport’s vocabulary,” said Russell. “He kept coming at you more than any man in the game.”
Throughout his career, Pettit continued to accumulated the accolades – two NBA MVPs, four All-Star Game MVPs, 10 All-NBA First Team selections in 11 seasons – yet was never completely content.
“As I kept reaching plateaus, I was not satisfied,” said Pettit, who retired at 32 and was the first player in NBA history to score 20,000 points.
“Overall, if you asked for one highlight it would be the year we won it and I scored 50 points in the final game. When you combine the other honors I was fortunate enough to win or be awarded, then looking back, I’m pretty proud. It was a good career, one that I’m very proud of and one that not a lot of guys have ever done a lot better than.”