1958 NBA Finals: St. Louis 4, Boston 2
Pettit Drops 50 on Celtics in Game 6
In his era, Bob Pettit epitomized basketball success. His career statistics bear that out, although the numbers are only one indication of his greatness. Like George Mikan, he had the will to overcome early adversity. Pettit had been cut from his junior-high team as a sophomore but made the varsity the following season after spending every spare minute at a backyard hoop.
"In his day, he was the best power forward there was," Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach said of Pettit. "Elgin Baylor was a close second. Pettit could do more things than Baylor, because he could play some center. And he was a better rebounder than Baylor.
"Pettit was Mr. Clean. Mr. All America. He was like John Havlicek, a clean liver, just a super guy. But very, very competitive. He would play all out, whether he was 50 points ahead or 50 behind. It didn't matter. That's the only way he knew how to play -- all out."
The Hawks moved to St. Louis after Pettit's rookie season, and he soon became a crowd favorite there. He came to be known as "Big Blue" because of his insistence on wearing a ratty old blue overcoat. His popularity increased during the height of Pettit's career, from 1957-61, when he led the Hawks to four NBA Finals. Only once, in 1958, did they claim the trophy, losing the other three times to the Celtics. Yet the effort was enough to establish St. Louis as one of the best clubs in league history, and although the franchise later moved to Atlanta, the Hawks' 1958 NBA championship still stirs hearts in St. Louis.
The 1957-58 season was one of many outstanding campaigns for Pettit. He averaged 24.6 points and 17.4 rebounds while boosting the Hawks to the Western Division crown with a 41-31 record. By no means, however, were the Hawks a one-man team. Both Slater Martin and Jack McMahon starred at guard. "Jack was the prototypical New York City guard," said Boston's Bob Cousy. "He was just a good, solid, complementary guard."
To go with this backcourt, the Hawks still had Ed Macauley, Chuck Share and Jack Coleman in the frontcourt. There was also 6-foot-4 forward Cliff Hagan, the team's other major point producer, who averaged 19.9 points while shooting .443 from the floor, second best in the league. Despite his height, Hagan found a way to dominate inside.
Drawing their strength from these talents, the Hawks blasted the Pistons in five games in the Western Division Finals and advanced to the championship series for the second consecutive year.
The Celtics, meanwhile, had dominated the Eastern Division with a 49-23 record. Bill Russell led the league in rebounding with the incredible average of 22.7 boards per game. Bill Sharman led Boston in scoring with an average of 22.3 points per contest. And Auerbach added his newest weapon, Sam Jones, a surprise first-round draft pick out of little North Carolina Central University. Auerbach's old friend, Bones McKinney, had tipped him off that this 6-foot-4 guard was something special. In time, Jones would prove it, but for the present he fit in nicely coming off the bench.
With Cousy leading the league in assists (7.1 per game), Boston ran past Syracuse to win the Eastern Division title by eight games. The players had voted Russell the league MVP, but the writers, showing their lack of appreciation, put him on the All-NBA Second Team.
Most observers figured that the Celtics probably would have won the 1958 title if Russell hadn't suffered an ankle injury in the third game of the NBA Finals. Auerbach, however, found no comfort in that opinion. "You can always look for excuses," he said. "We just got beat."
The results support that opinion. The Hawks upset the Celtics (with a healthy Russell) in Game 1 at Boston Garden, 104-102. Boston struck back with a wipeout in Game 2, 136-112. Back in St. Louis, the Hawks prevailed 111-108 in Game 3 when Russell injured his ankle.
Without Russell, the Celtics evened the series with a 109-98 surprise victory in Game 4. But Boston was drastically undermanned in the frontcourt. Jim Loscutoff had missed the entire season with an injury, and Russell's bad ankle left only Tom Heinsohn and greybeard Arnie Risen to deal with the Hawks' power game.
Even so, it was no cakewalk. St. Louis forced a 102-100 win in Boston Garden to take the series lead.
Back home in Kiel Auditorium on April 12, the Hawks weren't about to miss their opportunity. Pettit guaranteed that, turning in a spectacular performance. He scored 31 points in the first three quarters, then zoomed off in the final period, nailing 19 of his team's last 21 points. His last two points, on a tip-in with 15 seconds remaining, put the Hawks ahead 110-107. The Celtics scored one final bucket but could do no more. Ben Kerner's team finally had a title, 110-109.
Pettit's 50-point performance tied the single-game playoff scoring record set by Cousy against Syracuse in 1953. But Cousy's record had been set in a four-overtime game, an event so foul-plagued that 30 of his points had come at the free throw line. In terms of pure basketball prowess, Pettit's 50-point performance was stunning. Better yet, it had delivered his team a championship. It was just the kind of effort Hawks fans had come to expect from "Big Blue."
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