When Bob Pettit came out of college in 1954, no one thought he was talented enough to make it as a professional basketball player. Although he had been a prolific scorer at Louisiana State University, the tall, thin forward was deemed too slight at 200 pounds to survive the pounding of an NBA season. The scouts, however, failed to factor in Pettit’s willingness to work harder than anyone else on the court in order to succeed.
And succeed he did. After 11 years with the Milwaukee and St. Louis Hawks, he retired having become the first player in the league to top 20,000 points. The greatest forward of his era, Pettit was an All-Star in each of his 11 seasons, an All-NBA First Team selection 10 times, and an All-NBA Second Team pick once. He never finished below seventh in the NBA scoring race, and he left the sport with two MVP awards and an NBA championship ring.
After Pettit’s playing days had ended, rival Bill Russell offered this tribute: “Bob made ‘second effort’ a part of the sports vocabulary. He kept coming at you more than any man in the game. He was always battling for position, fighting you off the boards.”
Born in 1932, Robert E. Lee Pettit Jr. learned about second effort long before he reached the professional ranks. His basketball career had gotten off to a discouraging start after he was cut from the Baton Rouge (Louisiana) High School team, first as a freshman and then as a sophomore. But with encouragement from his father, a county sheriff, the younger Pettit worked endlessly to improve his game, firing countless shots at the basket set up in his backyard.
When he tried out for the high school team as a junior, Pettit was already 6-foot-4, and he finally made the squad. One year later, in 1950, he led Baton Rouge High School to its first state championship in more than two decades.
He later said that the state title game was one of two contests that he could still remember clearly. The other was Game 6 of the 1958 NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics, a game in which he poured in 50 points. “You can’t really compare the games,” Pettit told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But at the time, winning the state title meant so much.”
After Pettit’s outstanding high school performance, he was rewarded with a scholarship to Louisiana State University. His willingness to work hard to score points and collect rebounds earned him All-America honors twice, and he averaged 27.4 points during his college career. By the time he reached his senior year at LSU, he had added five inches to his height.
Pettit was selected in the first round of the 1954 NBA Draft by the Milwaukee Hawks. He had more than his share of doubters, who wondered if the slender 6-9 youngster had the strength and endurance that was required for survival in the NBA. Although he seemed thin at 200 pounds, Pettit was by no means frail. Being in superb physical condition, he was more than a match for the rigors of the NBA, and he proved it in his first season by winning the league’s Rookie of the Year award by averaging 20.4 points and 13.8 rebounds. He also played in his first All-Star Game that season and earned the first of 10 consecutive selections to the All-NBA First Team.
Despite Pettit’s Rookie of the Year performance, Milwaukee finished in last place in the Western Division with a 26-46 record. During the offseason owner Ben Kerner moved the team to St. Louis. The Hawks showed some improvement during their first year in St. Louis, winning 33 games during 1955-56. Most of the credit for the improved showing had to be given to Pettit, who was named the MVP after leading the league in scoring (25.7 ppg) and rebounding (16.2 rpg). He also earned the MVP award at the 1956 All-Star Game, in which he racked up 20 points, 24 rebounds and seven assists.
The Hawks underwent a major retooling for the 1956-57 season. In the offseason St. Louis acquired Ed Macauley and rookie Cliff Hagan from the Boston Celtics for the draft rights to Bill Russell. Then guard Slater Martin came to the club in an early season deal with the New York Knicks. Alex Hannum arrived a few weeks later after being released by the Fort Wayne Pistons.
The team also went through three coaches during that season. Hannum took over as player-coach with 31 games left on the schedule, and the team began to hit its stride. Hannum later credited Pettit’s attitude for the club’s success. “I was an old-timer when he was a rookie, and I saw him mature into a great player,” Hannum told the Houston Chronicle. “He’s a winner, whether it was in playing cards or on the court. I always said it was no fun to play poker against Bob Pettit, because he always played to win, not just to have fun.”
St. Louis posted a less than stellar 34-48 record in 1956-57, but that was enough to earn the club a tie with Fort Wayne and the Minneapolis Lakers for first place in the weak Western Division. The Hawks earned the division title by besting those two rivals in a series of tie-breaking playoff games. St. Louis then made short work of the Lakers with a three-game sweep in the Western Division finals.
The Hawks moved on to face the Celtics in the 1957 Finals. No one expected St. Louis to put up much of a fight against a Boston team that had posted the best record in the league. But St. Louis notched a surprise win in Game 1, eking out a 125-123 victory in double overtime. Boston evened the series the following night, and the two teams split a pair of games in St. Louis. After four games the series was tied at two games apiece.
Boston came out on top in Game 5, winning 124-109. Two nights later, Hagan tipped in a Pettit miss at the buzzer and the Hawks edged the Celtics 96-94 to force a seventh and deciding game.
Game 7 was a heart-stopping thriller and one of the most exciting games in the history of The Finals. It was a tightly-contested affair, with the Celtics taking command and the Hawks fighting back. St. Louis trailed by two points late, but Pettit sank a pair of free throws in the closing seconds to send the game into overtime.
It took a basket from Jack Coleman with time winding down in the first extra period to keep the Hawks’ hopes alive as the game moved to a second overtime. With just seconds left, Celtics forward Jim Loscutoff sank a free throw to give Boston a two-point lead. Pettit tossed up a shot as the buzzer sounded, but his offering skipped off the rim, giving the Celtics a 125-123 win and the championship. Although the Hawks were defeated, Pettit excelled during the 1957 playoff run with averages of 29.8 points and 16.8 rebounds.
Tempered in the heat of the previous season’s playoffs, St. Louis came back the next year to win 41 games (a franchise record) and claim the division crown. Pettit scored 24.6 ppg and pulled down 17.4 rpg, and he earned All-Star Game MVP honors with 28 points and 26 rebounds.
In the postseason, the Hawks and the Celtics squared off in The Finals for the second straight year. The Hawks took Game 1 with a two-point win, but a Celtics victory in Game 2 tied the series. The tide turned in favor of St. Louis when Russell suffered an ankle injury in Game 3; the Hawks won that game, lost Game 4, then squeezed by the Celtics in Game 5, 102-100.
In Game 6, played in St. Louis, Russell made a brief appearance but was hampered by his injury and did not play well. Pettit was remarkable, setting a then-playoff record with 50 points. The Hawks won by a point, 110-109, to dethrone the Celtics and claim the crown.
St. Louis finished at the top of the Western Division in each of the next three seasons. In 1959 Pettit was named MVP for the second time, after he led the league in scoring (29.2 ppg) and placed second to Russell in rebounding (16.4 rpg). He put up similar numbers in each of the next two years, finishing fourth in the NBA in scoring in both 1959-60 (26.1 ppg) and 1960-61 (27.9 ppg).
Despite the relentless output from Pettit, the Hawks were unable to recapture the league title during those years. They lost their chance to repeat as champions in 1959 when the Lakers ousted them in the Western Division finals. In 1960 St. Louis challenged Boston in The Finals once again but lost the series in seven games. The Hawks and the Celtics played for the championship for the fourth time in five years in 1961, and Boston took that series in five games.
St. Louis slipped a bit the following year, but Pettit had his finest season ever. While the Hawks were struggling to a 29-51 record and a fourth-place finish in the Western Division, Pettit was filling up the basket at an incredible rate. He averaged a career-high 31.1 points in 1961-62, to go with 18.7 rebounds. He was also called upon by Kerner to act as the team’s head coach late in the season and in six games he piloted the squad to a 4-2 record.
The Hawks bounced back the following season as Kerner hired former New York Knicks great Harry “The Horse” Gallatin to coach the team. St. Louis finished second to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Division, and Pettit posted his usual sparkling numbers: 28.4 ppg and 15.1 rpg. The Hawks flew by the Pistons in the opening round of the postseason but were then ousted by the Lakers in a tough seven-game series.
The 1963-64 campaign was a near repeat of the previous season. St. Louis finished in second place in the division once again, then was bumped in the division finals in seven games, this time at the hands of the San Francisco Warriors. Pettit contributed 27.4 ppg and 15.3 rpg during the regular season to earn his 10th and final selection to the All-NBA First Team.
A knee ailment limited Pettit to 50 games in 1964-65. It was the first time in his career that he had been sidelined for more than a handful of games because of an injury. Despite the injury to his knee, Pettit averaged 22.5 points. The Hawks scratched out another second-place finish in the Western Division but were eliminated in the semifinal round of the playoffs.
Pettit was 32 years old at the end of the 1964-65 campaign, and he decided to call it quits. He retired having accumulated 20,880 points (26.4 ppg), the most ever scored in the NBA at that time, and his 12,849 rebounds ranked him second all-time. He never averaged fewer than 20 points, nor did he miss an All-Star Game in any of his 11 seasons. His rebounding totals were no less impressive: he never fell below 10 rebounds per game for a season and his career average was 16.2 — third best in league history behind Wilt Chamberlain and Russell.
He was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1970, and was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1996.