Gentlemanly Bob Pettit was the league's all-time leading scorer and second-leading rebounder when he retired from the NBA in 1965. He was the first player to surpass 20,000 points in his career and the second, after Wilt Chamberlain, to average 20 points and 20 rebounds in the same season.
Moreover, he was named first-team All-NBA 10 consecutive seasons. On the short list of truly great forwards, he has a place alongside Elgin Baylor, Julius Erving, and Larry Bird.
Pettit did have his shortcomings. He handled the ball awkwardly. Early in his career, he lacked the strength to combat the NBA's roughnecks. He was, however, a phenomenal offensive rebounder and a clever, instinctive scorer, displaying steady aim on his jump shot and the ability to beat defenders to the basket with one or two quick dribbles. "If he got the ball inside the foul line," former rival Rudy LaRusso once said, "he owned you."
Pettit understood that getting to the free-throw line translated into easy points for his team and foul trouble for his opponents. Of the 20,880 points he scored in the NBA, 6,182 of them -- nearly 30 percent -- were from the charity stripe. Points piled up in a hurry for Pettit. "The offensive rebounds were worth eight to 12 points a night to me," he told basketball historian Terry Pluto. "Then I'd get another eight to 10 at the free-throw line. All I had to do was make a few jump shots and I was on my way to a good night."
Pettit was born December 12, 1932, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Gangly as a youth, he was cut from the Baton Rouge High School team when he was a sophomore. Two years later, he led his team to the state championship and earned a scholarship from Louisiana State University, just a few miles from his home. At LSU, Pettit set school scoring records that stood until Pete Maravich broke them two decades later.
As a sophomore, during his first season of eligibility, Pettit averaged 25.5 points per game to rank third nationally. He increased his output to 31.4 points per game as a senior. The Milwaukee Hawks selected him in the first round of the 1954 NBA draft. Hawks coach Red Holzman moved Pettit from center, his position at Louisiana State, to forward during Pettit's first training camp.
Pettit no longer had to grapple with players who invariably were stronger than him. A few years later, after winning the NBA rebounding title, he embarked on a weight-training program that increased his weight from 215 to 240 pounds. Defensively, Pettit didn't back down. His match-ups with Baylor, the Lakers' high-scoring forward, were legendary.
The Hawks, who moved to St. Louis in 1955, won five consecutive Western Division championships from 1957-1961. Pettit won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1955 and Most Valuable Player Award in 1956 after leading the NBA in both scoring (25.7 points per game) and rebounding (16.2 rebounds per game). He was named MVP again in 1959.
During the 1960-1961 season, Pettit averaged 27.9 points and 20.3 rebounds. Pettit, Jerry Lucas, and Wilt Chamberlain are the only players in history to average 20 points and 20 rebounds in the same season.
In 1957, the Hawks met the Boston Celtics for the NBA championship. In Game 1 at Boston Garden, Pettit scored 37 points as the Hawks shocked the Celtics in double overtime. Pettit won Game 3 back in St. Louis with a late basket. In Game 7, his two free throws with six seconds left forced overtime, but the Hawks succumbed in the second extra period. In 56 grueling minutes, Pettit had 39 points and 19 rebounds.
The Hawks turned the tables on Boston in 1958, with Pettit scoring 50 points in the decisive sixth game. Pettit averaged 31.1 points during the 1961-1962 season, but the Hawks slipped to fourth place. In 1965, after missing 30 games because of injuries, Pettit retired, still near the peak of his game. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970, and he was named to the NBA's 35th Anniversary Team in 1980.
For more on the greatest basketball players of all time, visit:
- Great Basketball Players
- Great Basketball Guards
- Great Basketball Forwards
- Great Basketball Centers
- Great Basketball Coaches