The Hawks were still in Milwaukee when they plucked Pettit with the No. 2 pick in the 1954 Draft. It’s hard to imagine anyone doubting Pettit’s ability at the time, but there remained some question as to whether the tall, lanky center could survive on the pro wrestling circuit that was the NBA in the ’50s.
Pettit caught one break immediately by shifting to power forward from center, as the Hawks already had Chuck Share in the post and soon would add 1954’s No. 1 overall choice, Frank Selvy, when the Baltimore Bullets folded just 14 games into the ’54-55 season.
But Pettit created another “break” of sorts for himself with his continued willingness to work. He made an immediate impact, racking up both Rookie of the Year and All-NBA First Team honors, and he would have finished second or third in MVP voting if the NBA had issued the award at the time. However, standing 6-9 and a skinny 215 pounds, Pettit sensed a short career playing kite to all the frontcourt trees in the League and quickly enlisted the help of LSU strength coach and US Olympic team trainer Alvin Roy.
“I was one of the first NBA players to go on a weight program,” Pettit says. “We were always taught not to go near weights because they’d ruin our shooting touch. But getting pounded hard as a rookie was enough. I wanted to start doing some of the pounding.”
The growth of Pettit’s already-prodigious game was nearly instantaneous despite Hawks owner Ben Kerner’s dismay over seeing Pettit arrive at training camp bolstered by 20 pounds of muscle. The Hawks moved to St. Louis for Pettit’s second season, whereupon the power forward won both the scoring and rebounding titles and was named the NBA’s inaugural Most Valuable Player.
“Bob was the easiest guy I ever dealt with,” says Macauley, who played three seasons with Pettit and coached him for two. “He had all his goals set straight out and knew exactly how he would achieve them. I didn’t have to tell him anything.”
As a master of focus, positioning, floor spacing and timing, Pettit can also be considered the forefather of other crafty and prolific rebounders like Dennis Rodman and Ben Wallace. Offensive rebounding, a true measure of the heart and effort of a player, was a particular Pettit specialty, although separate offensive and defensive rebounding statistics were not recorded in Pettit’s day.
“My offensive rebounds were no accident,” Pettit says. “I never watched the ball, I watched the defensive rebounder I was fighting. I looked at rebounding as a science and came to believe that no player could block me out.”
“Bob was the greatest offensive rebounder I ever saw,” premier pivot Johnny “Red” Kerr recalls. “He was strong and quick, and smart. He knew all the tricks. He was a master at staying alongside me rather than trying to jump over me. His effort was just relentless.”
Pettit also applied a common defensive strategy to clean the offensive glass: keeping his arms raised to block passing lanes and disrupt an opponent’s line of sight. “My arms were always raised when I was under the rim,” he says. “That way, when an opponent jumped he took me up with him. They did all the work, and I rebounded the ball.”
But Pettit wasn’t mere finesse and flair. In his first 10 seasons, he missed only 15 games, playing in more than 98 percent of Hawks contests. By the time he retired in 1965, Pettit had endured four broken bones in his back, badly torn cartilage in his knee, 125 stitches from several injuries to his face and a recurring upset stomach that found him gobbling antacids by the case.
“I was really my own biggest opponent,” Pettit says. “With every accomplishment, I drove myself harder. When I fell below what I considered my minimum expectations, my belly growled and ached.”
It was that kind of drive that led Pettit to his loftiest achievements in what may seem today like the unlikeliest of places: the All-Star Game. Pettit was three times the Game’s MVP and shared one other MVP with Elgin Baylor—more such honors than any player in history. And those MVPs didn’t come cheap. In 1956, Pettit went for 20 points, 24 boards and seven assists; in 1958, he turned in an amazing 28 points and 26 rebounds (establishing All-Star records) while wearing a cast on his shooting hand; and his last of the solo MVPs, in 1962, was a result of 25 points and 27 rebounds in just 37 minutes.
“All-Star Games were different then. They weren’t the exhibition games you see today,” says Lenny Wilkens, Pettit’s Hawks teammate who joined him on three All-Star squads. “We looked at them as a test, and for a guy like Bob who was so driven anyway, playing the best of the best drove him to some great heights.”