Pettit won championships, set records and played a key role in developing the way modern basketball is played. Yet, despite these victories, it was his missed shot in the 1957 Finals that serves as, perhaps, one of the most pivotal moments in NBA history. The ‘57 Finals ended in a very unusual way, a fitting cap to the strangest season in basketball history. To think of it another way, it was two seconds of an April 13 overtime game that would change the course of the NBA forever.
That season—the struggling NBA’s eighth in existence—kicked off with a blockbuster trade, when Bill Russell’s Draft rights were dealt to the Boston Celtics by the St. Louis Hawks, who received future Hall-of-Famers Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan in return. The legendary Mikan’s retirement from the Minneapolis Lakers had inflicted parity on the eight-team league, with only 13 wins separating the best and worst clubs. The entire Eastern Division had finished with a better record than the four Western teams. The NBA’s best team, Boston, would end up facing off for the title against a Hawks club that had slipped into a first-place tie on the last day of the regular season with a 34-38 record.
Despite spotting the Celtics 10 regular season wins, St. Louis fought hard in the Finals, forcing a Game 7 in Boston Garden—a contest that was tied at the half, the end of regulation and first overtime, and featured 38 lead changes and 28 ties. To force a third overtime, the Hawks needed one last bucket to tie.
Hawks player-coach Alex Hannum had just checked himself into the game and outlined a sandlot play straight out of a Bill Cosby sketch. With two seconds left, Hawks third-year star Pettit, still recovering from a broken shooting arm suffered at the hands of the Celtics two months earlier, stood on the free-throw line, awaiting Hannum’s inbounds pass from 80 feet away. Pettit recalls: “He said, ‘I’m going to take the ball out and throw it the length of the court, and it’s going to hit the backboard and the rim. Pettit, stand on the foul line and get the rebound. Make the shot.’”
The only thing crazier than Hannum’s confidence was the fact that his play nearly worked. The 6-7 Hannum threw a touchdown pass that hit the opposite backboard and rim, and the ball bounced to Pettit exactly as it was drawn up. “I jumped up, caught the rebound, and shot it still in the air,” Pettit says. “The ball rolled around the rim a few times, then fell out.”
“I’ve never seen that done, before or since,” says Tom Heinsohn, then a Celtics rookie who was on the sideline, having fouled out with 37 points and 23 rebounds. “I defy anybody to try and do that under those circumstances. Alex caught us all by surprise.”
The horn sounded on Boston’s first title in its 11-year history and kicked off a run of 10 more in the next 12 seasons. Almost a year before the NFL burned itself into the American consciousness with its own sudden-death overtime championship, a large, national audience, hungry for baseball’s Opening Day, watched the Celtics and Hawks extend themselves for three hours. In the most visible game yet in pro basketball history, the battling Celtics and Hawks had forever erased any doubt over the viability of the NBA.
Deftness, unyielding drive and ingenuity, all Pettit trademarks, were capable of producing one of the most memorable two seconds—and 10 years—in basketball history.
While named as a no-brainer member of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players in 1996, the power forward pioneer is too easily overlooked today. Take a 2005 survey of ESPN experts, please: Pettit was ranked as the fifth-best power forward of all time behind Tim Duncan, Karl Malone, Charles Barkley and Kevin McHale. Among the 11 ESPN experts, only überstatistician John Hollinger had the sense to rank Pettit No. 1, while a mere two others placed him in their top three.
Hollinger, however, offers a much-needed perspective on a storied career: “Pettit is, without a doubt, the most underrated player of all time. His amazing credentials don’t get nearly enough attention when folks talk about great players. He was the first ‘true’ power forward, and quite possibly still the best.”