The Iron Giant
Don’t let the way he’s overlooked today fool you—rugged power forward Bob Pettit is one of the game’s greatest players ever.
His name may not evoke the type of praise that’s mentioned when you hear about some other NBA legends, but don’t get it twisted: Bob Pettit was truly one of the best. Back in SLAM 110 (August 2007), we looked back at the Hall of Fame power forward’s career.—Ed.
by Brett Ballantini
Perhaps a sense of his career being truncated is what keeps Bob Pettit chronically underrated these days. At just 32, the man who served as the first archetype for the prototypical power forward ended his 11-year career as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer with 20,880 points, having become the first to surpass 20,000. But, alas, he was a guy who NBA.com and various encyclopedias list as having no nickname (St. Louis Hawks broadcaster Buddy Blattner dubbed Pettit “Big Blue,” a moniker that not surprisingly failed to catch on) and whose go-to move—pulling larger defenders out to 20 feet with a modest, one-handed jumper—was revolutionary but unexciting. So it’s no surprise that Pettit holds little currency in the present era, when nicknames and signature moves do most of the talking while the game often comes second.
Ultimately, Pettit’s legacy can’t be accurately measured by eschewed career-leader lists, signature moves or slick nicknames; it’s borne of his and the Hawks lone championship in ’58, a rematch with the dynasty-bound Celtics. Admittedly taking advantage of Bill Russell, hobbled by a sprained ankle, the Hawks knocked off Boston in six games, the only time over the course of a decade that the Russell-led Celtics would be denied a ring. Tied 2-2 in ’58, the Hawks stole a win in Boston and came home to Kiel Auditorium to try and wrap up the title. It was there that Pettit’s legend was forever forged.
“I didn’t notice I was having a good game,” Pettit says nonchalantly. “But through three quarters, I had scored 31 points.”
The dramatic game—78-77 entering the fourth—was about to be dominated by the best player in basketball. Pettit went on to score 19 of St. Louis’ last 21 points and notch a record 50 for a regulation postseason game, breaking George Mikan’s former scoring mark of 47. The Hawks had secured the world title, 110-109, on the shoulders of the player who remains the greatest in franchise history.
“That game was once in a lifetime,” Pettit says. “I know I scored more points in other games, but I never had such a great game at such a big moment. I don’t recall how I got back to the dressing room, I was so exhausted.”
“That 50-point game, I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” adds Ed Macauley, Hawks teammate and fellow Hall-of-Famer. “Bob scored that last 19 of 21 against constant pressure, double- or triple-teaming. He made everything and delivered us that championship.”
This career-defining performance came amid a stretch of statistical greatness unparalleled among power forwards. In fact, short of Wilt Chamberlain, it can be argued that no NBA player had a 10-year stretch of domination like Pettit. He was First Team All-NBA and an All-Star every year, and in those first 10 seasons, Pettit never finished lower than fifth in the League in rebounding and fourth in scoring. His career averages rank third all-time in rebounding at 16.2 rpg and sixth in scoring at 26.4 ppg, trailing only Jordan, Chamberlain, Allen Iverson, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West.
To predict that Pettit would churn out such a prolific pro career would have been a ludicrous notion when he was a teen. He’d fallen in love with the game as a kid but had no one to instruct him. In fact, the tall, thin youngster didn’t even play high school basketball until his junior year. Before summer leagues, AAU ball and year-round coaching for players with promise, the Baton Rouge-born Pettit honed his craft alone, on a homemade, backyard court, his sole competitive experience coming in a modest church league.
“All I did was practice, practice, practice,” says Pettit, who estimates he ran drills for three hours per day well into his pro career. “I didn’t know any better. I wanted to play, so I practiced. I didn’t know proper form, so I shot how it felt right. I shot one-handed simply because the ball went in most often when I did.”
Pettit made a swift adjustment to prep ball, and by the end of his senior year, which ended with Baton Rouge High’s first state championship in more than 20 years, he’d grown to 6-8 and developed a unique repertoire of hook shots, jumpers, turnarounds and post moves.
Louisiana State University was anything but a basketball powerhouse back then, but the school was in Pettit’s backyard and provided his first national shine of any sort. He didn’t miss a beat: 25.6 ppg and 13.7 rpg in his Tigers varsity debut as a sophomore blossomed into 31.4 ppg and 17.3 rpg as an All-American senior. And as a junior, Pettit averaged 24.7 ppg and 12.5 rpg, leading LSU to its first SEC title in almost 20 years and its first-ever NCAA Final Four. Pettit finished his LSU career as a three-time All-SEC member and conference scoring champ. The once-raw recruit had become the pre-eminent amateur player in the country.