Bob Pettit: Forgotten But Absolute NBA Superstar
By Neil Beldock
If you are a true basketball fan, a fan of the NBA and someone who appreciates history, this article is written for you!!
A primary goal of this website is to provide an educational journey through the history of basketball, introducing and enlightening readers to information and stories they may not otherwise seek to find themselves.
So I start by asking you two simple questions; Do you know who Bob Pettit is? And…… Do you know how good Bob Pettit was?
Don’t feel bad if your answer to the above questions are “No, and No”………Because I think the vast majority of basketball fans would have the same answer as you do. And if it just so happens that you are aware of Bob Pettit, see if you don’t learn something new about him by reading this article – I bet you will!!
Bob Pettit is perhaps the most forgotten superstar in NBA history. And a superstar he was, as much a superstar as any player who has ever played in the NBA. Make no mistake, that includes Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and anyone else you wish to enter on that list.
Pettit played 11 season in the NBA, from the 1954-55 season through the 1964-65 season, all for the St. Louis Hawks. (The Hawks would move to Atlanta in 1968.) He posted career numbers of 26.4 points per game, 16.2 rebounds per game and 3.0 assists per game. But it gets better…..
During his career, he never averaged less than 20 pointe per game and he never averaged less than 12 rebounds per game. In addition, over his 11 year career, he averaged over 25 points per game 7 times, and over 15 rebounds per game 8 times.
When Pettit retired after the 1964-65 season, he retired as the first player in NBA history to score more than 20,000 points. He was an All-Star in each of his 11 seasons, All-NBA First Team 10 times, All-NBA Second Team once and is third behind only Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain in average rebounds per game.
Pettit retired with 2 league MVP awards and one NBA championship ring as well as receiving the NBA Rookie of the Year award. He also won the 1958 NBA All-Star Game MVP award.
Pettit also retired as effectively the only player in NBA history to average more than 20 points per game every year he played. (Alex Groza also averaged more than 20 points per game for his career but played just two seasons and Michael Jordan never averaged less than 20 points per game; he had one season of exactly 20.0 per game).
Put into today’s analytical parlance, Pettit’s career PER (Player Efficiency Rating) is 25.3. To create perspective, Michael Jordan had a PER of 27.9. Magic Johnson had a PER of 24.1. Larry Bird had a PER of 23.5. Wilt Chamberlain had a PER of 26.1. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had a PER of 24.6. Bill Russell’s PER was 18.9. Pick any great player of any era using any analytical theorem and Pettit will measure up favorably, if not superior.
Pettit stood 6 feet 9 inches tall and weighed 205 pounds. In many ways, his body type was much more akin with today’s players who are long, lean and fluid than the typical front court player of his day. In fact, when drafted out of LSU in 1954 by the then Milwaukee Hawks, many questioned whether he had the strength and stamina to compete in the NBA.
Even though he may have been long and lean, his toughness was unquestionable. Said Bill Russell about Pettit: “Bob made second-effort a part of sport’s vocabulary. He came at you more than any man in the game. He was always battling for position, fighting you off the boards”.
What makes the career of Bob Pettit most interesting is that he played during a time period when the NBA game was transforming.
It could be said that the first-half of his career (1954-1959) the game looked a lot like, and was played much like the game was played from the late 1940’s through the early 1950’s.
During the second-half of his career (1960-1965) the game was becoming more athletic and skilled as diversity and an influx of more African-American players was occurring. The game was beginning to look like and move towards the game we know today.
In fact, from the late 1950’s through the end of Pettit’s career in 1965, many of the players entering the league represent the first group of players who are viewed as all-time greats and legends of the game. Players such as Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor, Lenny Wilkins, Hal Greer, and Sam Jones.
These players, unlike the great players of the early 1950’s, are not viewed as great players “of their day”, but viewed as players who would have been great players in any era including and up to the present day.
So how did Pettit stand up to the influx of more talented and skilled players that he was competing against during the second-half of his career?
During his first 5 years Pettit averaged 24.9 points per game and 15.6 rebounds per game. During the next 6 years of his career he averaged 27.2 points per game and 16.5 rebounds per game. So as the competition got better, so did Pettit.
In fact, the greatest stretch of his career was from the 1958-59 season though the 1963-64 season, years when he was consistently battling the likes of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain many times.
During that 6-year stretch Pettit averaged 28.3 points per game and 17.1 rebounds per game.
There aren’t many players who have had a better 6-year stretch than the stretch Pettit crafted from the 1958-59 season through the 1963-64 season.
Pettit and his St. Louis Hawks teammates reached the mountain top in 1958 beating and dethroning the Boston Celtics to win the NBA Championship. In game 6 of the finals that year Pettit had one of the greatest championship-clinching games ever . He posted 50 points in leading the Hawks to a 110-109 victory and the NBA Championship.
Bob Pettit was born on Decenber 12, 1932 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Upon completion of high school he would matriculate to Louisiana State University (LSU).
At LSU he was a 3-time All-Southeast Conference (SEC) Player and 2-Time All-American. He led the SEC in scoring during each of the three seasons he played varsity basketball for LSU. In 1954 his jersey #50 was retired by LSU making Pettit the first LSU athlete to ever have his number retired. He also had a street named after him in Baton Rouge; Bob Pettit Boulevard.
During the NBA draft of 1954 he was the second overall selection. Post career honors include being named to the All-NBA 25th, 35th and 50th Anniversary teams. The Hawks retired his #9 jersey and he was inducted into both the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall-of-Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts and the College Basketball Hall-of-Fame as well.
Robert Lee “Bob” Pettit Jr……..Forgotten NBA superstar? Not anymore by anyone who has read this article!!!