[In his autobiography, published with Boston journalist Joe Fitzgerald, Red Auerbach recounted sitting in New York’s Madison Square Garden in December 1956 giving pointers to his rookie center Bill Russell. On the court below, shrouded in a gauze of white tobacco smoke, the St. Louis Hawks were having their way against the Fort Wayne Pistons.
“Keep your eye on Pettit,” Auerbach interjected. “He’ll give you a lot of faking. Usually he’ll end up taking a jump shot, but first he’ll try to fake you and then run past you. Let him fake. Most of the time you’ll be better off making him go over you.”
Wise words from the then-Boston coach. But they were easier said than done. By the mid-1960s, St. Louis’ 6-feet-9 Bob Pettit would fake, run past, and go right over his defenders straight into the record books as the NBA’s first 20,000-point career scorer. Included in that total were several big nights against Russell. Tom Heinsohn. Jim Loscutoff. Satch Sanders. And just about any Celtic that Auerbach thought might stay down on the fakes and defend Pettit and his machine-like efficiency.
In this article from Complete Sports’ 1964-65 Basketball Annual, journalist Bob Hoobing looks under the hood of that machine-like efficiency. He finds a clean-cut, ultra-dedicated athlete who truly loved the game. (Pettit later dedicated his autobiography The Drive Within Me to “The St. Louis Hawks and the Game of Basketball.”). Hoobing’s article starts strong, bogs down a little in the middle, but ultimately celebrates a great player who too many of us today know too little about.]
In this age of automation, basketball has its own wondrous machine. His name is Robert Lee Pettit. Don’t be fooled by the silent, robot-like efficiency of Bob Pettit, however. The man destined to become the National Basketball Association’s first 20,000-point scorer willed himself to greatness.
“Bobby has the greatest desire of any athlete who ever lived,” says Marty Blake, general manager of the Hawks. “It is remarkable St. Louis should have had two such athletic heroes as Stan Musial and Pettit cut out of the same mould.”
No one can pin the “underrated” label on the 6-feet-9 forward who made the franchise. Pettit has been a first-team all-NBA selection each of his 10 years in the league and twice was named Most Valuable Player. He is the all-time scoring leader with 19,756 points in regular-season play.
Yet the balding bank vice president from Baton Rouge, La. is taken for granted—even overlooked—because of the steady, pressure-proof play which has marked his professional path.
Tommy Heinsohn, cornerman of the seven-time champion Boston Celtics knows Pettit as well as any opponent can. They have played against each other in countless games, including four playoff title series. “The reason I think there may be something to the idea Pettit gets overlooked at times is that he is not a flashy ballplayer,” Heinsohn says. “He doesn’t have moves like Bob Cousy.
“When he drives for the basket, it’s not done with the same crowd-pleasing show as Elgin Baylor or Oscar Robertson. He’s not deceptive. He’s not tremendously fast. Pettit is an automatic machine, and I mean that as quite a compliment. He takes the good shot and usually makes it. If not, he often gets the ball back and puts it up. He passes with skill.”
Heinsohn adds: “Bob is like a fine lathe which is accurate to one-millionth of an inch and never breaks down. He’s perfected his shots, his moves. He gets the job done, and he always puts his team—and victory—first. It’s not a matter of how many points he can score or rebounds he grabs. He wants to be on a winner and devotes 100 percent of his energies to playing for a team victory. All the clubs feel Pettit is a fine competitor, one of the all-time greats. What more can you say about a rival without getting sentimental?
“He says he’s planning to play one more year or possibly two, so his career is nearing an end. When it does, we’ll miss him. The greatest compliment one athlete can pay another is to want to play with him. I would dream it an honor to have Pettit as a teammate.”
After such a eulogy, the following should come as no surprise: In a secret poll of players last season, Pettit was voted at the top of the list, along with Boston’s Bill Russell, as a clutch performer. Robertson plus Boston’s Heinsohn and Frank Ramsey were the others so unusually honored.
When Celtics’ coach Red Auerbach, a shrewd judge of talent and character, was asked to make a comparison last year, he replied: “Cincinnati’s Jerry Lucas has as much talent as Bob, but I doubt if he will ever be as great. That Pettit has just worked himself into greatness.”
Other forwards come and go, but Pettit keeps showing up on the all-league team year after year. Not counting pivotmen Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell, Pettit has shared the honors with players like Baylor, George Yardley, Paul Arizin, and Dolph Schayes, starting with 1954-55 when he was named NBA Rookie of the Year. This past season, Big Blue was second high vote-getter [for all-league] behind only Robertson.
Call Him Big Blue
Bobby got the nickname Big Blue his first pro season at Milwaukee before the Hawks moved. He used to wear a big, long blue overcoat “one of those 10,000 miles jobs,” as Blake puts it.
The league MVP in 1956 and in 1959 was also scoring champion in those seasons, squeezing them in before Chamberlain made that department his personal property. Pettit also has finished second in the scoring race once, third on two occasions, and had been No. 4 man five times. He’s never been worse than fourth in rebounding either.
With 2,190 points and a 27.4 per game average last season, the league’s most eligible bachelor ranked behind Chamberlain (2,948) and Robertson (2,480).
The two-legged computer with the soft jump shot and speech to match has put himself within easy reach of 20,000 points worth of regular-season competition. It should take only a couple of weeks this fall to reach that coveted mark. Pettit passed playing-coach Schayes, who has 19,249 career points, last spring. Cousy, retired, has 16,955 and Chamberlain 16,303.
By racking 252 points in 12 playoff games, Pettit became the king of postseason scorers. He has 2,193 compared to the previous George Mikan standard of 2,141.
An All-Star fixture, Pettit is a rugged competitor who has played with a broken hand and assorted other injuries. Out of a possible 754 regular-season games, Pettit has missed only 12 and those only because he was ordered to do so. At 31, Bobby has been out of action only twice in the past two years.
The former Louisiana State All-America says very little on his behalf. He lets his performance speak for themselves. After a victory, Pettit dresses quickly and is on his way. When the Hawks lose a big one Pettit usually is found seated on a bench staring at the floor, shaking his head.
Pettit does a superior job, game in and game out, without additional fanfare. There is absolutely nothing controversial about him. He has permitted himself only one major display of temper on the court. Two years ago, he whirled around and threw a ball at San Francisco’s Guy Rodgers for riding him. The officials were so surprised, they didn’t call a foul.
Away from the game he loves, Pettit has a multitude of interests, including a very successful real estate business, a basketball camp, and is active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Every year, at his own expense, Pettit goes to the Fellowship’s summer camps and helps with their clinics. Other F.C.A. members include Amos Alonzo Stagg, Jesse Owens, Bob Richards, Otto Graham, Bud Wilkinson, Carl Erskine, Rafer Johnson, Bobby Richardson, Al Dark, Paul Dietzel, Biggie Munn, Pete Elliott, Billy Wage, and Deacon Dan Towler.
“Old Robert is simon pure,” remarks Blake.
“Pettit’s almost too good to believe,” adds a rival.
If he is not always talkative to outsiders, Pettit is keenly intelligent and displays cutting wit to those who know him best. For years, Bobby, Cliff Hagan, and Clyde Lovellette formed the St. Louis frontline. They became known as The Untouchables. Then Lovellette went to the Celtics.
Big Clyde was sitting on the bench at Boston Garden last year and giving Pettit a verbal going over in a good-natured way while the game was in progress. Finally, as Pettit stepped to the free-throw line, he turned a mock scowl in Lovellette’s direction and said: “Please don’t speak to the players.”
The Pettit story begins with a 5-feet-9 high school freshman at Baton Rouge. Like Cousy, he was cut from the squad. Pettit was told he’d never make the grade because he was too clumsy. “So he got a ladder, hung up a basket in his backyard, set up lights, and practiced afternoons and nights,” Blake recalls. “He also practiced at the YMCA. He drilled himself right onto the school team by the time the next season arrived.
“Bobby goes all out in anything he does.”
About eight years before isometrics became a part of the condition program for many athletic teams, Pettit was working on these special exercises. He got them from Alvin Roy, now physical consultant to the San Diego Chargers of the American Football League and one-time Olympic trainer. Later pro footballers Jimmy Taylor and Billy Cannon, from the same region, picked them up.
“Roy set up a program for Pettit years before anyone else was using isometrics,” Blake says. “Bobby came to us a skinny 200 pounds. Now he’s built himself up to 238 for 240. When we adopted the isometric exercise program on the Hawks, I asked all the players to work on it. I noticed Pettit smiling. Then I discovered he was an old hand at it.”
The fact Pettit wasn’t always first in all his basketball efforts only made him work harder. Bob was named MVP in the 1952 Sugar Bowl Tournament but, a year later, lost that honor to Togo Palazzi of Holy Cross.
In the 1953-54 college campaign, his senior year at LSU, Pettit had a glittering 30.9 point-per-game scoring average, yet finished only fourth nationally. A fellow named Bevo Francis from little Rio Grande College in Ohio had a 46.5 mark. Furman’s Frank Selvy paced the major-college brigade with 41.7 and Porky Vieira of Quinnipiac College, Hamden, Conn., hit for 35.9.
Pettit landed a berth on the All-American team with teammate-to-be Hagan, Selvy, LaSalle’s Tom Gola, Frank Ramsey of Kentucky Indiana’s Don Schlundt and Bob Leonard, Palazzi, Gene Shue and Tom Marshall.
With the retirements of Ramsey, Shue, and Selvy, only Hagan and Gola still are active pros, and Pettit has outdistanced them all in performance. “Pettit had great desire,” says Blake. “Bobby is not one who is a great passer. He’s not a superb shooter. He doesn’t have the exceptional physical attributes of a Baylor or Robertson. But he always gives you a great second effort, the greatest of any man in the game.
“The year we won the championship—we beat Boston in 1958—Bobby scored 19 of our last 20 points and 50 all told in the final game.
“He has great desire in anything he does. The A.B.C. Bowling Championships were here in St. Louis a few years ago. We entered a team. Our other players told how they were rolling about 120, but Pettit said nothing. There was a huge crowd the night we bowled. The other players didn’t go over 120. Pettit averaged 190 in all three games.”
St. Louis and Boston tangled in the first of four playoff finals in 1957. The hectic series went down to the seventh and final game. With seven seconds remaining in regulation, Boston led by two. Pettit walked deliberately to the free throw line. In his slow, calculating manner, he rolled the ball around in his hands, rocked back and forth, flexed his shooting wrist several times, sighted the basket and fired—swish.
A capacity Boston Garden crowd jeered loudly, trying to upset him, but Pettit repeated on the second shot and forced an overtime. The teams were still deadlocked after the first extra session. The Celtics had a 125-123 edge with just one second left in the second overtime. Alex Hannum, then Hawks’ playing coach, had the ball out of bounds. He sent a full-court pass which caromed off the backboard, and Pettit barely missed the shot. He scored 39.
A year later, Pettit led St. Louis to the world championship, beating the same Celtics in six games, although Russell was injured the last two. Bob was content to let Hagan set the scoring pace in the series until the finale when he staged his great 50-point outburst.
On December 30, 1959, Boston defeated St. Louis 96-82 and matched the NBA record of 17 consecutive victories. Despite the fact his father had been stricken and rushed to a hospital the previous night, Pettit kept the Hawks in the game almost single handed. Less than two weeks later, he scored 39 points and outrebounded Russell 18 to 16, in a personal 121-111 vendetta against the Celtics.
In the 1961 playoffs, St. Louis was hampered by an ailing Lovellette and the Celtics took a 2-0 lead in games. Pettit was the talk of the winners’ dressing room after the second contest, but Cousy commented: “It’s too much to ask Pettit to share the scoring load and work both backboards for a full 48 minutes.”
So Pettit promptly led a 124-120 triumph for the Hawks in the third game, as he scored 31 points and outrebounded Russell, 24 to 23. Boston won the series in five games. Pettit bowed out with a 40-point effort.
Once asked what he owes his success to, Pettit responded: “God gave me the desire and the means of application.”
“Pettit knows what his goals are and works hard to reach them,” Blake adds.