LEGENDS INTERVIEW: BOB PETTIT

November 9, 2015

NBRPA writer Jon Teitel has spent time talking with many of the greatest players in NBA history and will share his interviews at LegendsofBasketball.com. Jon visited with Bob Pettit about winning multiple MVP awards and an NBA title.

There is only 1 man alive who averaged 16+ PPG and 16+ RPG during his NBA career, and that man is named Bob Pettit.  After winning a Louisiana state title as a high school senior and leading the SEC in scoring for 3 straight years at LSU, he was drafted 2nd overall by the Milwaukee Hawks and embarked on a stellar professional career.  By age 26 as a member of the St. Louis Hawks he already had a Rookie of the Year award, 2 scoring titles, a pair of MVP awards, and an NBA championship to his name.  By the time he retired at age 32 he had been named an All-Star during each of his 11 years in the NBA, and 5 years after that he was inducted into the Hall of Fame.

At Baton Rouge High School you were cut from the varsity basketball team as a sophomore: how were you able to make the team as a junior and lead it to a state title as a senior? I just refused to give up. My dad put up a hoop for me in our backyard, and after practicing for 2-3 hours/day I was good enough to become the starting center on my varsity team as a junior. It was amazing when I started to receive college scholarship offers: my only ambition as a sophomore was to get a varsity letter.

You were a 2-time All American at LSU where you led the SEC in scoring for 3 straight seasons: how intense were your battles against the legendary Kentucky teams of that era? We played them 3 times and they won all 3, including by a single point in the 1952 SEC tourney title game. They had a lot of talent including Cliff Hagan, who I later played with for 9 years in the NBA.

After playing center in college, Milwaukee Hawks coach Red Holzman decided to switch you to forward at your very 1st NBA training camp: what was your initial reaction, and what made the switch so effective (you were named 1955 NBA ROY after averaging 20.4 PPG/13.8 RPG)? I was drafted #2 overall behind Frank Selvy and then showed up to training camp. Coach Holzman told me to get outside the paint because he wanted me to play forward. I had a nice outside shot and some good coordination, so it was not a huge adjustment for me. I would occasionally play center when subbing in for our starter, but much preferred playing outside.

You won 2 MVP awards within your 1st 5 years in the league: what did it mean to you to win such outstanding honors? It means a lot more to me now. Back then I was pleased, but looking back on it I think it was outstanding. It stands the test of time and means more to me after I had the chance to reflect on my career.

You made the All-Star Game 11 times during your 11-year career and were a 4-time All-Star Game MVP (which has only been matched by Kobe Bryant): how were you able to be so dominant for such a long period of time? I played my very 1st All Star Game as a rookie in Madison Square Garden. I think my mindset had something to do with being a 4-time MVP. Some players see the All-Star break as a time to relax and have fun, but I wanted to prove that I belonged among the best in the world so I played pretty well.

You won 2 scoring titles and your 26.4 career PPG remains in the top-10 all-time: what was your secret for being a great scorer? It involves a lot of things. You have to be on a team with teammates who are willing to get you the ball and let you do a lot of the shooting: they will only do that if you are a pretty good shooter! I was a very good offensive rebounder, which helped me add several points to my scoring average. You need to have a lot of confidence: even if you miss your 1st few shots you have to continue shooting, and the coach must have confidence in you as well.

Take me through the 1957 NBA Finals:
In April of 1956 the Hawks acquired a pair of future Hall of Famers (Ed Macauley/Cliff Hagan from the Celtics for the draft rights to Bill Russell: what did you think about the trade when you 1st heard about it, and do you ever wonder how many rings you might have won if you spent the next decade as teammates with Russell in St. Louis? I think we would have been a pretty tough duo together but I did not get involved with such things at the time. We got a pair of Hall of Famers in return but missed out on the best player to ever walk on the court. Russell was not even the 1st pick that year: Rochester picked Sihugo Green. I knew Ed and Cliff so I had no problem with us getting 2 great players.

After going 34-38 in the regular season, you scored 39 PTS including a pair of FTs with 6 seconds left in regulation to force OT in Game 7 before ending up with a 2-PT 2-OT loss to Boston: what are your memories of what is considered to be 1 of the most exciting games in playoff history? It was very exciting but I do not remember a lot about it. It was a tight game and very tense during overtime in Boston. We played very well but they were a great team.

Take me through the magical Game 6 of the 1958 NBA Finals:
You set a playoff record by scoring 50 PTS (including 19 of your team’s final 21 PTS) in a 1-PT win over Boston to clinch the title: was it just 1 of those scenarios where every shot you put up seemed to go in because you were “in the zone”? Players get “hot” and it was certainly the best that I ever played. I had huge confidence and wanted the ball every time that we were on offense. I was scoring inside and outside: everything worked out well and my teammates kept giving me the ball. I did not realize at the time how many points I had but I knew how close the game was.

You became the only team to ever beat Russell in his 12 trips to the NBA Finals: what did it mean to you to win a title? It means a great deal when you do it, but 50 years later it gains even more importance. Many players do not feel complete unless they win a title, and the older I get the nicer it is!

In 1961 you became 1 of only 5 players to ever have a season of 20+ RPG, and your 16.2 career RPG remains #3 all-time behind Wilt Chamberlain/Bill Russell: what is your secret for being a great rebounder? I went after every rebound I could, on both offense and defense, which paid off over time. I would eventually wear my opponents down and if they could not get the rebound then they would foul me.

In 1970 you were inducted into the Hall of Fame and in 1996 you were named 1 of the 50 greatest players in NBA history: when people look back on your career, how to do you want to be remembered the most? I am proudest of playing as hard as I could during every single minute of every single game. That does not mean I had great games every night, but I do not think that I could have grabbed even 1 more rebound because I busted my back on every shot. We won some games and lost some games, but I have no regrets.