There are only two men who can say they took down Bill Russell.
One of them is pretty well known since the NBA record books look like a biographical breakdown of how good he was (Wilt Chamberlain) while the other has managed to slip through the cracks into the basketball ether.
Seeing as how Bob Pettit played, the fact he has been largely forgotten in the greater basketball conversations kind of makes sense. He wasn’t known for his athleticism like Elgin Baylor and he doesn’t have a series of overwhelming statistics like Oscar Robertson, Russell or Chamberlain that have held up over the test of time.
Instead, Pettit was really the first superstar in NBA history that defied conventional wisdom.
He didn’t have a series of dynamic moves that helped him become the first man to reach 20,000 points. What got him there was his intense work ethic and refusal to back down despite the odds against him.
Throughout his career, even in high school, people never fully believed a scrawny kid like Pettit could even make it, let alone thrive. As late as his sophomore year in high school, this no doubt hall of famer wasn’t even good enough to make the varsity team at his high school in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
After finally cracking the squad as a junior thanks to a year of lighting up the local church league (along with a much-needed growth spurt), Pettit was an instant force and led the school to a state title by his senior year. All of this is pretty impressive for a player his coach never saw the potential in.
Ironically, many of the sentiments that slowed Pettit’s high school career resurfaced in the NBA.
Sure, he was one of the great college basketball players in history at LSU and was the second pick in the 1954 draft but Hawks coach Red Holzman wasn’t convinced he could last in the NBA. So, he shifted the 6’9 Pettit to forward from his college position of centre thinking that the sheer size and strength of the game’s posts would be too much for him to handle.
The move proved to be brilliant as Pettit’s crafty ability to get to the rim excelled against the smaller and less athletic forwards of the time.
His game would go on to be the pre-cursor for many of the forwards we have seen dominate the game since. The first and most important ability he had was a quick dribble to get to the rim that coupled with his consistent midrange jump shot made him virtually impossible to guard.
Those two main moves made him virtually un-guardable and coupled with his relentless work ethic on the offensive glass made him a staple at the free throw line, unironically very similarly to Karl Malone’s game. The 11.7 free throws he took per game at the peak of his powers would’ve infuriated today’s fans but before we knew the power of taking advantage of the officials, Pettit was creating a formula for the James Harden’s of the world.
From players like Malone to even now more currently in Anthony Davis, the power forward position really started to take shape with Bob Pettit.
Unlike many from around that era, Pettit’s modern abilities really stand out. It’s not a coincidence the power forwards of recent generations played so similar to him, that’s the true mark of a trailblazer.
What’s sad about Pettit though is unlike many from his era, he goes largely forgotten. Despite being the original template for success at the forward position, many can’t tell you a thing about his career.
In just his second season in the league, he became the first Most Valuable Player in its history. He would also win four All-Star MVPs in his career, a major achievement in an era where the game was a showcase of the league’s best and the players took it very seriously.
These moments were great but none compare with the one where he put together arguably the greatest finals performance the league has ever seen.
Going against eight future hall of famers, including Bill Russell, Pettit would score fifty points to knock off the Celtics in game six of the 1958 NBA Finals. If you ask Russell about this game, he still hasn’t let go of the fact an ankle injury was slowing him for most of the series and he believes wholeheartedly the title was his if he wasn’t hurt.
Still though, fifty points against seven healthy NBA legends is one of the great games the league has ever seen. Oh, and did I mention Pettit scored 19 of the Hawks final 21 points to secure the win?
Sure, Russell was slowed by an injury but here’s the thing, he was on the floor and lost. That only happened twice in his entire career.
Bob Pettit is one of the greatest basketball players of all-time. He literally retired still at the top of the league because he had a job lined up at a bank in Baton Rouge and didn’t want to miss out on the opportunity.
This was a different era to say the least.
Players needed jobs to sustain their families beyond the NBA and the league pre-dated television. Instead of being remembered as one of the first stars of NBA television like Russell and Chamberlain, Pettit came slightly too soon and missed out on a longer lasting legacy.
For a man who was never believed in and whose game was never one that blew people away, multiple MVP awards and a championship that broke up Russell’s Celtic’s run will have to do. So is the legacy of Bob Pettit, the greatest player to slip past the main pages of NBA history books.