The NBA is celebrating players from the NBA 75 list almost daily from now until the end of the season. Today’s honoree is St. Louis Hawks big man Bob Pettit. This story about Pettit, the season after he was NBA Rookie of the Year, originally appeared under the headline “Hawks tab Pettit Game’s Greatest Shotmaker” in the Nov. 30, 1955, issue of The Sporting News.
ST. LOUIS, MO. — Alex Hannum is a balding, hardened veteran of professional basketball, now serving as hatchet man with the St. Louis Hawks. He’s seen them all in recent years and he’s not hasty with his praise, but when it comes to handsome, baby-faced Bob Pettit, the six-nine Louisiana State ace of the Mound City cagers, Hannum beams:
“He’s the greatest. Yes, I said the greatest. They simply don’t come any better in all-round play and shotmaking.”
Similar appreciation for Pettit’s uncanny ability to rebound and tally is shared by another well versed in professional hard knocks, Chuck Share, the seven-foot bulwark of the Hawks. Share also is sparing with his bouquets for others, but he doesn’t hesitate when Peltit’s name is mentioned
“Bob’s the kind of guy who can’t play the entire game because he’s not quite as rugged as some of us others,” Share explains, but then pays him this compliment: “Maybe we might only use him for a halt on occasions, but he’ll always get you those 20 points. What more can anyone ask? He’s tops.”
All of which is by way of introducing last season’s National Basketball Association’s “Rookie of the Year” and the chap voted most likely to take over the professional basketball glory that once seemed to rest only on the massive shoulders of the one and only George Mikan, who retired last year, Experts concede Pettit has the best chance of dethroning Neil Johnston of Philadelphia as current scoring and rebounding champion.
“I’m Only a Beginner”
Yet, all of this glory and pressure comes lightly to Pettit, who remains a smiling, polite young man of only 22. (He’ll be 23 in December.) If he held up under the tremendous nationwide publicity he received while attaining All-America stature at LSU, it’s only logical to believe he won’t crack now. He’s simply a fine, upstanding young man unabashed by it all — he thrills at playing basketball and he’s only doing what he enjoys. Why all the fuss?
“Please remember,” he quietly commented in his Baton Rouge drawl, “I’m still learning. We pick up new pointers every game. As I look back on last season, I can see where I made so many mistakes. Our team is young and we’re just beginning to work together. We’ve got a long way to go and I’m only a beginner.”
This humility has been part of the Pettit Story ever since he failed to make his high school team the first year he tried. Determined this wouldn’t happen again in his junior year, he asked his father if he might erect a practice goal in his back yard. Bob Pettit, Sr., was receptive to the idea for he, too, had played basketball while attending Westminster College in Denver.
“I was happy to see his interest in sports, though I didn’t think he’d necessarily get very far,” the strapping six-four father recalls. “But I guess I was wrong, for he’s made a career out of the game.”
Night Lights for Baskets
Bob not only set up that goal, but he drilled night and day. When darkness set in, he would go to his room, open the window, which was right above the basket, and turn on two study lamps on his desk. These served as night lights for his baskets. Later, he joined a church league at his Baton Rouge YMCA and soon came home with a handful of trophies — his team had won the title.
When he returned to Baton Rouge High School and basketball in his junior year, it was an entirely different Pettit. He not only made the team but starred. In his senior year, Baton Rouge went on to win the state crown and Bob was chosen to the South squad of the annual high school all-star game at Murray, Ky. Oddly enough, the Baton Rouge team that year lost only nine games — all in a row. You see, Pettit was hospitalized with the mumps during that siege. Upon his return, they went on to win 17 straight.
By this time, college scouts were converging on Baton Rouge and the Pettit family’s sense of fairness was immediately evidenced, Bob, Sr., agreed with Bob, Jr., that home-town LSU was the best for him and they quickly signed up with Coach Harry Rabenhorst, dean of the Southeastern Conference coaches. This took place before Bob headed for Murray, Ky., sparing college scouts of unnecessary bidding.
The tournament meant more to Pettit than being named to the high school All-America, for it was there he learned of a boys’ camp at Three Lakes, Wis., operated by Ray Meyer, then the DePaul coach and the man who developed Mikan. Bob grabbed at an opportunity to serve as counselor at the camp and for the entire summer period he practiced every day and watched pictures of Mikan in action every night.
Hopes to Emulate Mikan
“Mikan became the man I looked up to,” Pettit shyly admits. “I hoped some day to come close to his ability. Another man who has meant much to me is Frank Brian of Fort Wayne, a cousin of mine. He was a former LSU great and I always hoped I could follow in his footsteps.”
During his freshman year at LSU, Petit worked under John Chaney, a former pro, who put him through regular exercises of skipping rope and daily drills under the basket to perfect his rebounding and tip-in shots, two assets that have thrilled NBA fans.
“He’s especially good at tip-ins,” Red Holzman, his current coach, points out. “He has such graceful motion, expert timing and amazing wrist action. He has finger-tip control. He need only touch the ball when he’s up there and it’s in.”
“I’d compare his wrist action and finger-tip control to that of Easy Ed Macauley of Boston,” says Grady Lewis, the one-time pro cage coach and now close to the national cage scene as traveling representative of Converse Rubber Co. “In fact, he reminds me a lot of Macauley, but he’s even better. He can do so much more.”
Pettit wasted little time shattering records in college, for in his sophomore year he averaged 25.5 points for 24 games, set an all-time LSU scoring record, established a conference mark of 50 points in one game against Georgia and ran up a new high of 359 points in 14 conference games. He continued the splurge through his junior and senior years, making every All-America. He exceeded his 50 total by dropping in 57 against Georgia in his senior year and 60 against Louisiana College.
With Kentucky ineligible during his junior term, LSU copped the league crown with a 14-9 record, went on to defeat St. Louis U. in the finals of the Sugar Bowl classic, won the NCAA regional at Raleigh, N.C., by whipping Holy Cross in the final and then lost to Washington at Washington in the first round of the national championships.
25 Points Against Kentucky
One of the greatest shows he ever gave was against Kentucky during his sophomore season, when he tallied 25 points, but LSU lost in the final seconds, 44 to 43. This game was for the SEC championship and though he was outstanding, Pettit notes this as his No. 1 disappointment. He would rather have scored half as many had his team only won.
The first draft choice of Owner Ben Kerner last season, Pettit made good in a big way. He finished fourth in scoring with 1,166 points in 73 games for a 20.4 pace. He averaged 40.7 in field goals and was third in the league in rebounds with 994. There was little question about his winning “Rookie of the Year” honors and he also was chosen on the NBA first all-star team, only the second rookie so honored.
On the personal side, Pettit is one of the most polite and considerate young men one might encounter. He also has a sound business head and the off-season helps his father with insurance and real estate in Baton Rouge.
Although he professes an interest in dancing and hillbilly music, he confesses he has no love interests at the moment. “I’m not much for that,” he replies seriously.
Owner Kerner sums up the greatness in Pettit better than anyone else:
“He simply is a gentleman — truly a gentleman — and brother, what a player. How he could break me at contract time if he weren’t such a nice kid.”