Cut twice from the varsity basketball team at Baton Rouge High School, Bob Pettit resolved to devote all his time and energy into becoming a better player; almost four decades later, he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Pettit attended Louisiana State University (LSU) in the early 1950s and was regarded as the greatest basketball player in the school’s history until the arrival of Pete Maravich in the late 1960s. Pettit then went on to a stellar professional career, retiring in 1965 as the all-time leading scorer and second-best rebounder in the National Basketball Association (NBA). He also collected two NBA Most Valuable Player awards, eleven all-star nods, two scoring titles, and an NBA championship in 1958 with the St. Louis Hawks—the franchise with which he played his entire career.
Pettit was born on December 12, 1932, in Baton Rouge. He launched his competitive basketball career as a junior in high school when he finally made the varsity team. At the time, he was in the middle of a growth spurt that didn’t end until he was six feet, nine inches tall and a dominant center/power forward. Baton Rouge High won a state championship with him as the core of the squad.
He was rewarded with a scholarship to LSU, where more grueling hard work produced two All-America seasons and a 27.4-point scoring average. With Pettit leading the way in his junior season, the LSU basketball team made its first-ever Final Four appearance in 1953. The Tigers also reached the playoffs in 1954, and Pettit graduated as the most celebrated basketball player in the school’s history to that point; he would eventually be outshone by Maravich and Shaquille O’Neal.
In 1954 Pettit was the first-round draft selection by the then Milwaukee Hawks. Despite Pettit’s success at the prep and collegiate levels, many observers still had doubts about his slender body’s ability to handle the bumping and banging of professional basketball. But he immediately made a strong impact for the lowly Hawks, and the team slowly built a winning squad around the Baton Rouge native, eventually reaching the NBA Finals in 1957. There he met his longtime professional foil—Celtics center Bill Russell, another Louisiana native.
The Celtics and Russell got the better of the Pettit-led Hawks in 1957, but with Pettit averaging nearly thirty points and twenty rebounds a game, the Hawks gave Boston a much harder fight than expected. The series went a full seven games, with Game 7 often described as one of the most thrilling in NBA history.
Boston and St. Louis (the Hawks had moved from Milwaukee) met each other again in the 1958 Finals—this time with Russell hampered by an ankle injury and Pettit dominating the series. The Hawks clinched the NBA title in Game 6, when Pettit poured in a then playoff record of fifty points. After that win, the Celtic dynasty kicked in again, and Pettit and the Hawks were never able to capture another crown. But by the time Pettit retired in 1965, he was widely regarded as an all-time basketball great and was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1971.Author: Ryan Whirty
Cite this entry
Chicago Manual of Style
Whirty, Ryan "Bob Pettit." In knowlouisiana.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published December 18, 2013. https://www.knowlouisiana.org/entry/bob-pettit.
Whirty, Ryan "Bob Pettit" knowlouisiana.org Encyclopedia of Louisiana. Ed. David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 18 Dec 2013. Web. 22 May 2018.
Pettit, Robert E. Lee. Bob Pettit: The Drive Within Me. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1966.
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