Pettit, Robert E. Lee, Jr. ("Bob")

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PETTIT, Robert E. Lee, Jr. ("Bob")

(b. 12 December 1932 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana), professional basketball player who was the greatest forward of his era and the first ever to score 20,000 career regular-season points.

Pettit was the only son of Robert E. Lee Pettit, a county sheriff, and Margaret Pettit, a realtor. Pettit wanted to participate in sports, but was cut from the football, basketball, and baseball teams during his first two years at Baton Rouge High School. He was tall, but gangly and lacking in the skills to compete effectively. Undaunted by his early failures and encouraged by his father, Pettit practiced shooting baskets in his back yard for hours at a time. His efforts were rewarded when he was chosen for the basketball team in his junior year. By his senior year, already six feet, seven inches tall, Pettit had developed into a formidable player. In 1950 he led the team to its first state championship in over twenty years and was named first team All-State center. Following graduation in 1950, Pettit accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Louisiana State University (LSU).

Pettit had received scholarship offers from fifteen schools, but selected LSU because he did not believe he could live up to the expectations of the "fancier" scholarships. His freshman team coach, former National Basketball Association (NBA) player John Chaney, verified these self-doubts. After his first practice, Pettit commented: "My reflexes were slow. I was lost on defense. I didn't know how to drive in for a shot, or fake and pass off the pivot. Much as I dislike this expression, I've got to admit I was a goon." In spite of this early negative evaluation, Pettit soon developed the moves that would make him a future star, and his many fans at LSU certainly never thought of him as anything but a great player.

By the time Pettit graduated from LSU in 1954 with a Bachelor's degree in business administration, he had scored 2,002 points and been named an All-American twice, in 1953 and 1954. He was also selected to the first-team All-Southeast Conference three times, and led the Tigers to conference titles in 1953 and 1954 and to the NCAA Final Four in 1953. In his three seasons at LSU, Pettit led the league in scoring with an average of 27.4 points per game. He also excelled at rebounding, and averaged 17.3, an LSU best, in 1954.

The Milwaukee Hawks (who moved to St. Louis a year later) selected Pettit in the first round of the 1954 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft. Considered by some to be too thin to play pivot—he stood six feet, nine inches tall, and weighed only 200 pounds—he became a forward, where he used his intelligence and finesse to beat bigger men to the ball. Pettit is credited with inventing the power forward position, which demands the size and strength of a pivot, the athleticism and shooting skills of a small forward, and the nastiness of a middle linebacker. Lenny Wilkens, who also played for the St. Louis Hawks, said of Pettit, "he was a power forward who could really score. You didn't find guys like that in those days." Pettit's power shot involved getting the ball near the basket, holding it high, then swinging around and shooting with one or both hands. His beautifully soft, but deadly, jump shot combined toughness with finesse and became a model for the league. Pettit was the first big man with an accurate outside shot.

Pettit was also known for his relentless drive. If he missed his first ten shots in the first half, he would take ten more in the second half, thinking that he would make those and would be ten-for-twenty. Bill Russell, a rival player and future Hall of Famer, said "Bob made 'second effort' a part of the sport's vocabulary. He kept coming at you more than any man in the game. He was always battling for position, fighting you off the boards." Pettit was the best scorer and rebounder on the team, but he would always give up the ball to a teammate who was in a better position.

In his debut season with the Hawks (1955–1956), Pettit was the Rookie of the Year, the NBA's Most Valuable Player (MVP), and the All-Star MVP. He also won the NBA's scoring championship twice (1955–1956; 1958–1959). The Hawks went to the finals four times during Pettit's tenure, but were successful only once, at the end of the 1957–1958 season. Pettit scored fifty points in game six of this series—one of only two games he remembers clearly (the other was his high school state championship title game in 1950). He earned a second MVP award in 1959, and made the all-NBA first team for ten consecutive seasons. In those ten seasons, Pettit never finished lower than fifth in scoring and rebounding, an accomplishment unmatched by any other player to date.

A true superstar who played for love of the game, Pettit retired after the 1965 season. At that time, he was the highest scorer in the history of the NBA, averaging 26.4 points, and the game's leading rebounder, with 14 per game. He scored 20,880 career points in 792 games, the first player in the NBA to break the 20,000-point ceiling. He also posted a .436 field-goal percentage; 12,849 rebounds and a 16.2 rebound percentage; and 2,369 assists with a 3.0 assist percentage. Pettit was named All-Pro ten years in a row and the NBA's All-Star Game MVP four times.

After retiring from professional sports, Pettit returned to Baton Rouge, where he worked in insurance and banking. The city honored him by naming Bob Pettit Boulevard in his honor. Pettit was the first LSU player in any sport to have his jersey retired (number 50) in 1954; the St. Louis Hawks also retired his number 9 jersey. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1970.

At the NBA's fiftieth anniversary in 1996, Pettit was selected as one of the fifty greatest players of all time by a panel of former players, coaches, general mangers, team executives, and media representatives. He was runner-up to Pete Maravich as Player of the Century, as selected by the Louisiana Association of Basketball Coaches in 1999. Pettit was also a member of the First Team All-Louisiana Team of the Century, 1999. He married Carole Crowell on 19 June 1965; they have three children. They now live in New Orleans, where Pettit is employed by Prudential Securities.

Pettit chronicled his NBA career with coauthor Bob Wolff in Bob Pettit: The Drive Within Me (1966). Pettit was a featured athlete in Phil Burger, Heroes of Pro Basketball (1968); Richard Rainbolt, Basketball ' s Big Men (1975); and Martin Taragano, Basketball Biographies: 434 U.S. Players, Coaches, and Contributors to the Game, 1891–1990 (1991). "Powering Forward," the Denver Post (1 June 1997), describes the evolution of the position from Bob Pettit to Karl Malone. Other articles about Pettit's career include: Z. Hollander, "Big Shot Bob!," Senior Scholastic (8 Mar. 1954); "Golden Hawk," Time (3 Feb. 1958); and "Solid Man, Solid," Senior Scholastic (1 Feb. 1961).

Jeannie P. Millerm