Before Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain, the NBA's all-time leading scorer was "Big Blue" Bob Pettit. The lanky forward/center out of Louisiana State University was the first player to eclipse 20,000 points in the NBA.
In 11 seasons as a player, "The Bombardier" from Baton Rouge was named to 11 all-star teams. He averaged a ludicrous 26.4 points and 16.2 rebounds per game for his career, all for the Hawks franchise in Milwaukee, WI, and St. Louis, MO.
After leading Baton Rouge High School to a Louisiana state championship in 1950, Pettit was recruited to LSU where he became an All-American. He helped the Tigers to two Southeastern Conference Championships and was twice named to the All-SEC team. LSU made the Final Four in his senior season, bolstered by his 31.4 ppg and 17.3 rpg. He entered college standing at 6-feet, 4-inches and left as a 6-foot, 9-inch center. His ability as a scorer in the frontcourt, tenacity on the boards and relentless energy made him the prize of the Milwaukee Hawks at the top of the 1954 NBA Draft.
"Big Blue" picked up where he left off in college. Moved primarily to the forward position, he averaged 20.4 points and 13.8 rebounds on his way to Rookie of the Year honors and was named All-NBA first team. His sophomore season in the league ended with a loss to the Fort Wayne Pistons in the Western Division Finals, but he and the then-St. Louis Hawks were just beginning to rise. His 25.6 ppg that season earned him his first of two scoring titles and Most Valuable Player awards. He also led the league in rebounding.
Chasing a title
In the 1956-57 season Pettit led the team to its first NBA Finals appearance. After sweeping their way through the playoffs, the Hawks faced Red Auerbach, Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics. St. Louis took a surprising Game 1, but Boston outlasted the Hawks to win the series 3-4.
St. Louis had its revenge in the 1957-58 finals in a rematch with the Celtics. The teams split the first four games, then Pettit helped the Hawks eek out a 102-100 win in game 5, posting 33 points and 21 rebounds. He outdid that performance in the closeout game, notching 50 points (a playoff record at the time) and 19 rebounds in a 110-109 win. It remains the franchise's lone NBA Championship.
Pettit would lead the Hawks to two more Finals appearances (in 1960 and 1961).
In 1958-59, the Hawks forward had a career-high scoring average (29.2 ppg) on his way to a second MVP and second scoring title. He was named first team All-NBA 10 consecutive times before earning second team honors for his final season in 1964-65.
Hawks records and the Hall of Fame
Pettit chose to go out on top after the 1964-65 season due to a persisting knee injury. Even on a slight decline, he still averaged a double double with 22.5 points and 12.4 rebounds per game. He retired with 20,880 points scored and 12,849 rebounds in total. He remains the franchise leader in free throws made (6,182), total rebounds, player efficiency rating (25.3) and win shares (136).
Consistency and effort are two words that are often used when describing Pettit. His stat lines throughout his career reflect this, as he never had a season where he averaged anything less than a double double. His career average 16.2 rpg ranks third behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul Jabbar. He also shelled out 2,369 assists.
In 1970, Pettit earned his place among the greats of the game in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.