In 1954, the Milwaukee Hawks selected Pettit second in the first round of the NBA Draft after the Baltimore Bullets’ selection of Frank Selvy. With $100 in the bank, he signed a contract with Hawks owner Ben Kerner for $11,000 – an all-time high for an NBA rookie then. Pettit’s awkward ballhandling and a lack of strength to battle NBA bruisers weighing 200 pounds that early in his career, had Hawks coach Red Holzman move him from center, his position at LSU, to forward in his first training camp. “In college I played the standing pivot”, he said in a April 1957 issue of SPORT magazine interview. “My back was to the basket. In the pros, I’m always outside. Everything I do is facing the basket now. That was my chief difficulty in adjusting, the fact that I had never played forward before.” Though many were skeptical about Pettit making the transition from college to the rough-and-tumble NBA, in 1955 he won the NBA Rookie of the Year Award after averaging 20.4 points and 13.8 rebounds per game. He became the second rookie to win all-NBA honors but the team finished last in the Western Division. After the season, the Hawks moved to St. Louis.
He helped the Hawks improve during their first year in St. Louis by winning 33 games during 1955–56. In his second season, Pettit adjusted his game so that he would get to the free-throw line for easy points for his team and foul trouble for his opponents. Being a phenomenal offensive rebounder and an instinctive scorer, he told basketball historian Terry Pluto that “Offensive rebounds were worth eight to 12 points a night to me. Then I’d get another eight to 10 at the free-throw line. All I had to do was make a few jump shots and I was on my way to a good night.” Pettit won his first scoring title with a 25.7 average, and led the league in rebounding (1164 for a 16.2 average). He was also named MVP of the 1956 NBA All-Star Game after scoring 20 points with 24 rebounds and 7 assists; he would win subsequent MVP All-Star Game honors in 1958, 1959, and 1962. He also won his first of two NBA regular season MVP awards (the other was in 1959).In the 1960–61 season, Pettit averaged 27.9 points per game and pulled down 20.3 rebounds
per game, making him one of only five players to ever break the 20 rpg barrier. He along with Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry Lucas are the only three people who averaged more than twenty points and twenty rebounds in an NBA season.
In the following season, he scored a career best 31.1 points per game, but the Hawks slipped to fourth place. After missing 30 games because of injuries, Pettit ended his career in 1965 still near the peak of his game. He was the first NBA player to eclipse the 20,000 points mark (20,880 for a 26.4 average). Of the 20,880 points he scored in the NBA, 6,182 of them (nearly 30 percent) came from free throws. His 12,849 rebounds were second most in league history at the time he retired, and his 16.2 rebounds per game career average remains third only to Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.
Pettit was an NBA All-Star in each of his 11 seasons, was named to the All-NBA First Team ten times, and was named to the All-NBA Second Team once. Pettit still holds the top two NBA All-Star Game rebounding performances with 26 in 1958 and 27 in 1962, and has the second highest All-Star Game points per game average with 20.4 (behind only Oscar Robertson). Pettit averaged at least 20 points per game and at least 12 rebounds per game in each of his 11 NBA seasons.
In 1970, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Pettit was named to the NBA’s 35th Anniversary Team in 1980, and was named one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History in 1996.
Smallthoughts: Old School Tuesday spotlights…Bob Pettit.