The Q&A: At 80, Pettit Reflects On Wilt, Russell, Cousy And Life Outside The NBA

Bob Pettit wasn’t sure what to call this date: Dec. 12, 2012. Take the short version – 12/12/12 – and it looks like a triple-double. Or a triple-dozen anyway. But for the NBA’s legendary power forward and Naismith Hall of Famer, it mostly is known as his 80th birthday.

Born in Baton Rouge, La., on this day in 1932, the lanky, 6-foot-9 big man became the prototype at his position, a precursor to fellows such as Karl Malone, Kevin McHale, Charles Barkley and eventually Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love. A three-time All-America pick at LSU, Pettit was the No. 2 pick in the 1954 Draft behind Frank Selvy. He went to the lowly Milwaukee Hawks, was named Rookie of the Year in 1954-55, then moved with the club to St. Louis. He helped the Hawks reach the playoffs in nine of the next 10 seasons, in 1958 winning the only championship the Boston Celtics didn’t from 1957-1966.

After making the all-NBA first team in each of his first 10 seasons, Pettit “slipped” to second-team status in 1965 – and that was that. He made good on his plan to retire, stepping into a banking career at age 32 and never looking back. He was inducted into basketball’s Hall in 1971, then named one of the NBA’s Top 50 players in 1996. Over the weekend, Pettit – whose wife Carol died in 2010 — gathered a few days early with his three children, 10 grandchildren and friends to celebrate another big round number. He spoke Tuesday with NBA.com about a life well-lived:

NBA.com: You went home to Baton Rouge when you retired in 1965 and moved to New Orleans in 1970. How much attention have you paid through the years to the city’s two NBA franchises, the Jazz and the Hornets?

Bob Pettit: When I first moved to New Orleans, the Jazz was here. When they left, I actually didn’t give it any thought. The franchises moved around, even when I was playing. They’d pick up and leave a city and go to another one. I left Milwaukee and went to St. Louis [with the Hawks] after my rookie year.

NBA.com: Were you surprised when New Orleans got the NBA again?

 BP: I’m not surprised at much of anything, let me start with that. I was delighted that they were coming here. And I think New Orleans has supported the team pretty well. The fans have taken to it, they’re interested. It’s been a big addition to New Orleans. [New owner Tom] Benson has purchased the team and he’s committed to keeping it here, so I think that’s worked out extremely well. They have the nucleus, a very young nucleus – their No. 1 draft pick [Anthony Davis] has not been able to play much, but the papers said he’s supposed to come back this week. So they’ve got a bright future.

NBA.com: So what do you think of their proposed new nickname, “Pelicans?’

BP: There was a minor league baseball team here for years and years, the Pelicans. This was going back to probably the ’50s, but a lot of major league baseball players played here. And they had spring training here. It was the New Orleans Pelicans. So that is a name that is familiar to people here.

NBA.com:After leaving LSU, you were the No. 2 pick in a draft class that included a high number of NBA “lifers,” men who spent their entire careers in or around the league as coaches, front-office executives or broadcasters after their playing days ended. Guys such as Richie Guerin, Slick Leonard, Larry Costello, Al Bianchi, Red Kerr and Gene Shue. But when you left at age 32, you were done. How come?

Bob Pettit (right) averaged 16.2 rebounds a game, third in NBA history behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell (left).

Bob Pettit (right) averaged 16.2 rebounds a game, third in NBA history behind only Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell (left) – Dick Raphael/NBAE via Getty Images.

BP: I never was interested in doing that. I had something else I wanted to do. I had a job waiting for me when I retired [at American Bank], something that was exciting. I did the television game of the week in the SEC for a couple or three years, games on Saturday as a color analyst. And I just said, “I don’t want to do that anymore.” I’d had enough.

I think the unusual part is, I’ve enjoyed my life after basketball as much as I enjoyed playing. I don’t know how many former professional athletes can make a statement like that. I’m very fortunate.

NBA.com: Well, maybe that’s because it’s hard to replace that lifestyle, that paycheck, that attention.

 BP: It is for a lot of players. Fortunately in my case, it wasn’t hard to replace. I was in banking, I stayed in banking for 20 years-plus. Then I went into partnership with two or three other guys and formed an investment consulting business, and I did that for 20 years, and I loved that. I worked in the offseason my last three years in the NBA. I told [Hawks owner] Ben Kerner two years in advance. I said, “Ben, make your plans. I ‘m leaving in two years. I’m retiring and going to work in the banking business in Baton Rouge.”

 NBA.com: Didn’t you face a big drop in pay?

BP: Oh sure. A drop, why certainly. But I figured in the long run, it would be to my benefit, that a couple of extra years working might have been worth a lot more at the end than staying and playing basketball. And I could feel that my skills were starting to deteriorate. I’d told the owner before that that I was leaving, but it just so happened I had two or three injuries – I broke four bones in my back. My last year, I hurt my left knee pretty badly. So I had started to get injured some. But I just felt it was time to get out. I didn’t want to hang around. I was happy with my skills when they were at their peak and I thought I was playing very well, and I didn’t want to play at less than that.

NBA.com: Yet you averaged 22.5 points and 12.4 rebounds your final season. You were your team’s leading scorer and the Hawks went 45-35. That’s “deteriorating?”

BP: [Laughs] If I’m making $20 million, I might have a different attitude.

NBA.com: You were quoted in a 1967 issue of Sports Illustrated, two years after you left the NBA, about the shock some retiring players face when they have to get “a real job.” Now, many don’t have to do that.

BP: No, and I think they miss a lot. I don’t know that, at age 34, if you retire and you have all this money in the bank, how happy you are over the next 40 years. I was very happy – I was building something. And I was involved. Would I have rather made $20 million than $20,000? Certainly. But I’m not the least bit unhappy that the salaries were not as much as they are today. I went on and loved what I was doing. It was exciting and interesting, and that’s why I say the rest of my life was as exciting as my life in basketball.

NBA.com: What was your top salary with the Hawks?

BP: About $60,000. I started at $11,000 my first year.

NBA.com: It wasn’t as if you and other players had much leverage.

BP: Actually I was very interested in AAU basketball. The Phillips [66ers] and the other teams in the AAU league. The salaries weren’t quite what they were in the NBA, but they offered you a career. If you looked at a company like Phillips 66, the chairman of the board and the president were all former basketball players. They offered you a great opportunity, and I came every close to doing that and not playing in the NBA.

You look at Clyde Lovellette, he went to the Phillips Oil Company and played there before he played for the Minneapolis Lakers. Bob Kurland [a 6-foot-10 two-time Olympian and Naismith Hall of Famer] was a great player – he played at Phillips. There were the Peoria Caterpillars, there were teams in Cleveland, in Houston, in Denver. It offered you a very substantial career, which we were all interested in because we all had to work.

NBA.com: You played 11 years and played in 11 NBA All-Star Games. What was the key to that?

BP: I don’t have any idea. I was fortunate no life-threatening injuries. I had broken arms and a broken nose, busted teeth and all that. But I played as hard as I could play every night.

NBA.com: In fact, Bill Russell said you were the reason the term “second effort” got introduced to the NBA.

BP: I played hard. That’s the one thing I look back on, I played as hard as I could play every single night. I had bad nights but it was never from lack of effort.

NBA.com: If not for that famous Boston-St. Louis trade in 1956, you could have played with Russell on the Hawks. Do you ever think “What if …?”

BP: No, I never do. But I will say this: I think he’s the greatest player who ever walked on the court. There are a lot of guys you could say that about, but in my mind, I would start my team with Bill. In his prime, he was the best I’ve ever seen. He had a great desire to win and to destroy you. And his defense and his rebounding – his defense was incredible. They say [with 11 championship rings] he’s the great winner of all time. Why don’t they just say he’s the greatest player of all time? That’s what the game is about.

NBA.com: Ever think you just had the bad luck to be born in the same era?

BP: No, it was great. It was challenging. I loved playing against him. They had an incredible team and you’d better be at the top of your game to be able to play them.

NBA.com: You played on some terrific St. Louis teams, winning the NBA title in 1958 and reaching The Finals three other times between 1957 and 1961. Do you feel as if you or your teams weren’t given their due?

BP: I don’t feel overlooked at all. It doesn’t bother me if I read about my name or I don’t. I had 11 great years, a wonderful part of my life, and I’m very happy with the way things have turned out. I have no negative feelings at all about the money or the publicity or the television going on today. I think it’s a great evolution that’s happened in all sports.

I don’t think about it.

NBA.com: OK, then how about some of the players you played with or against?

BP: I don’t read much about Elgin Baylor. Elgin Baylor was an incredible basketball player. Anytime, anywhere. Does that make me sad? No. You’re asking me. I don’t read much about [Bob] Cousy. I guess that’s a natural thing, because we’re a part of the history of the NBA. But the emphasis has to be on the players of today and the teams today. Most of your readers weren’t even born when we played. You read about Wilt [Chamberlain] and his 100 points. I played against Wilt when he averaged 50 points – we’d sit in the locker room and say, ‘OK, we’re gonna let Wilt have his 50. Then we’re going to try to stop [Paul] Arizin or [Tom] Gola.’ The guy was going to score 50 whatever you did.

NBA.com: You put up amazing numbers too. You never ranked lower than seventh in scoring, you were the first player to reach 20,000 points, and you still rank seventh in scoring average and third in rebounding average. In fact, according to what’s known now as “player efficiency rating,” you rank eighth in NBA history (25.3). Any thoughts on the ways basketball is using numbers now, the advanced stats movement?

BP: I’m technologically insufficient. I can’t turn my computer on hardly. I know in my case, the thing I’m proudest of was my rebounding. I was fortunate to average a little over 26 points a game, but what I’m proudest of is that I averaged 16 rebounds a game for 11 years.

NBA.com: Behind only Chamberlain and Russell.

BP: They were in a league by themselves. But I’m proudest of that. That’s just a lot of hard work, to rebound, and a lot of second effort. I thought I did a good job of rebounding – offensively as well. I’ll bet I scored five or six points a game off the offensive boards. And I’m pleased that I went with a last-place team that let me play every minute of every game, no matter how bad I was or how much it was a learning experience. I learned in one year what a lot of these players who would go to the Celtics or the Minneapolis Lakers and sit the bench would need two or three. Fortunately I was able to fairly well keep up and continue to improve. I went to the worst team and it worked out well.

2 Comments

  1. Eli Odell J. says:

    sounds like a good, wise man, he got that wisdom, they call intelligence organized knowledge, wisdom… organized life, he got that in my reckonin, aint worried bout what he cant change, thankful for what he had, what he was given, i think thats a good message we can all take home – hard work, determination will get you where you wanna go, wherever you wanna go
    but you gotta do it

  2. Najee says:

    Pettit was the first great Power forward but one wonders. How would he be in today’s game?