NBA 75th Anniversary Season
Q&A: Bob Pettit, the league's first-ever MVP
Bob Pettit reflects on his playing days and role as a 75th Anniversary Team ambassador.
During a 12-minute interview with Hall of Famer Bob Pettit, you almost forget he is 88 years old. His answers are smart, he’s feisty and doesn’t hold back — kind of like the way he played during his 11-year career with the Milwaukee and St. Louis Hawks from 1954-65. His no-plays-off approach helped Pettit become an NBA champion, Rookie of the Year, 11-time All-Star and two-time NBA MVP.
Here’s a Q&A with Pettit where he talks about his playing days and his role as an NBA 75th Anniversary Team ambassador. Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.
NBA.com: What was it like being the NBA’s first-ever Most Valuable Player?
Pettit: It felt great at the time. It was an awfully nice thing. As you get older, it becomes more important. Being the first MVP in the League, that means something. In those days I was excited about it, but had other things on my mind. The point I’m trying to say is, it’s important when it happens but it’s more important to you as an individual as you get older.
The NBA chose five legends to serve as ambassadors for this historic 75th season. You, Oscar Robertson, Clyde Drexler, Dirk Nowitzki and Magic Johnson were chosen and you will be making appearances and play a big role at NBA All-Star 2022 in Cleveland in a few months. Thoughts on being picked as an ambassador?
It’s an honor to get selected. A good ambassador means someone who is representing someone else. So, when we do things with the media like this interview and things like this, I plan on representing the NBA well.
You were a 6-foot-9 scoring and rebounding machine. You were the first player in League history to score over 20,000 points and you won two scoring titles. How would you describe your game?
My game was primarily a power forward. My game was playing hard, rebounding and having my teammates set me up for a jump shot. I got the ball, would take two or three dribbles, drive to the basket and make a layup or get fouled. I had a very good jump shot. I could hit it from the top of the circle. We didn’t have a 3-point line, so I didn’t shoot threes, but I could shoot within 15-18 feet of the basket with pretty good accuracy.
You led the League in rebounding in 1956. What was the key to you owning the boards?
The thing I’m most proud of is my rebounding. As far as I know, I averaged over 16 rebounds per game over 11 years. Whenever my teammates shot the ball, I didn’t watch the ball, I watched the guy playing me. I focused on the guy playing defense on me who was trying to block me off the boards. I fought and got around him and then got in position so the ball would bounce in the area I was fighting to get to. Basically, my game was pushing and shoving under the backboard to get rebounds.
The other thing I did, I played as hard as I could play every minute I was in the game. I never took time off. I never relaxed or said I’m not going to go get the ball this time. I didn’t do that. I went after every offensive rebound. Every time my teammate shot, I went after the ball. Not once, not twice, every time. In the long run, that really paid off for me.
Who was the toughest person you ever played against?
Well of course, Bill Russell was the greatest defensive player but he didn’t play me. He had Tom Sanders on his team, who was a very good defensive player. Early in my career, there was a player named Mel Hutchins who did an excellent job of playing against me. So, those were two of the really good defensive players. Overall, best defender who you had to be aware of where he was at all times was Bill Russell because if you didn’t, he’d block your shot down your throat.
The NBA is widely successful. Who do you think had the biggest influence in the popularity of the League?
David Stern was the driving force to the success of the NBA. If you ask me to pick one person who had the greatest influence on the growth and development of the NBA, I’d say he was the person. The things he brought into the League and pushed for — and his ideas — turned out to be very good additions.
Who are the best players you have ever seen?
I never played against LeBron James or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and guys like that, but they would definitely be in my top group. I’d also have to say Oscar Robertson, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell are some of the players I would pick.
What advice do you have for young players coming up?
I would tell them to work on their mental attitude to the game. I don’t think they can spend too much time in the gym. I don’t think they can spend too much time practicing. Be sure to develop good shooting form. Big men have to develop their rebuilding and to me, a lot of it is mental. How bad do you want it and how hard are you willing to work to get it? If you’re only willing to work hard enough to get by, you’ll never be a great player. The great players can’t spend enough time in the gym practicing. If you’re skinny like I was, you have to use weights and get some muscle.