Bob Pettit: ‘I enjoyed my life after basketball. Not a lot of players can say that’

St. Louis Hawks legend Bob Pettit, who was the NBA’s first-ever Most Valuable Player, was recently named to the NBA’s 75th Anniversary Team.

Pettit, a 6-foot-9 forward originally from Louisiana, was the first player in league history to ever score 20,000 points. He was also the only superstar to defeat Bill Russell in the NBA Finals, scoring 50 points in the closeout game to win the championship back in 1958.

The Hall of Famer, who ranked No. 31 overall on the HoopsHype list of the 75 greatest NBA players ever, caught up with us to share some of his immense knowledge about the game.

Please note this interview was minorly edited in its transcript for clarity.

What is your role as an ambassador for the 75th anniversary of the NBA?

Bob Pettit: I was very excited to be asked to be one of the five ambassadors. My interview with you today is the first part of my role as an ambassador. I think a lot of things will develop as we get closer to All-Star Weekend in Cleveland in February 2022. The five of us represent different eras. You can guess what era I represent. [Laughs] I go back about as far as anyone because I came into the league in 1954 and I played until 1965. I’m the oldest of the ambassadors and I’m someone who represents the era of the early years of the NBA. I’m really looking forward to it. If anyone has any questions about the era I played in, I’ll do my best to answer them.

You made the 25th and 50th-anniversary list. How has the game changed since then?

BP: I retired in 1965. The game has made tremendous strides since those days. I really enjoyed the basketball that I played back in that era. We only had eight teams and I had the pleasure of playing against a lot of guys like Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain 10, 12 or 15 times a year. That was always exciting. But the game has made so many great strides on and off the court.

The addition of the three-point shot has made such a huge difference to the game of basketball. If you watch the game today, so many of these players are hanging around the three-point line and not looking to drive or anything. They just want to get the three. It’s just amazing how accurate they are. I went to LSU’s practice earlier this week and I watched these kids shooting and they were hitting 9-10 in a row. The game is still tough today but it was a lot more physical fighting in my day. There were way more fists being thrown in those days. The game has cleaned its act up a bit.

But basketball now is amazing. You have to talk about just the number of talented players that are playing today. Almost any game, you’ll see just tremendous basketball. It’s expanded. It’s worldwide. I’ll get cards to sign from kids in Germany, France, Japan, Taiwan, China. They’re very tuned into the NBA today. There’s so much fan support, there’s so much media support, it’s become a huge game. It was a wonderful game when I first came into it but it’s just exploded in what’s happening with fan interest. Great things are happening with the NBA. I’m excited. I love watching the games.

Who are some modern players where in your era, no one would have believed they could have existed?

BP: My favorite player to watch is Kevin Durant. I consider myself a forward. He’s such an incredible player but I watch him because that’s the position that I played when I was playing basketball. I would not have wanted to have played against him, I know that. I think he would be as effective then as he is now. When the game gets on the line, he’s looking to take the shot. In any era, Kevin would have become an outstanding and wonderful player. But you’ve got all kinds of great players that just leave you in awe and you keep your mouth open when you’re watching them. It feels like every team has two, three or four great players on it who you can enjoy watching any night you watch them play.

Who are some of the players from your era who you think would do the best today?

Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY Sports

BP: I played against some of the greatest players to ever play the game. When you start picking centers, it’s hard to beat Wilt and Bill Russell. In my opinion, Russell is the greatest player who ever played. I’d pick him to start my team, in his prime, any time. Then the Lakers had both Elgin Baylor and Jerry West. They were such wonderful players. You have to include Oscar Robertson, too. He’s one of the greatest all-around players to ever play. These guys can play any time, anywhere and be extremely successful. You can build a team around any of them today.

Who was the most underrated player from your era that people forget about?

BP: I think the most underrated player who ever played in my era was Elgin Baylor. People seem to forget how great of a player he was. He was absolutely incredible. He was the first forward that I ever saw who could come down and bring the ball up the court on the press. He was a really good ball-handler, outside shooter, rebounder and he averaged 34 points per game three times. He’s the most underrated player of my era that I ever saw.

Do you think you would have become a three-point shooter in the modern NBA?

Darryl Norenberg-USA TODAY Sports Network

BP: Absolutely. If I played today, absolutely. If I played today, there are two things I would do. I would have a three-point shot. I sometimes shot my jump shot pretty far out but we didn’t have a line to measure. So, yes, I would have a three-point shot. I would be a much better ball handler, too. I’d be able to set myself up. It’s a prerequisite to be able to play the game today. You have to be able to handle the ball so you can set yourself up for easy shots. Those are the two things that I’d work on.

But I’d also love to be able to be a little bit stronger than I was. I played at about 245 pounds. I bet I would have been a more physical player, though. I would have maybe tried to get 260 pounds or 265 pounds. I would’ve wanted those extra pounds of muscle if I could, so I could have been stronger around the basket. Most of my game was off the boards. I was good at offensive and defensive rebounding. So I would have needed to be stronger.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to a modern basketball player?

BP: I would tell any young player: there are certain fundamental things that everybody can do. I wouldn’t really concentrate on the fundamental stuff. I would concentrate on the most important part of the game, which is the mental part of the game. You have to analyze yourself as a player and what you need to do to improve and concentrate as hard as you can on every play. Never give up.

Working hard on the mental approach to basketball is the most important thing I would want to pass on to them. I concentrated on playing as hard as I could every play. I went through to try to grab the boards every single time my teammates shot the ball. I want to get as many offensive rebounds as possible and put it back in. Did I get it every time? Absolutely not. But if I could get two or three a game, I might add four to six points in a game. That’s how I produced when I played and it would be very important in the final outcome.

You’ve had a long life after basketball. What advice would you give to someone in retirement?

BP: I only played 11 years. I only played 11 years because I had an opportunity at the end of my 11th year for a wonderful job with a bank in Baton Rouge. The chairman of the board brought me in two years in advance. He told me he wanted me for this job. He said I could play two more years of basketball. I immediately said I would do it. I called Ben Kerner, who owned the St. Louis Hawks, and I said: ‘Ben, I’m playing two more years. Then I’m getting out.’ But I only got out because I had an opportunity. All of us realized, in those days, we had to have a job after basketball. I had one I wanted and I grabbed it and I retired.

It’s very difficult for me to give advice for something to do after basketball. But you have to really keep trying to do something that you enjoy. I found something that I enjoyed as much as playing basketball. I enjoyed my life after basketball. Not a lot of players can say that. Retired players can keep striving to find something they enjoy doing and save their money, that’s the main thing. You read about so many players who have lost lots of their money. I don’t think they need a get-rich-quick scheme. Save as much money as possible. Save your money. Find a job that you enjoy doing. If you save your money, you may not even have to work again. They can live off the previous income.

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