Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bob Pettit were the league's first three great big men. They pioneered the game into the freakishly athletic, overly paid, and now delightfully fan-friendly enterprise that we have today. But only two of those names often get referenced, while one fell out of the grasp of fans' minds for decades. The reasons are obvious and yet unjustifiable.
A forgotten great big men
Big Blue Bob Pettit is not the only NBA player from a "pre-historic" time to be forgotten. Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, George Mikan, Dolph Schayes, Bill Sharman, Hal Greer, Paul Arizin, Tom Heinsohn, Bailey Howell, Jack Twyman are others, just to name a few. But Pettit truly stands at the top of that legendary mountain as the greatest.
But would you not say Petit's resume entitles him to a bit of memory space? First MVP of the league, 4 All-Star MVPs and an NBA champion. He's eighth all-time in career points per game and was an 11 time All-NBA star. But what sticks out to his fans the most was his playing style, typically a hard thing to translate through generations with little to no video footage. But please let me inform you.
The man was a straight dog who not only thrived but bulldozed his way through the NBA's most physical era. Petit was relentless at attacking the rim, forcing himself to the charity stripe as great as anyone ever. Even when that was not always the most rewarding challenge, he averaged 11.7 free-throw attempts during his prime ('57 to '63), along with 28 points and 16 rebounds. That's a six-year stat line of a guy that barrels his way to the ring like Westbrook and rebounds like Rodman, which is just how his contemporaries described him. Minus the athleticism of course. I'm not entirely biased.
Pettit was one of the best in the NBA in his era
But because Pettit, like many of the past players listed above, looked like groundskeepers on their days off - fans take one look and instantly play the card, "he just played against teachers and plumbers". This is where the distinction between greater and better becomes wider. Could Petit go toe-to-toe with Anthony Davis? Hell no. What about Domantis Sabonis? Probably not.
Physically he would not hold his ground. But offensively, he would by no means be some scrub. Bob had a mid-range game that would translate to the modern NBA seamlessly. And being the only man other than Wilt The Stilt to topple Russell's Celtics - that matters.
But when traveling through time, something has to stick. West had the logo; Oscar had triple-doubles; Russell had the 11 rings. Pettit never had that 'thing'. His Cleo Hill accent wasn't favoring him with the black players from that era either. He battled Russell in four separate NBA Finals but was only mentioned by him once in Second Wind, a personal set of memoirs written by Russell. Pettit just received a little dig for apparently traveling a lot and getting away with it. That was it. Russell had fought Pettit in a double-OT Game 7 and was spoken about like a hotel clerk.
Petitt had a 3-year peak of 28-18-3, and according to Basketball Refence, his greatest comparisons were Charles Barkley, Larry Bird, and Tim Duncan. But they survived the dawn of time just fine. Three runner-ups, two MVP's, third in career rebounds per game, the first member of the 20K-10K club, and fans still think the history of the league started with Russell? Only the real ones will know.