In our continuing conversations here at Crossover Chronicles, we’re examining the best NBA players of all time by position. Some of our staff writers conducted a conversation about power forwards, and naturally, Tim Duncan is the first player who comes to mind. He’s closely followed by the likes of Karl Malone, Dirk Nowitzki, Kevin Garnett, and others over the past few decades.
Anyone who has followed the NBA over the past 20 years has seen many of the best power forwards who have ever lived. A 40- or even 30-year-old NBA diehard is intimately familiar with the achievements and skills of the league’s foremost “fours.”
Naturally, it’s not as immediately easy to identify and locate the players of the distant past in these conversations. The era is so removed from the present, but it’s also more precisely removed from what we’ve known the NBA to be: a far more physical game than it once was, with the three-point line and different ways of using a full roster in a short playoff series (among many other points of separation).
It is understandable, even reasonable, to say that the inclusion of an early-era NBA player on an all-time list is merely a concession to history instead of a real-world acknowledgment of skill. Today’s players are so muscular and imposing (while also cultivating some rather remarkable capacities on a court) that it’s easy to reflexively say, “Well, those guys from the old days wouldn’t have lasted.”
I get that line of thought, but greatness is greatness — it adapts to a moment, to an era, to a situation. It honors the best players of a bygone time to recognize them as competitors, people who would have found a way to thrive in the present day. This is part of recognizing any sport’s (or any profession’s) heritage, but it’s more than that: Appreciating the old-timers conveys a particular respect for craftsmanship in any time or place.
This is opinion and not handed-down fact, but the verdict here is that it’s better to say that Rod Laver would have found a way to play great tennis in any era than to claim he would have been lost in today’s version of men’s tennis.
It’s better to say that Johnny Unitas would have processed advanced defenses and compensated for his lack of speed, rather than to claim that the modern version of NFL football would have been too fast for him, especially his legs.
In the NBA, it’s better to acknowledge Bob Pettit for what he accomplished, rather than to bring up the entirely accurate but constraining talking point that it was far easier to win NBA championships back then.
Take a little time to appreciate the old-time power forward who made my list as one of the top five “fours” in NBA history. You’ll find a wealth of fascinating numbers, sights and sounds when you dig into the 1958 NBA Finals.
First, let’s give you a mini-library.
Here’s a brief action clip from the series:
Here’s audio of an interview of Bob Pettit by legendary St. Louis sportscaster Buddy Blattner, who lived a life fascinating and visible enough to earn a Wikipedia page. His call of Game 6 appears in a seven-installment series, this interview being the seventh and final part of the package:
Before celebrating Pettit, a general word about the series is merited.
Two years later, in 1960, the baseball version of the 1958 NBA Finals occurred.
In the 1960 World Series, the Pittsburgh Pirates were outscored by the New York Yankees, 55-27. In seven games, that’s a remarkably large margin, an average of exactly four runs per game. Yet, the Yankees bunched up their runs in blowout victories, while the Pirates won all four of the close games in the series. New York took three games by scores of 16-3, 10-0, and 12-0. Pittsburgh won four games by scores of 6-4, 3-2, 5-2, and 10-9.
Winning four games by a little beats winning three games by a bajillion kazillion. The Yankees left no doubt that they were the more powerful and explosive team. The Pirates left the ballyard after Game 7 with the World Series trophy.
Sports, folks. Sports can be like that.
The 1958 NBA Finals were little different.
The Boston Celtics routed the St. Louis Hawks in two separate victories during those Finals, capturing Game 2 by 24 points at home and Game 4 by a comfortable 11 in St. Louis. The Hawks never attained a comfort zone in the series. They never coasted to a single win — they weren’t complete enough to do that. Boston, as the series’ composite box score shows, had the more balanced and productive starting five — no one in that quintet averaged under 14.5 points per game in the 1958 Finals.
It is true that the Hawks cobbled together enough gruntwork-level contributions — with guys such as Chuck Share and Ed Macauley averaging roughly 6 points and 6 rebounds — to stay close to the Celtics. However, who are we kidding? The Hawks would have been utterly outclassed without the two men who carried them throughout these six games against Boston: Cliff Hagan and Mr. Pettit himself.
When we think about the notion of greatness, our first inclination is to link it to the amazing things done by athletes in moments of triumph. However, greatness can also show itself when one realizes how remarkably well an opponent had to play in order to beat a transcendent athlete. Such was the case in the 1958 Finals, when it took something otherworldly from Pettit to barely eclipse Bill Russell and the rest of the Celtics, which included Bob Cousy and Tom Heinsohn under the watch of legendary coach Red Auerbach.
Here is the magical quality of the 1958 Finals — for Bob Pettit, the city of St. Louis, the Hawks franchise, and the sport of basketball itself: If Pettit had scored 40 points in Game 6 — 40, not 30 or even 25 — the Celtics would have returned home for Game 7 in Boston Garden, where the idea of losing would have been very remote.
Consider the more modern example of the Chicago Bulls, staring at the likely absence of Scottie Pippen in a Game 7 in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. If the Bulls hadn’t won Game 6, they would have been in massive trouble a couple nights later. It’s a testament to Michael Jordan’s magnificence that he pulled Chicago through that contest. Similarly, Pettit willed himself to be as spectacular as the Game 6 moment required him to be in the ’58 Finals.
Pettit scored 50 points in Game 6 to finish with a series scoring average of just over 29 per game. Hagan wasn’t remarkable in Game 6, scoring only 15, but for the full series, he was nearly Pettit’s equal, averaging 25 points and 10 rebounds. If Hagan hadn’t excelled in Games 1 through 5, Pettit’s half-a-hundred might have merely extended the series to a Game 7… if the Celtics hadn’t closed down the series in five games first.
The math was hard to comprehend but undeniable just the same: St. Louis — the same team that was blitzed in two losses by a combined margin of 35 points — won Game 6 by a 110-109 score. The Hawks, having won Games 1 and 5 by two points apiece in Boston, and having survived in Game 3 at home by three points, won their fourth game of the series by fewer than four points. Boston ended the series with a plus-27 point differential, but St. Louis ended the series with a plus-2 win differential, 4 to 2.
The rules of the game say that the Hawks won the world championship, the only one in franchise history. (The Atlanta Hawks have never even made an NBA Finals series, let alone won one.) The history of the NBA indicates that the Celtics — intent on making sure that 1958 would remain an aberrational event — toppled the Hawks in the 1960 and 1961 Finals, having also beaten St. Louis in the 1957 world championship series as well.
In 1958, though, the Yankees of basketball didn’t win. The Pirates of basketball prevailed, as St. Louis — known from coast to coast as a baseball city — tasted one of its extremely rare non-baseball professional sports championships.
Such a noticeably uncommon event required a brilliant performance from a star of stars. The fact that Bob Pettit answered the call of the Hawks — and not just in any situation, but against the Boston freakin’ Celtics in the NBA Finals — makes it so much easier to claim that Pettit really was one of the giants of professional basketball. Pettit’s winning performance in an enthralling NBA Finals series is enough to put his name on the list of the five best power forwards who have ever lived.