Bill Russell was a legend and his passing this year is a great loss for American basketball and world sport. In each of his public appearances, the most successful player in history was celebrated and praised. The city of Boston dedicated a statue to him, and any self-respecting fan has heard of the great stile’s dominance in the NBA in the 1950s and 60s: 11 league titles, staggering individual statistics and profound cultural impact.
Between 1957 and 1966, the Celtics won 9 titles including 8 in a row with the lone anomaly in 1958. One team, now forgotten, deflated the myth that year: the St. Louis Hawks. Since leaving for Atlanta, the Hawks have become the itch of a unique dynasty. A group that, more or less, may have carved out a large part of the collective memory.
Now deprived of basketball and forced to settle for the Blues in hockey and the Rams in football, St. Louis has been an NBA stronghold for … less than 10 years. The time for Bob Pettit90 years old this year, and his band to play in four Finals and win a title against the indomitable Celtics, before the Lakers of Jerry West and Elgin Baylor repeatedly faced the wall of Massachusetts.
The Hawks’ success is closely tied to Pettit, who is rarely spontaneously cited as one of the greatest players of all time. And yet…
Proof that Bill Russell is the ultimate winner, more than Jordan or LeBron
“Playing Bob Pettit is at least as hard as playing Wilt Chamberlain,” Bill Russell once told the Boston Globe.
Position 4 at 2m06, Pettit is an exceptional rebounder (16.2 career average) and a brilliant attacker who can drive any seasoned defender crazy. First MVP in history in 1956 and All-Star 11 times, the Louisiana native was a phenomenon in the same way as his rival from Boston. Few can boast of scoring 50 points against Russell in a Finals match. Pettit came through in the pivotal game 6 of 1958, traumatizing the “Father of Defense”, who was partially cut short by an ankle injury.
At the time, the local media was also happy to extol the merits of the “white” Pettit against the African-American Russell. They’re careful not to remind the public that they haven’t been fed a steady stream of this surprising anecdote: the Hawks drafted Bill Russell two years ago before giving up his rights to Boston against two players. Without the persistence of the great Red Auerbach, St Louis would have found themselves in the Celtics’ place and crushed the NBA thanks to this fearsome duo…
Racism plagues the Hawks
Living in Missouri in the 50s or 60s when you’re not Caucasian can be tough. Lenny Wilkensthe Hall of Famer, said in his biography:
“When I came to St. Louis in 1960, I realized that things were different here. Downtown, I was not served in restaurants. I received hateful letters and my neighbors did everything to avoid being recognized or look at me”.
Within the team, executives like Pettit are passive and do not, at first, do much to protect their fellow victims of ambient racism. The climate worsened a bit in 1962, when coach Paul Seymour was ordered to reduce the role of Cleo Hill, an African-American, whose talent threatened to surpass Pettit, Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette, the team’s three white stars. Seymour refused and was dismissed.
The unfortunate Hill, the victim of a league-wide smear campaign, will never step foot on a basketball court again. It was the beginning of the end for the Hawks in St. Louis. Symbolically, it was in 1968, the year of Martin Luther King’s assassination, that they moved to Atlanta, the pastor’s birthplace, to create a new identity.
Bob Pettit is very rare in the media today, more so in any case than other living league legends. In 2010, in an interview with NBA.com, he explained, however:
“I’m not unhappy that people don’t talk about us more. We’ve had some very good things and some less glorious things. I’m satisfied with my career. Who can say he was able to win a title? against the team of Bill Russell, the greatest player of all time?”