ENGSTER: Bob Pettit was LSU’s greatest basketball player

By JIM ENGSTER
Tiger Rag President

The unveiling of a hulking bronze statue of Bob Pettit at the back of the PMAC is at least 40 years overdue. While Pete Maravich is the greatest showman and leading scorer in college basketball history and Shaquille O’Neal is the best known Ole War Skule graduate residing on the planet, Pettit is possibly the best player LSU has produced in the sport.

Like Pete and Shaq, Pettit was listed as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history when the honor roll was compiled in 1997. Unlike his gifted LSU brothers from later generations, Pettit is only man to lead LSU to an SEC championship, the Final Four and win an NBA title while earning the league MVP award.

Pettit led the NBA in scoring in 1956 and 1959 and captured MVP honors both years. He was also a four-time NBA All-Star MVP and was first-team All-NBA in ten of his 12 years as a pro. O’Neal was NBA MVP in 2000 and led the league in scoring in 1995 and in 2000 and was an eight-time All-NBA first-team selection. Maravich was a two-time All-NBA first-team choice and was the league scoring champ in 1977.

Pettit’s college and professional statistics measure well against those of Maravich and O’Neal. Just take a look.

[table]
Player, Years at LSU, Scoring Avg., Rebounding Avg., SEC Titles
Bob Pettit, 1951-1954, 27.4, 14.6, 2
Pete Maravich, 1967-1970, 44.2, 6.5, 0
Shaquille O’Neal, 1989-1992, 21.6, 13.5, 1 [/table]

[table]
NBA Records, Years, Scoring Avg., Rebounding Avg., NBA Titles
Bob Pettit, 1954-1965, 26.4, 16.2, 1
Pete Maravich, 1970-1980, 24.2, 4.2, 0
Shaquille O’Neal, 1992-2011, 23.7, 10.9, 4

[/table]

Pettit was the leading scorer in NBA history when he retired in 1965. The 6-foot-9 forward ranks third all-time in rebounding average per game behind the two most prominent players of his generation – Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

There is no LSU student under the age of 80 who saw Pettit rule the Cow Palace in his day. So it is remarkable that the 83-year-old legend has been saluted by his alma mater 62 years after scoring his last basket as a Tiger.

Pettit remains smart and quick with a quip when he is interviewed or mingles with strangers. He demonstrated amazing recall of his career in an appearance last fall before an LSU football game at the Andonie Museum. It is significant that Pettit exhibits no signs of dementia while many of his much younger football cohorts at LSU show the effects of repeated head trauma when they speak today.

Like other athletes at LSU from his generation, Pettit benefited enormously from the weight training provided by Alvin Roy. Pettit was crafted into a physical specimen who could hold his own against Chamberlain and Russell and an array of other talented big men in the NBA. This was an accomplishment not thought possible when the gangly kid enrolled at LSU without much fanfare when he was a 17-year-old senior at Baton Rouge High School.

Remembering a gifted rogue

When Ken Stabler died at 69 last July 8, it is now known that “The Snake” was suffering from high Stage 3 chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in his brain. Years of savage hits in college at Alabama and in the NFL with the Raiders, Oilers and Saints took their toll on the charismatic quarterback.

One memorable head shot occurred in the last Saints preseason game of 1984. Washington Redskins’ linebacker Monte Coleman leveled Stabler by slamming his head to the hard carpet at the Superdome. Stabler was never the same and retired at the close of the season.

When he arrived in New Orleans in 1982 at age 36, Stabler’s knees were shot and his long mane and beard were graying noticeably. When he removed his pads and jersey, Kenny’s upper body was impressive. Despite a well-publicized penchant for raucous partying and pursuit of female companionship. Stabler was a competitive soul who stayed in shape as best he could and lasted in the NFL until he was 38.

Stabler was inducted in Pro Football Hall of Fame just over six months after his death. The southpaw was one of four stellar quarterbacks produced by the SEC in the decade from 1962 to 1972. The others were Joe Namath, Archie Manning and Bert Jones.

Namath preceded Stabler at Alabama. Manning at Ole Miss and Jones at LSU came next. With today’s game designed to produce robust passing numbers, it is amazing how pedestrian the statistics look for the four top SEC quarterbacks of their era.

It is notable that both Namath and Stabler were skilled runners before blowing out their knees playing for Bear Bryant. Here is a recap of the stats of “Broadway Joe,” “The Snake,” Archie Who?” and “The Ruston Rifle” in their celebrated college careers.

[table]Quarterback, School, Years, Pass Yds., Rushing Yds., Tot. TDs, INT
Joe Namath, Alabama, 1962-64, 2713, 563, 39, 20
Ken Stabler, Alabama, 1965-67, 2196, 838, 27, 18
Archie Manning, Ole Miss, 1968-70, 4723 823, 65, 40
Bert Jones, LSU, 1970-72, 3390, (-88), 37, 17[/table]

College quarterbacks have yards from sacks discounted from their rushing totals. Bert Jones, who became an exceptional runner in the professional ranks, had negative yardage on the ground as a collegian. Stabler, who was not mobile as an NFL passing great, actually had more yards rushing in college than did Manning, who was an exceptional runner at Ole Miss and with the Saints.

Coach Bum Phillips was blasted when he acquired Stabler as Manning’s replacement with the Saints. Stabler was past his prime but directed New Orleans to an 8-8 record in 1983, equaling the best season in franchise history. His thanks was for Phillips to bring in Richard Todd as Stabler’s replacement in 1984.

Namath, Stabler, Manning and Jones are remembered reverently by fans in the cities where they performed professionally. Only Stabler had a winning record as a starter.

[table]Quarterback, Years as Pro, Record as a starter, PCT.
Ken Stabler, 1970-1984, 96-49-1, 66.2
Joe Namath, 1965-1977, 62-63-4, 49.6
Bert Jones, 1973-1982, 47-49-0, 49.0
Archie Manning, 1971-1983, 35-101-3, 25.7[/table]

Namath and Stabler won Super Bowls and are Hall of Famers. Jones and Manning played for some of the worst teams in NFL history with Baltimore and New Orleans.

Namath won a national championship he did not deserve in 1964 as Alabama went 10-1 and lost to Texas in the Orange Bowl. Texas had lost the SWC Championship in a defeat to Arkansas, which went 11-0 and was ranked second. The Razorbacks were deprived of a deserved crown in ’64.

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