Part of the NBA’s 75th anniversary celebration includes a quintet of the greatest players in league history being named ambassadors. Clyde Drexler, Magic Johnson, Dirk Nowitzki, Bob Pettit, and Oscar Robertson will represent the NBA throughout the various festivities that happen this year, with the group coming together during All-Star Weekend in Cleveland next February.
Ahead of the start of the 2021-22 season on Tuesday evening, Dime sat down with Pettit to discuss the various things he’ll do in this role, the people who were instrumental in getting the league to this milestone, why he thinks Bill Russell is the greatest basketball player of all time, and more.
I’d love to start by just getting, you know, your broad general thoughts on the NBA reaching its 75th anniversary milestone.
Well, I’m very excited to be one of the five ambassadors that have been selected to be a part of this, representing the NBA. And it’s going to be an exciting time. I’m looking forward to it in February in Cleveland, there are five of us that are going to be doing this. And I know, some of the others, certainly know of all of them. And I know that starting Tuesday, they’ll start to unveil the 75 players, that should be an exciting announcement to make. I think a lot of people and players and things are watching to see who’s going to be included.
It’s a special time in the history of the NBA, it’s amazing. I came into the NBA in 1954, which was about eight years that the league was founded, is when I came in. And then today is going to be the 75th. So, I’ve chosen to live long enough to see that. I’ve been very fortunate with my health and what have you to be able to be around and be a part of this 75th. So I’m excited and looking forward to it.
And what is it about the NBA that you think has kept people captivated for 75 years?
Well, I think the NBA has done an excellent job of continuing to expand and grow, including other areas and other countries. I’ve said this before, I get a lot of letters from kids asking me to sign something. And quite a few of them are from Germany or France, I get some from Japan and Taiwan, and some from Korea, some from China. The NBA has done a great job of marketing itself. They’ve continued to expand and grow and, and have done a lot in communities. We never did that when I was playing. So, the growth of the NBA has been fueled, I think, by the management and the way that they have continued to include new groups of fans, and new ways of looking at the game and watching it, being a part of it. I think the NBA has done an excellent job as far as continuing to grow, and continuing to expand, and finding ways to keep people interested.
Yeah, and I’ve always believed, at the end of the day, if you just show someone the highest quality of basketball, it’s going to be very hard for them to not love it.
Yes, and the thing of it is, today, there’s so many teams and so many great players, I mean, wonderful players, that each team has them, and any game you go and watch, you’re going to see outstanding players and a great game of basketball. There’s not any teams that you wouldn’t want to see.
And you mentioned it a little bit, but what will you be doing in your role as an ambassador?
Today is my first day meeting with the media about the games, but my role is going to continue to expand, I think, and as we go into this, I feel like I’m feeling my way along, and want to continue to grow and improve and be real be a real part of the 75th anniversary. And so, my role will be to represent the NBA in certain things like with the media, and on television, and what have you as we get closer to the 75th anniversary. I’m one of five, the others are Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, Clyde Drexler, and Dirk Nowitzki. I haven’t met with them yet, but I think as we go closer, that will happen, and we’ll have an opportunity to discuss and develop and expand our role, and I’m certainly willing to do that. I’m excited to be a part of it. I’ve been involved in NBA for, I’m gonna say, 68 of the 75 years. So I’ve got a history with it.
And you mentioned those other ambassadors — I think if we put you Magic, Dirk, Clyde and Oscar out there, I don’t know if there are many starting fives in history that can match it up with y’all.
That be that would be a pretty good starting five. I’d have to get my crutch out [laughs]. My tiptoes is about as high as I can jump, on my tiptoes. But yes, if you’ve got them in their prime, that would be a really nice team, I’d think.
When you look back on 75 years of the NBA, who were the people who were the most important and the most prominent, in your eyes, in turning into what it is today and why?
Obviously, I think the main thing to make it what it is was David Stern, who was commissioner for I don’t know how many years, but he watched the NBA come from its infancy and take it to where it continues to grow and develop today. So, I think he would be the most influential person in the history in the growth of the NBA.
You could go back and you start naming names, and you could come out with, I mean, I can’t tell you the number of names and some of the pioneers and owners. I played for a man named Ben Kerner. That was his whole life, was basketball, the Milwaukee Hawks and the St. Louis Hawks. He had nothing, no other interest. And, you know, you had Les Harrison in Rochester, and you had Eddie Gottlieb in Philadelphia, these guys, that was their whole existence. It’s different today. The company’s own, I guess, by corporations and very, very, very wealthy individuals. And it is expanded a role in that way.
Those those early pioneers — as I said, the Eddie Gottliebs and Les Harrisons and Ben Kerners — are very important to keeping the league going in the very difficult days. I mean, in our team in St. Louis, we’d be down to eight players during the season. Why? Because two players, he could get rid of, he didn’t have to pay the salaries. And money was that tight for some of these owners, difficult. They were, I think, very instrumental in keeping the NBA going to work and it can expand.
So, I could keep naming names, but that would be two groups I’d mention, early owners and David Stern.
Are there any moments, whether they are on the court or off the court, that you think helped push basketball into the big cultural phenomenon that it is today?
Well, I’d have to think about that a while. I don’t know that I’d be able to sit down and come up with any one or two things. But I think maybe one of the things would be the three point shot, and a lot of people love it and watch it, and a lot of people don’t like it. But it’s been very instrumental in changing the game of basketball to where the fans can really get involved. And I guess that, to me, in my humble opinion, that would probably be as important as any others.
Who are the teams and who were the players that you enjoy watching the most right now?
I enjoy watching Kevin Durant. That would be the one person that I enjoy watching, because I fancied myself forward and I love to watch him move and shoot — he’s a great shooter. And I enjoy watching, in San Francisco, Steph Curry, I love watching him shoot when he shoots from way out. It doesn’t even look like he’s looking, and he turns and fires, and it’s more likely that not that it goes in.
I know that you were a guy who was able to shoot a jumper and play a little bit farther away from the hoop, and you are a bigger guy. Is that why you like watching a guy like Kevin Durant?
I like watching him play because he’s so good. And he plays forward, and I enjoy watching what he does, the way he plays. But yes, I was, I would think, one of the bigger guys that stepped away from the basket. In fact, when I first reported to the Hawks training camp, they were the Milwaukee Hawks, and our coach was Red Holzman. And Red took one look at me and he says, “You’re a forward, get outside,” and that was my instructions. And we had a center, Charlie Share, who was a big, strong guy, and he played, and I had to learn to play forward. I never played that ,had no instructions, no anything, just get out and play by trial and error and learn. So, I was fortunate enough to learn to hang on. But maybe that’s one of the reasons that I enjoy watching him play.
What are your thoughts on this upcoming season, whether it is related to the anniversary or just a general basketball watching thing? What are you excited about, what are you curious about?
Well living in New Orleans, I’m a Pelicans fan, and I have season tickets, so I go down and watch them play when I can. I don’t see every game, but I try to. But I watch the Pelicans and pull for them, and hopefully they continue to grow, to continue to improve, they’ve got two great players and they need to find another one or two somewhere.
It continues to be enjoyable. You’re watching some of the players that were the great players in the past, and starting maybe to lose a few of their skills. And there’s a number of young ones coming on. The problem I have, in my day, you played if you could walk. I broke my arm in one game, and three nights later, I’m playing with a broken arm. We didn’t have anybody else, so I’d go in for brief times on jump balls or what have you. And then eventually, when the pain went out of my left arm where I broke it, then I was able to play with a cast on it very effectively. It didn’t bother me.
Today, I see these players, so many of them got a month off because they have a sprained ankle. I played the next night with a sprained ankle so bad I couldn’t walk on it. It’s different in that way, I think, we had no way to set out a game or two unless you had a serious injury. But they live with that, it’s part of the game today. And I think some of that is they don’t want to ever be thought pushing an injured player into playing.
That’s one my things about the game today, but the game today, other than that one little little area, is exciting. I enjoy watching it. I think the NBA is doing a great job, they built the league to where it’s expanded worldwide now. It doesn’t have teams yet in London or Paris or wherever, but they got fans there. And I’m sure that’s going to be in the future somewhere. So, this is an exciting time for basketball.
I need to ask, what are your thoughts on getting to watch Zion Williamson every night?
I love to watch him. You know, he’s a 6’6 point guard so many times. He’s out front handling the ball. He’s a wonderful player to watch and I thoroughly enjoy it. He’s got a future ahead of him that’s very, very bright. There’s no telling how good a player he can be.
And my last question, I’m not going to ask you, “who do you think the greatest basketball player of all time is,” because everyone…
Bill Russell. I’m gonna answer that. I think Bill Russell is the greatest player that ever played.
Well, then let me ask you this. As someone who has seen so much basketball over the years, what qualities or attributes or accomplishments define the term “greatest” to the point that you can name Bill Russell is the greatest?
People say the name of the game is to win. You go out there to win. When you compete, you want to win, and he was the greatest winner that ever played. He won 11 championships in Boston, and without him, they were very good. They were good team. But they weren’t a championship team until Bill Russell joined them. His defense was incredible. Shot blocking, he played hard every minute that he played that I saw, and he was a team player. He didn’t worry about how many points he scored, he wanted to win and he wanted to rebound and block shots. And it was sensational.