Artis Gilmore — Hall of Famer

ARtis Gilmore, photo: Knetucky Athletic Hall of Fame

Thanks to Billy Reed for these great memories of Artis Gilmore and the Kentucky Colonels. Gilmore was inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame this week, along with Rex Chapman, Bunny Daugherty, Ed Kallay, Jerry May, Phil Roof and George Tinsley. Special thanks to Catholic Sports Net.

by Billy Reed

LOUISVILLE – At a Kentucky Colonels reunion before Artis Gilmore’s induction into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, the biggest man in the room sat quietly in a corner, listening and laughing as old friends and former teammates told stories, some of which may have even been truthful, about the late, great American Basketball Association.

It has never been Gilmore’s way to dominate anywhere except on a basketball floor. He was never as, ah, socially active as Wilt Chamberlain…never as politically active as Bill Walton…never a self-promoter like Shaquille O’Neal. If anything, his quiet, almost regal demeanor, was more like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, against whom he had many epic battles after he joined the NBA in 1977.

Impossible as it might seem to overlook a man officially listed as 7-feet-2 –and who seemed even taller because of the huge Afro he wore during his heyday – Gilmore has never gotten the recognition he earned during a remarkable career with Jacksonville University, the Colonels, and several NBA teams, most notably the Chicago Bulls.

Only this year was he elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. His fans believe it should have happened 10 or 15 years ago, given his records and stats. The honor from the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame came years after his most celebrated Colonels’ teammates, Dan Issel and Louie Dampier, were inducted.

Asked about it the night of the Colonels’ reunion, Gilmore took the high road, of course, and said that the honors have come when they were supposed to. He was gracious and grateful instead of angry and bitter.

“Yeah, Artis,” piped up Dampier, the shooting guard for the University of Kentucky’s famed “Rupp’s Runts” team of 1966 before becoming the Colonels’ foundation signee, “maybe it would have happened sooner if you had gone to college in Kentucky.”

“Louie,” said Gilmore, smiling and pointing a longer finger at Dampier, “I like you too much to respond to that so we’re going to leave it right there.”

At 61, Artis has lost the Afro and gained some pounds. When you say he fills up a room, it is more than a cliché. But he has aged gracefully and happily. After his pro career ended in 1988, Gilmore went into business for a few years. He now works as a special assistant to the president at his alma mater.

When O’Neal announced his retirement in June, it immediately touched off a debate about where he ranked on the list of all-time-great centers. He was compared frequently with Chamberlain, Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Walton. Typically, however, Gilmore was on the fringe of the conversation despite the fact that his roots in the Deep South were closer to O’Neal’s than any of the others.

Born in the rural town of Chipley, Fla., Gilmore was raised there and in Dothan, Ala., a larger town to the north. For many of his formative years, Gilmore and his eight siblings lived in a three-room house. He has vivid memories of picking cotton and doing other hard farm labor as a youngster.

After graduating from Dothan’s Carver High in 1967, he played college ball for two years at Gardner-Webb, then a junior college, before transferring to Jacksonville, where he joined another 7-footer, Pembroke Burroughs, on a team coached by Joe Williams, whose trademark was the white suits he wore on the sidelines.

In 1970, at the end of Gilmore’s junior season, he and Issel crossed paths in the finals of the NCAA Mideast Regional in Columbus, Ohio. It was the first season after Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) had ended his run of three consecutive national titles at UCLA, and it was widely assumed that the Jacksonville-Kentucky winner would be the next NCAA champion.

The game was a classic until Issel fouled out on a controversial backcourt collision with Jacksonville’s Vaughn Wedeking. That opened the way for a 106-100 Jacksonville victory that put Gilmore’s team in the NCAA Final Four against Villanova and its star, Howard Porter.

After dispatching the team from Philadelphia, the Jaguars went for the championship against a UCLA team that had Steve Patterson at center instead of Jabbar. Nevertheless, thanks in large measure to bookend forwards Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, the Bruins upset Jacksonville, 80-69, in the Houston Astrodome to give Coach John Wooden his fourth consecutive title and sixth in seven years.

A year later, Gilmore’s senior team was eliminated by Western Kentucky in the NCAA’s opening round. Nevertheless, Gilmore was the No. 1 draft pick in both the NBA and ABA. Many were surprised when he rejected the Bulls to accept the Kentucky Colonels’ offer of $1.5 million spread over 10 years. More than anyone except maybe Rick Barry, he gave the upstart league the credibility it needed to land future superstars such as Julius Erving, and Moses Malone.

His first season (1971-’72), he teamed with Issel and Dampier to take the Colonels to the ABA finals, where they were defeated by Utah. Nevertheless, Artis was named both Rookie of the Year and MVP. During his ABA career, Gilmore set league records for career field-goal percentage (.557), blocked shots (750), blocked shots in a season (287 in 1973-’74), and rebounds in a game (40).

The only championship of his college or pro career came in 1975, when the Colonels defeated the Indiana Pacers in the ABA finals. After the final game, Colonels’ owner John Y. Brown Jr. offered to put up $1 million (big money in those days) if the NBA champion Golden State Warriors would agree to play the Colonels in a best-of-three series to decide the overall champion.

But the Warriors declined, quite possibly because they had nobody who could match up against Gilmore. Brown’s response was to put “World Champions” on the Colonels’ rings.  Alas for Brown, he made the mistake of trading Issel to Denver and the Colonels were unable to repeat in 1976, the last year of the ABA, even though Gilmore had another dominating season.

When Brown decided to fold his franchise instead of joining the merger that brought Indiana, the New York Nets, San Antonio and Denver into the NBA, his players were put into the ABA dispersal draft. To the surprise of nobody, the Bulls made Gilmore the No. 1 pick and paid Brown $1.1 million to finally get the star they had drafted five years earlier.

From 1977 through 1982, Gilmore was the Bulls’ main attraction. He led the NBA in field-goal percentage for four consecutive years, including a career-best .670 in 1980-’81, the third best in league history. Unfortunately for Gilmore and Bulls fans, he was traded to San Antonio in 1983, a year before Michael Jordan arrived from North Carolina to take the franchise to unprecedented heights.

After playing with the Spurs for four seasons, Gilmore rejoined the Bulls for part of the 1988 season before finishing his NBA career with the Boston Celtics. He’s still the NBA career leading in field-goal percentage (minimum of 2,000 shots made) at 59.9 per cent.

Maybe the fact that Gilmore never played on an NCAA or NBA championship team is one of the reasons he’s overlooked. Or maybe it’s because he played with an economy of motion that sometimes made it seem that he wasn’t playing as hard as, say, a Dave Cowens or a Walton. But that’s baloney. A man doesn’t play in 670 consecutive pro games, as Gilmore once did, unless he has a work ethic that’s off the charts.

Where does Gilmore rank on the all-time list?

Well, although he didn’t win an NCAA title at Jacksonville, he took his team to a championship game and became one of only five players to average 20 points and 20 rebounds for his career. And although he didn’t win a championship in the NBA, he played on an ABA championship team that arguably was the best pro team in the nation that season.

He was a force who always gave contemporaries Jabbar and Walton all they could handle. Other than his championship season with the Colonels, he never was surrounded by the kind of talent that surrounded Russell during his never-to-be-repeated run with the Celtics. His numbers argue that he deserves to be ranked with Shaq, if not above him.

But Gilmore lets others worry about that sort of stuff. He’s at peace with himself and his place in basketball history. He didn’t need that to be certified by the Kentucky and Naismith Halls of Fame, but he’s appreciative that his accomplishments finally are getting recognized. As Gilmore said upon his first Hall-of-Fame induction in Louisville, “This is a special summer for me.”