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Monday, August 10, 2009

Artis Gilmore: When Will the A-Train Arrive at the Hall of Fame?

A slightly different version of this article was originally published in the December 9, 2005 issue of Sports Collectors Digest.

Gilmore Puts Jacksonville on the Basketball Map

Artis Gilmore played two years at Gardner-Webb Junior College before bursting into national prominence by leading Jacksonville to the 1970 NCAA Championship game against the UCLA Bruins. Despite 19 points and 16 rebounds from Gilmore, UCLA won 80-69, their fourth title in the midst of a record run of seven consecutive championships. Gilmore remembers thinking that the Dolphins had a good chance to dethrone the Bruins: "Early on we played very well in the tournament and then we came up against UCLA in the championship game. We were pretty hyped up and at that time I think that we were given a pretty even chance to beat UCLA because we had proven all along that we were very competitive and not just some fluke team. But, of course, we didn’t have quite the experience that UCLA had."

In 1971 Jacksonville finished the regular season 22-3 but lost to Western Kentucky on a last second shot in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Gilmore averaged 24.3 ppg and 22.7 rpg at Jacksonville, leading the NCAA in rebounding in 1970 and 1971, setting an all-time Division I career rebounding average record that still stands today. He is one of only five players to average 20-plus ppg and 20-plus rpg in a Division I career.

Gilmore fondly recalls his days at Jacksonville: "We had such an outstanding season my first year and it was almost like we kind of floated through everything. I remember we received some national recognition. Then we played Florida State, which had Dave Cowens, and we didn't do so well (in that game). Later on we had a trip to Hawaii—that is a special memory, even though we didn’t play as well there as we had earlier in the season. Overall we did pretty well."

Instant Impact in the ABA

Gilmore never hit the "rookie wall" of mental/physical fatigue that slows down so many first year players who are not accustomed to the rigors of professional basketball. He won Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1971-72 for the Kentucky Colonels while helping the team jump from 44-40 to 68-16, the best regular season record in ABA history. Gilmore led the ABA in rebounding (17.8 rpg), field goal percentage (.598), minutes played (3666; 43.6 mpg) and blocked shots (422; 5.0 bpg). He maintained this high level of production in the playoffs, but Rick Barry and the New York Nets upset the Colonels in six games.

After Gilmore’s rookie season he played in the second annual NBA-ABA All-Star Game. Gilmore took a break from a European vacation to participate: "That particular game I remember playing against Wilt Chamberlain and I was pretty excited about that because I've always considered him an idol in a sense. An opportunity to compete against him was certainly a unique and extraordinary experience for me. I had left the country and I came back briefly to play in the All-Star Game before returning to another location in Europe during that time frame."

Playing against Chamberlain is something that Gilmore will never forget: "He was apparently prepared for me more so than I was for him. I remember that I took one shot and he blocked it. Beyond that, the strength—obviously, he was very dominant in strength and it was a long time before my body started developing to the point that I could say that I was as strong as many or most. It was quite a while before my body developed to that point." Gilmore adds, "If you could say that I patterned myself after anyone in particular, I do remember the excellence of Wilt Chamberlain as well as Bill Russell in terms of blocking shots."

The NBA won 106-104 after the ABA’s Rick Barry missed a desperation three pointer at the buzzer. Despite Gilmore's modest assessment of his results head to head versus Chamberlain, Gilmore scored 14 points, second on the ABA squad to guard Donnie Freeman.

In 1972-73 Gilmore ranked first in rebounding (17.6 rpg), field goal percentage (.559) and blocked shots (3.1 bpg). He led the Colonels to the ABA Finals, but Kentucky lost in seven games to their Interstate 65 rivals, the Indiana Pacers. Gilmore averaged 22.1 ppg, 17.3 rpg, 5.3 apg and 4.0 apg in the ABA Finals.

Gilmore led the ABA in rebounding (18.3 rpg) for the third straight year in 1973-74, but Julius Erving's New York Nets eliminated the Colonels in the second round of the playoffs en route to winning the ABA title. Gilmore says, "It was always competitive between the Nets and the Colonels. Julius Erving was going to get his points and he was certainly an extraordinary talent. It was very difficult to find a good matchup for him. I guess the objective was to try to take advantage of some of the other players who were on the floor with him and match up with those individuals. It was always a challenge to compete against the Nets…Playing in New York also gave us a little bit of exposure, that environment."

The Colonels had become one of the ABA's most successful regular season teams, but had no championships to show for it. That all changed in 1974-75 when Kentucky hired Milwaukee Bucks' assistant coach Hubie Brown as head coach. Gilmore immediately noticed that Brown was different from most other coaches, particularly in that era: "He was a very detail oriented coach and as a result when we competed against teams he had statistics and reports about some of the things that were successful against those particular teams. We were able to incorporate that with the players. That helped the team as a whole to develop the momentum that we needed to have a great season as well as move into the playoffs and excel." Gilmore once again had an outstanding regular season, ranking second in rebounding (16.2 rpg), second in field goal percentage (.580), second in blocks (3.1 bpg) and sixth in scoring (23.6 ppg).

Brown had the Colonels practicing hard even in the latter part of the regular season, in contrast to some coaches who pull back the reins so that tired veterans can rest. Gilmore says, "Hubie was certainly very intense with his practices…Hubie actually would give you a five minute grace period if you were late, but if you were six minutes late you were fined for the whole six minutes. He had a dollar amount for each number of minutes that a player was late." There certainly was no sign that the workload wore down the team. Kentucky finished the season on a 22-3 burst and rolled through the playoffs with a 12-3 record, defeating Indiana in five games in the ABA Finals. Gilmore won the Playoff MVP after averaging 25 ppg, 21 rpg and 1.2 bpg in the Finals, including 28 points and 31 rebounds in the clinching game. ABA Commissioner Dave DeBusschere challenged the NBA champion Golden State Warriors to play a three game series against Kentucky but, not surprisingly, the established league declined, realizing that it had nothing to gain and potentially a lot to lose in staging such a matchup.

Before the 1975-76 season the Colonels decided to trim their payroll by trading star forward Dan Issel. Gilmore increased his scoring to a career high 24.6 ppg (fourth in the league) and led the ABA in rebounding (15.5 rpg) while ranking second in field goal percentage (.552) and third in blocked shots (2.4 bpg). Despite his Herculean efforts, the Colonels fell from 58-26 to 46-38 and lost to the 60-24 Denver Nuggets—Issel’s new team—in the second round of the playoffs.

The A-Train Delivers Rebounds, Blocks and Deadeye Shooting

The NBA and four ABA teams merged prior to the 1976-77 season. The Kentucky and St. Louis owners received financial compensation instead of joining the combined league. ABA players whose teams folded were placed into a dispersal draft; Artis Gilmore was selected first overall by the Chicago Bulls.

Playing for a new team in a different league had little effect on Gilmore's statistics. The Bulls played at a slower tempo than the Colonels, so Gilmore’s scoring declined a bit, but he remained a top rebounder (13.0 rpg, fourth in the NBA), shot blocker (2.5 bpg, fourth in the league) and field goal shooter (.522, tenth in the league). The Bulls qualified for the playoffs, but had the misfortune of playing the eventual champion Portland Trailblazers in the first round. Portland won 2-1.

Gilmore played for the Bulls from 1976-1982 and he ranked in the top ten in rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage every year except 1979-80, when injuries kept him out of 34 games, snapping his streak of appearing in 670 straight ABA/NBA regular season games; even that year he still ranked third in field goal percentage. Despite Gilmore's dominant inside presence, the Bulls never became a contender, and before the 1982-83 season Chicago traded Gilmore to the San Antonio Spurs, one of the ABA teams that joined the NBA in 1976.

Gilmore and four-time NBA scoring champion George Gervin led the Spurs to a then franchise record 53 wins and a berth in the 1983 Western Conference Finals, but the defending champion L.A. Lakers won four games to two. Gilmore led the NBA in field goal percentage (.626) while ranking fourth in rebounding (12.0 rpg) and fifth in blocks (2.34 bpg).

Many observers felt that Gilmore guarded the Lakers' legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as well as anyone else did. Gilmore explains his approach to defending pro basketball’s all-time leading scorer: "Kareem was a tremendous offensive player. His scoring was done in rhythm, so the objective was to force him to change his rhythm. You could have some success in that area."

The 1982-83 season proved to be Gilmore and Gervin's last, best shot at an elusive NBA championship. Gilmore enjoyed several more productive seasons before retiring in 1988 but the Spurs never again mounted a serious title run.

Artis Gilmore had an answer for almost anything opposing teams threw at him, as his impressive ABA/NBA statistics prove: 24,941 points (19th all-time, ahead of such notables as Charles Barkley, Elgin Baylor and Larry Bird), 16,330 rebounds (fifth all-time, trailing only Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Moses Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), 3178 blocked shots (fourth all-time) and a .599 field goal percentage (first all-time). Gilmore led the NBA in field goal percentage for four straight years, a streak exceeded by only Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal. Gilmore played pro basketball for 17 years and now has been retired from the game for more than 17 years but he still has not been inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The snub mystifies Gilmore: "To tell you the truth, I have no idea. I don’t know what the criteria are for being selected…if it was statistics I probably would have been selected as a Hall of Famer. Beyond that, I can’t elaborate and I don't know who the people are who make those decisions."

Thoughts About Collectibles and Signing for Fans

Gilmore has very few pieces of memorabilia from his long career, noting, "I think I had some jerseys but what happened is that during the moves, what's really sad to say, is that as I've gone through my memorabilia, some of it is missing. It's tough to accuse the movers, but somebody went through it during that process and I don't have it anymore." The items were packed away in boxes and Gilmore is not sure during which move his memorabilia disappeared. His 1975 ABA championship ring was also stolen, but he had it replaced with a duplicate model that he wears proudly to this day.

Gilmore is wary of items that he receives in the mail, saying, "I get quite a few things in the mail to autograph. I don’t think that it is appropriate for those people to send things to my house the way that they do because it is frightening that folks who you don't know anything about all of a sudden send something in the mail straight to your home that says 'I enjoyed you as an athlete, can you send me an autograph?' Simple as that--I think that after 9/11 (and the subsequent incidents with anthrax tainted mail) all of that should have changed."

On the other hand, approaching the gentle giant for an autograph is a completely different story. He says simply, "I don’t have a problem with that."

Gilmore is not a fixture on the sports card show or autograph signing circuit: "I haven't gone to card shows. They just have select people that they invite to those shows. I would think that it is very costly to bring in certain people and hopefully you would have a good draw for that particular person that you bring in. I don't know. I really haven't been to any memorabilia signings."

Gilmore bought cards when he was growing up, but he was not thinking of them as collectibles: "When we were kids they had the real bubble gum cards, with big block bubblegum. We collected them for a short period of time. We did not understand the significance of putting them away and saving them for a rainy day." He mainly bought baseball cards: "We were thinking in terms of getting more for your money—a whole lot of bubblegum and some cards for a penny or a couple of pennies. When your resources were limited, that was your thought. Certainly bubblegum and baseball was a good combination."

Gilmore is enthusiastic about the way that Upper Deck and other card companies have incorporated retired players into current card sets and happy that younger collectors seem to be interested in these cards: "I think that it's great for those guys that they collect the cards of those individuals and it’s really considerable exposure for those individuals."

The Adjustment to Life after Pro Basketball

Like many professional athletes, Gilmore took some time to adjust to retirement: "Initially the adjustment was difficult—not from not playing basketball but from the fact that I had very little business experience. I created a business and because I did not have enough experience running a business it obviously did not work out—on a couple different occasions. I was involved in business but not understanding how to make it work and that certainly was one of the most difficult transitions. While I was playing basketball for so many years I guess I paid other people to handle my business for me, rather than basically understanding how to do it myself. That was certainly a growing experience. Now I work for a mechanical engineering company—W.W. Gay Mechanical--in the marketing aspect and I really enjoy what I am doing. The owners of this company have been fabulous. They have treated me very well." Gilmore has worked for W.W. Gay Mechanical Contractor, Inc. since 2000. Gilmore concludes, "I've gotten to a point that I have learned so much about business from bad experiences. It's a sad way to learn—I mean a difficult way to learn—but I've learned."

Gilmore enjoyed coming back to Denver for the All-Star Game in 2005 as a Slam Dunk contest judge, 29 years after he participated in the first Slam Dunk contest, which was held at halftime of what turned out to be the last ABA All-Star Game. He recalls that first contest, which is most remembered for Julius Erving's breathtaking dunk from the free throw line: "I think that it is really a tribute to Carl Scheer, who was so creative at the last moment considering the struggle (for the ABA to survive) during that time frame. Basically, because I was an ABA star they threw me in as one of the (dunk) contestants. I remember that they had a total of $1500 in prizes. What it is today has certainly evolved and moved to an extraordinary level. It was pretty exciting to watch the festivities."

Gilmore also went to the ABA Reunion, which was held in Denver during All-Star Weekend. Asked if he saw some people who he had not seen in years, Gilmore replies, "Absolutely--quite a few guys and obviously I know that there were a number of guys who were not able to make it. In fact, I spoke to some guys who regret not coming. It was a phenomenal time and kind of special to see a number of guys who I had not seen for 10, 15 or 20 years."

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:16 AM

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