Posted Apr 5 2011 1:13PM
No points added. No rebounds grabbed. Artis Gilmore has been the same basketball legend for 23 years, his career amber-encased and a marvel to behold, and they're going to tell him now -- well, they made it official Monday -- that he wasn't a Hall of Famer then but today he is?
Gilmore played his last NBA regular-season game on April 24, 1988, scoring seven points with eight rebounds on the road for Boston against, coincidentally enough, his old Chicago Bulls team at the Stadium. The Celtics lost -- neither Larry Bird nor Kevin McHale played that night, while 25-year-old Michael Jordan scored 46 points -- but what the heck, Gilmore was a few months shy of 39 at the time.
He got into 14 more games that postseason, logging scant minutes behind Robert Parrish as Boston beat New York, beat Atlanta and lost to Detroit. Gilmore's teams in Chicago and San Antonio had never lasted so long in the spring, and his NBA playoff numbers (11.7 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 27.4 mpg) paled next to the stats he put up in the old ABA. If the folks working the door at that hoops shrine in Springfield, Mass., couldn't look at him in whole, Gilmore was going to have a hard time ...
But not now. The next autograph the big man signs, and every one thereafter, can read, "Artis Gilmore, HOF, #53."
Gilmore, finally, was welcomed into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Monday with the announcement in Houston that he and nine other electees would be inducted this August. An important player at every level (high school, college, ABA and NBA), Gilmore's overdue acceptance didn't grab nearly the attention that went to Dennis Rodman, the flamboyant defender/rebounder/diva. It didn't generate the sentiment that flowed around Tex Winter, the great coach and contributor whose crowning honor comes so late, after a stroke has robbed him of the ability to fully enjoy it.
Gilmore's ultimate recognition is late as well. It should have come in his 40s or his 50s -- he'll turn 62 soon after the ceremony this summer. It comes seven years too late for his beloved mother Mattie, who died in 2004 after a life dedicated to raising Artis and his nine siblings through hard times in Florida and Alabama. "The backbone of our family," Gilmore calls her, and the chance to have her there with him in Springfield, in the front row, would have been "one of the highlight moments of my life," he once said.
His father Otis -- a sporadically employed fisherman who, at 5-foot-7, gave up five inches to his wife -- is gone, too. "You think of everybody at a time like this," Gilmore said. "I certainly value family. I grew up in a very challenging environment as a kid. We had very little. But when we were together, we certainly enjoyed the moments."
In Springfield, Gilmore will be surrounded by family -- his wife Enola Gay and their five children. As recently as All-Star Weekend in Losa Angeles, at the classy Legends Brunch held the morning of each All-Star Game, Gilmore was pessimistic about his chances of ever gaining entrance to the Hall. He barely wanted to talk about the subject.
When it came Monday, though, he was gracious. Humbled. Basketball's gentle giant, again.
"I always thought it was going to happen," Gilmore told reporters after the announcement. "It was difficult for me to question the system and the way it was. But that's neither here nor there. I'm dwelling on the fact that now I'm an official Hall of Famer and I'm enjoying the moment."
Gilmore, unable to crack the Hall code via the traditional selection process, benefited from changes overseen by Jerry Colangelo, chairman of the Hall's board. In addition to the usual finalists-to-electees process that never smiled on him, Colangelo was instrumental in adding two more committees to the Veterans and International bodies that elect new members directly. The Early African-American Pioneers committee went with Reece (Goose) Tatum, a Harlem Globetrotters legend, while the new ABA committee cleaned up the Gilmore oversight.
Gilmore was a force of nature and headed toward a first-ballot HOF career based purely on his five ABA seasons. He played 84 games each season, dominated as that league's top rebounder all five years and averaged 22.3 points, 17.1 rebounds, 3.0 assists, 3.8 blocked shots and 41.5 minutes, while making 55.7 percent of his field goals. He was an All-Star each year, the ABA Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in 1972, its All-Star MVP in 1974 and, when the Kentucky Colonels won the ABA championship in 1975, the playoffs MVP as well. Bottom line, Gilmore ranked second only to Julius Erving in ABA impact.
Not bad for a fellow who joked that he chose that upstart, raggedy league because he liked the colorful red-white-and-blue ball.
Gilmore getting into the Hall through the ABA committee's door might seem a slight to his college and NBA days. After two years in junior college at Gardner-Webb (N.C.), Gilmore put Jacksonville University in the national spotlight. He averaged 26.5 points as a junior and, as a senior, helped the Dolphins reach the NCAA title game against UCLA. His college rebounding average (22.7) still is the NCAA Division I record.
Arriving in the NBA as the No. 1 pick in the 1976 ABA dispersal draft, Gilmore played more than twice as many games (909) in the established league as he had in the fledgling one (420). He was an All-Star four times for the Bulls -- the A-Train remains that franchise's greatest center -- and twice for San Antonio, three times finishing in the top 10 in MVP balloting. Through his first nine NBA seasons, Gilmore averaged 19.3 points and 11.3 rebounds -- after which he turned 36 and played three more seasons with declining productivity.
John Paxson, Chicago's vice president of basketball operations, was a reserve guard with the Spurs from 1983-85, then played with Gilmore again when the big man wrapped up with Chicago for the first part of 1987-88 (he signed with Boston in January after the Bulls wavied him). "I'll say this about Artis Gilmore: He's one of the nicest gentlemen to ever play the game," Paxson said. "He was truly a gentle giant."
At 7-foot-2, 240 pounds -- with a stunning Afro in his prime that added six more inches -- Gilmore was what players down South call "dirt strong." He would wave and flip the basketball as if it were a volleyball, he had the closest thing to a Kareem hook shot that we've probably seen and the rim always seemed at his fingertips.
"I'll tell you what," Paxson said, "Artis always had some of the strongest hands that you'll ever find. When you do see him and you go to shake his hand, you're careful because he still has that grip. He made his mark as an offensive player, a dominant low-post presence in the league. He did it over a long period of time at a high level."
Gilmore's 59.9 field-goal percentage remains No. 1 in NBA history. Spotting rivals five prime seasons over in ABA land, he still ranks 42nd in NBA rebounds (fifth in ABA/NBA combined) and 40th in NBA free-throw attempts (eighth overall). As for the more newly fangled metrics, per basketball-reference.com, Gilmore has a career offensive rating (115.1) that ranks 42nd and win shares (189.7) that put him sixth all-time.
He had to wait 23 years and, maybe not quite believing or fearful of jinxing the happy news, Gilmore had a secretary at Jacksonville (he's an assistant to the university president) telling callers Monday only that he was "at a meeting" and sending them to voicemail. The fact was, he was in Houston, on a stage, finally honored.
A shame he had to wait so long as, arguably, the Naismith Hall's most glaring snub for severl years? Sure. Don Nelson and Reggie Miller can wrangle over that dubious title now. But they also can take heart in the old cliché of which Gilmore now stands as a long, tall walking embodient.
Better late than never.
NBA.com's Fran Blinebury contributed to this report.
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