Artis Gilmore: My Most MemoraBull Game
"In my heart I always knew we were a good team and that something exciting could happen if we stuck together," Gilmore says about the 1976-77 Bulls squad.
(Photo courtesy of Robert Kinsbury)
Norm Van Lier's Most MemoraBull Game
Posted August 4, 2005
By Artis Gilmore, as told to Brett Ballantini
April 15, 1977 l Chicago Stadium
Chicago Bulls 107, Portland Trail Blazers 104
1977 Western Conference Playoffs
First Round, Game 2
When I arrived in Chicago in 1976, I thought I was prepared for anything. I’d played in the NCAA Final Four in college and in numerous pressure games for the Kentucky Colonels during my five-year stretch in the ABA. But let me tell you, Bulls fans and that old Chicago Stadium were like nothing I had ever experienced before. And even though things did not end up exactly the way I’d hoped in my first NBA season, I can’t think of a more exciting team to have been a part of upon entering the league.
I was one of the more sought-after talents when I came out of Jacksonville University in 1971, and that year the Bulls made me their seventh-round pick. You’re probably wondering: If I was such a hot commodity, how come I was picked so late? Well, before the NBA Draft I had already examined the prospects of my playing in either the NBA or the rival ABA, and determined that signing with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels was financially, the best thing for me to do at the time.
I had a great run with Kentucky, winning the ABA’s Rookie of the Year and league MVP in 1971-72, and an ABA title in 1975. But that low seventh-round draft pick turned out to be a pretty smart move for the Bulls because, when the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976, Kentucky didn’t make the jump. That meant I was en route to Chicago.
The Bulls were coming off a horrible season in 1975-76, their worst ever. They had won only 28 games after fielding a team that was a championship contender for several years. I’d played against them in a couple of exhibition games in the last two years of the ABA; and, while my team won both times, I learned firsthand just how tough and scrappy those Bulls teams were. Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Bob Love … they’d get their share of floor burns, even in an exhibition game.
Jerry had retired by 1976-77, and Bob would be traded early in the season. But Norm was with us all the way, as our captain. He was such a strong, intelligent player, and he set a great example for me and all of my teammates. I can’t thank him and fellow teammate Tom Boerwinkle enough for how they helped me adjust to the new league.
Don’t get me wrong: It wasn’t as if we spent a lot of time together off the court. But, when we were together as teammates, we worked together very well. Norm and Tom were willing and able to share experiences and give me advice that was very helpful to me, especially coming into the league and city for the first time.
As many Bulls fans already know, we started out horribly in that 1976-77 season. After starting 2-1, we then lost 13 consecutive games. Guess who caught a lot of the blame? Yeah, it’s usually the 7’2” guy who’s singled out. The media was killing me. “What’s wrong with Gilmore?” or “Gilmore’s not really that good. He’s not bringing this team around.” Suddenly, it wasn’t the Bulls on a losing streak—it was me.
Known as the “A Train,” Gilmore’s imposing physique, coupled with a deft shooting touch around the hoop, quickly established him as one of the NBA’s toughest defensive match ups.
(Photo courtesy of Bruce Schulman)
We were still pretty bad through the All-Star break, but after that we took off. And, when I say we took off, we shot into the stars. At the break, we were five or six games out—not out of the division lead, but out of playoff contention. With 24 games to go, that’s an incredibly big gap to have to make up.
I can’t speak for everyone else, but I knew we had the talent to get ourselves together and make the playoffs. If you look back at our roster, it might not jump out at you as all that impressive, but we were really starting to click.
Norm kept us all together on the floor, with toughness and leadership that didn’t always show up in the box score. Mickey Johnson was outstanding; he wasn’t a true power forward, so sometimes he played the swing. He was an aggressive, hard worker, a really smart player, too. His play down the stretch, and especially in the playoffs, was just incredible. Mickey was from Chicago, so he always gave his best for the hometown crowd.
We never had a chance to experience the Scott May who played in college. He was our small forward, but for three straight years, he was hurt. He had mono as a rookie, then an injury to one knee in the next season. By his third season, he’d injured his other leg. He had a very difficult time as a pro, but as the 1976-77 season wore on, he got stronger and played better.
Wilbur Holland and John Mengelt understood their roles. Both knew where they fit in—Wilbur the starter, John off the bench. Both were great streak shooters. Wilbur was quick on defense, and John played hard defensively, very much as Sloan did.
With that core group, we dug ourselves out of our hole, going 20-4, to end the season and qualify for the playoffs versus the Portland Trail Blazers. We had a seven-game winning streak and an eight-game winning streak, beating good teams in the process. We met up with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Los Angeles Lakers twice, and beat them both times. Just thinking back on our run again makes my head spin.
But we weren’t thinking about just making the playoffs. We knew we were the hottest team in basketball, and in a short three-game series, we felt like we were the favorites. Nobody felt we couldn’t go all the way.
I would face my nemesis from college, Bill Walton, whose UCLA Bruins defeated my Jacksonville Dolphins to win the 1970 NCAA National Championship. Bill was a great opponent, with a game very different from my own. It was always a challenge to compete against him and the other great centers of the game.
We dropped Game 1 in Portland, 96-83, which immediately put our backs against the wall. Thankfully, Game 2 was home in Chicago, and we knew the place was going to be jam-packed and wild.
The city went from being somewhat uninterested in our team for much of that season to going crazy for it. Down the stretch, the Bulls started using a spotlight for their pregame introductions. In the stretch run, we were regularly drawing standing-room-only crowds, with people being turned away outside. Imagine the thrill of being introduced in complete darkness, with 20,000 people screaming for you; it wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before. The crowd was our sixth man. Its support and enthusiasm was unbelievable.
Game 2 was every bit the battle we anticipated. It was a back-and-forth game, tied after the first quarter. By halftime, we had a slim 50-46 lead. Right before the half, there was a little skirmish between Wilbur and Portland’s Herm Gilliam. I was never much for fights in the game, beyond defending your space and yourself. As usual, Portland’s Maurice Lucas jumped in the middle of it all, and quickly this altercation was blowing up into a real bare-knuckles fight. Our assistant coach, Gene Tormohlen, was trying to pull Gilliam off Holland—with his hands around Gilliam’s neck—and Lucas punched him.
Fighting was different back then. They even had something called a “punching foul,” which today will get you tossed from the game. People sometimes wondered why I wasn’t more aggressive and willing to fight—it was always said I was the strongest player in the league after Wilt Chamberlain retired.
At 7-2, 265 pounds, Gilmore’s overpowering strength often intimidated opponents.
(Photo courtesy of Bruce Schulman)
I wanted to be like that and thought of by my peers that way, too. So if it meant taking someone’s legs out or head off, it didn’t make sense to me. These men I played against had livelihoods on the floor and lives off it. And so did I. On the floor, I wanted to be competitive and dominant, but I wanted to leave the game there, too—on the floor.
This game, for obvious reasons, was the most intense we’d played all season—do or die—and it was getting tenser by the minute. After three quarters, our lead was down to 79-77. Neither team was able to run away with this one.
As expected, the game came down to the last few minutes. It was all tied up at 94, with five or six minutes left, when Dave Twardzik drove for a layup that I got my hand on to block. The fans, who had been buzzing all night, but seemed a little nervous about the outcome, just exploded. We really broke out on defense after that, and two buckets from little Wilbur gave us some breathing room, 98-94.
I was able to seal the game—although Portland fought to the finish—with a hook shot over Walton. I was fouled by Lucas on the play and hit the free throw, giving me 27 points, 11 rebounds, and five blocks for the game. We ended up winning, 107-104, to send the series back to Portland for the third and deciding game.
Afterward, everyone was talking as if I had triumphed over Walton, but that wasn’t the case. It was a team effort. Walton had a great game, too—24 points, 17 rebounds, six blocks. I was able to establish position deep on him early in the game, and with my strength he was forced to foul me often: Bill had five fouls in the third quarter. That hurt Portland, but even without Walton they kept up with us. That team showed me a lot of poise; it’s no surprise they went on to win the championship that year.
Yeah, we lost Game 3 in Portland. It was another nail-biter that went down to the wire. But Game 3—that’s a different story for a different day. Our Game 2 victory, in front of that amazing Chicago Stadium crowd, is one game I will never forget.