All aboard to Springfield for the A-Train
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Artis Gilmore may be the biggest and tallest “what if” in the history of the Bulls.
What if during the first great Bulls era of the early 1970s with Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Bob Love and Chet Walker, the Bulls had Gilmore, whom they drafted in 1971 but who signed with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels for a larger, long term contract?
Because between 1972 and 1974, the Bulls were eliminated from the playoffs each season after averaging 54 wins by teams led by Wilt Chamberlain or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, opponents who went to the Finals in the Western Conference.
“Tom Boerwinkle fit our offense well,” said Love. “He made that offense go with his passing. If we had Artis, it would have been a different offense. Artis was considered the second strongest man in basketball after Wilt. He would have put more pressure on Kareem and Wilt. I would have loved to play with Artis in his prime. The result for us may have been different, but you never know.”
(Jacksonville University photo)
And then, what if the Bulls had won that famous and fateful coin flip for the No. 1 draft pick in 1979? Magic Johnson, a child of the Midwest, wanted to play for the Bulls because he wanted to play with Gilmore.
“Magic wanted to go to Chicago,” recalls Chicago attorney George Andrews, then Magic’s representative. “He wanted to play with Artis or Kareem. Remember, then Kareem had also won just one championship (like Gilmore) and was being viewed (unfavorably). Magic revived his career.”
So the Bulls had to wait until 1991 for that first NBA championship, which given the thrills of the 1990s, may have been worth the wait. And Gilmore ended his pro basketball career with just that one championship, with the ABA Kentucky Colonels in 1975.
Gilmore went to the Bulls in 1976, and once again was oh-so-close and part of another classic Bulls what if in that 1977 playoff mini-series with Bill Walton and the eventual champion Portland Trail Blazers.
“Artis was always the toughest guy for me to play because of his size and strength,” said Hall of Famer Walton. “Artis could pick me up by the rib cage and hold me in the air and I would spin my legs like the road runner trying to get away from him.”
The easy going Gilmore was known to catch players coming down off balance and lower them to the floor.
“That three-game series, the second game was the most exciting game I played in my life,” said Walton. “There were 39 lead changes and 32 ties. (Then Bulls P.R. guy) Brian McIntyre announced the crowd like 29,000. There was a referee strike going on. (Maurice) Lucas got into a fight and (assistant) Gene Tormohlen comes on the court and guys are throwing punches, which was just a fine in those days. I foul out in Game 3 and my replacement, Robin Jones, takes a wide open 17 footer that Artis comes out and blocks and the shot banks in and that was the (turning point). That series with Chicago was our toughest that year. They were the best team in the league and came in on fire (winning 20 of 24 to close the season). I played in a lot of basketball games and never one more exciting.
“Artis is in the same boat as Kareem, Wilt, Shaq, Darrell Dawkins,” Walton said. “No matter what they did, it never was enough, because they were supposed to have this incredible superiority over everyone.”
The big men always were underappreciated, and so it was for Gilmore as well, despite leading the ABA in rebounding four of his five seasons there, finishing his college career at Jacksonville with the highest ever NCAA rebounding average, 22.7, and in 1976, going to the NBA and the Bulls and making six NBA All-Star teams.
The 7-2 Gilmore averaged 18.1 points and 12.3 rebounds in his combined ABA/NBA career. But he still holds the record for career field goal percentage, and along with Wilt, shares the record for the fourth best in league history.
“One of my favorite trivia questions is, ‘In 1971 Julius Erving and George McGinnis were ABA rookies. Who was the rookie of the year?’ Artis Gilmore,’” said Dan Issel, Gilmore’s teammate in Kentucky. “And he was league MVP that season as well.”
On Friday, he will no longer be overlooked.
That’s because Gilmore will be part of the Class of 2011 to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
He did wonder at times about being overlooked, though his gentle demeanor—always known as a so-called gentle giant—kept him from ever expressing much disappointment.
“He would say to me, ‘Maybe I just played at the wrong time,’” recalls Love.
“All I could do was be the best I could possibly be on the floor,” said Gilmore. “It was not up to me to decide the other aspects.”
There are those who have said Gilmore could have or should have been more, that his benevolent nature held him back from joining the pantheon of elite centers. Still, there was no other big man with his numbers who didn’t get into the Hall of Fame, combining for an ABA/NBA total of more than 20,000 points and 10,000 rebounds.
He was all-ABA first team every season he was in the league, the MVP of the 1974 ABA All-Star game and the playoffs MVP in 1975 when his Kentucky Colonels won the championship.
Gilmore was a defensive force, for sure, and was famous for the stickum he always applied. It was said to offset his only average ability to catch the ball, not unlike Patrick Ewing.
And if Gilmore’s hands were a bit small for a great center, they were as powerful as perhaps any.
“You couldn’t shake his hand,” said Herb Rudoy, the Chicago attorney who represented Gilmore and negotiated the big contract that got him to the ABA. “He’d shake guys’ hands and they’d go right to the ground. Guys would eventually just extend a pinky.”
That quiescent demeanor also brought charges that he didn’t care enough, which many big men, even Wilt, have had to overcome. Because Gilmore was so strong, players didn’t challenge him.
Though there was one famous episode which made Maurice Lucas’ reputation. It was when Lucas was playing for the wild St. Louis Spirits. Lucas was jockeying for position with Gilmore and angered the big man, who stepped uncharacteristically toward Lucas.
Lucas, according to an account, carried in the famous ABA history Loose Balls, backed up looking for a place to get away and running out of room turned and punched Gilmore in the face and knocked him down.
But Artis never was a fighter in an era when brawls were common. He knew his own strength, but maintained a philosophy that the game was a living for everyone and he didn’t want to endanger that.
In fact, that’s what brought Gilmore to the ABA and in many respects legitimized the league.
“He was the best big player in the ABA and changed the league,” said Rod Thorn, who would later be Gilmore’s GM with the Bulls but then was assisting Kevin Loughery with the ABA Nets. “It was a league of forwards. The guards were pretty good, but it was a forward league without out many real bigs. There were guys like Zelmo Beatty, Mel Daniels, Billy Paultz. Then Artis comes and it was a major coup for the league. The NBA had all the great big men before.”
And Artis was really, really big, as Ed Sullivan might have said.
After the Colonels signed Artis for a then staggering 10-year $1.5 million contract, the team took him to New York City for a press conference. With his platform shoes in the style of the era and Afro hairstyle, reporters measured Gilmore that day at 7-8.
Gilmore never questioned or second guessed the league that often wasn’t taken seriously back then, though that would change once the leagues merged with three ABA teams, including Gilmore’s Colonels folding, and four teams, the Nets, Nuggets, Spurs and Pacers. That was seven ABA teams, while at the time, there were 18 NBA teams.
In the first combined post-merger All-Star game, 10 of the 24 players were from ABA teams. The first year after the merger, ABA Denver won its NBA division and the second season after the merger ABA teams, Denver and San Antonio, won two of the four NBA division titles.
“You weren’t talking about chopped liver,” said Hubie Brown, Gilmore’s championship coach in Kentucky.
Although Magic Johnson and Larry Bird, appropriately, were credited with being responsible for the emergence of the NBA in the 1980s, it was the infusion of ABA talent that truly began to change the game into what it became, the high flying entertainment show that continues today.
But for Artis the ABA was about security after a childhood of deprivation.
“The security was important to me,” recalls Gilmore. “You can break a leg and never play again, but you sign a contract like that and you can generate income for a long time for your family. I knew how difficult my environment was and I had no desire to return to that.”
Gilmore grew up in rural Florida in grinding poverty and hateful segregation sharing a bedroom with five brothers among 10 kids. Just having enough food daily was a regular issue. Gilmore finished high school in Alabama and then went to Gardner-Webb Junior College in North Carolina. But it was when he came to little Jacksonville in 1969 that he was discovered.
Though with a student body just over 2,000, Gilmore carried the team to the NCAA final game and an eventual loss to UCLA after averaging 26.5 points and 22.2 rebounds as a junior.
In the Elite Eight, Gilmore’s Jacksonville team upset the favored Kentucky team of Adolph Rupp and Issel. The following season, Gilmore’s Jacksonville team was upset early in the tournament after Artis averaged 21.9 points and 23.2 rebounds that season. Gilmore’s four year collegiate average of 22.7 rebounds per game remains the most ever. Yes, more than Wilt, Russell or Kareem. The basketball world was drooling over the next great big man.
And the ABA got him.
That first season in Kentucky, the Colonels with Gilmore, Issel, Darel Carrier and Louis Dampier were 68-14, one game fewer than the record breaking Lakers, who were going 69-13.
But Kentucky lost in the first round of the playoffs and was a post season disappointment their first three seasons with one finals appearance and a loss.
“We were the best team in the league three or four of his five years, but we only won that once,” said Issel. “Artis was imposing with that Afro and goatee and his size, but he was the nicest, kindest guy to be around, soft spoken, never self promoting. My first thought when I heard Artis was being inducted was I couldn’t believe he already wasn’t in with that kind of career in the NCAA, the ABA, the NBA.”
But life isn’t always fair as Issel, inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1993, knows. He’ll be in Springfield Friday for the first time since his own induction. Issel, who was a coach and general manager of the Nuggets in the 1990s and coached the famous upset of the 1994 No. 1 seeded Supersonics, ran afoul of the politically correct police and was forced out as Nuggets coach and left the NBA about a decade ago. Embarrassingly for the NBA, Issel has been gone from the NBA for the last decade.
Now, the West suburban Batavia native is doing well again, serving as executive director of the Bel Air (California) Presbyterian Church and managing the church’s business and finances. The NBA would do well to welcome back one of the true good guys. “I’m really enjoying the work and having the chance to work with one of my best friends,” said Issel.
It is just like he enjoyed playing with Gilmore and winning that 1975 championship for his beloved Kentucky.
“A couple of us on the Colonels,” Issel began with a laugh. “Myself, Dampier would never be mistaken for great defensive players. It was Artis who covered up a lot of our mistakes. So we had to let him take some shots.”
Actually the ball going through Gilmore after Issel had previously been the focus of the offense was what changed for the Colonels in their championship season. And that was thanks to an aggressive young Milwaukee Bucks assistant who was taking over the head coaching job for the Colonels, Hubie Brown.
Brown put Gilmore on the right block where he could employ that sweeping hook move going left and the Colonels came together late in the season, winning 22 of their last 25 and 4-1 in each of three playoff series.
“I brought a lot of the stuff we ran in Milwaukee for Kareem,” said Brown. “Issel had been the focal point of the offense. But Artis was extremely coachable, a great teammate, a force defensively, great shot blocker. Rick Barry always said Artis was the greatest shot blocker he ever played against. And he never missed a game in his entire ABA career (670 straight into the NBA). That’s a staggering stat. The teams I had there were the best teams I ever coached.”
The next season, the finally struggling Colonels sold Issel’s contract and Gilmore finished his final ABA season just 46-38 after the Colonels had averaged 58 wins his first four seasons in the league.
Gilmore was the first pick in the ABA dispersal draft to the Bulls, who had drafted him despite him signing with the ABA. Wild things happened in those days and it was not unusual for players to sign in both leagues and then fight it out in court, as Rick Barry did. The Bulls’ condition to agree to the merger was that they would get Gilmore.
Although it was a long climb coming off a franchise worst 24-58 record in 1975-76 the season before Gilmore arrived.
The Bulls started poorly in Gilmore’s first season, losing 14 of their first 16 games as Gilmore’s billing as a savior seemed overstated. But the Bulls had that fabulous run to close the season and then that wonderful, if ultimately unsuccessful, first round playoff mini-series with the eventual champion Trail Blazers.
(Bill Smith/Chicago Bulls)
The Bulls finished that season 44-38, but remained haunted by injuries, like to top pick Scott May, an uneven roster and too many changes. A key setback was when Bobby Wilkerson left as a free agent after the Bulls were 45-37 in 1980-81 under Jerry Sloan and swept the Knicks in the opening playoff series before losing to the eventual champion Celtics.
“We just didn’t shoot the ball well enough from the outside,” lamented Thorn. “With Artis you needed guys who could make shots.”
But Gilmore said there just never was enough continuity.
“We’d work and get somewhere and then free agents would move on,” Gilmore noted about the then dysfunctional ownership that included seven of the richest men in the world who held the Bulls more as a hobby. “We never really had a unit there. Coaches would come and go, players. Wilkerson helped us a lot and then they let him go to Cleveland. It was a combination of things. We just were never able to make things happen.”
Those failures, if you can call them that, stole a lot of the momentum from the player who would become the highest scoring left hander in combined ABA/NBA history. Didn’t that mean something? No one as decorated as Gilmore remained out of the Hall of Fame as long.
The lack of championships, especially in the NBA, likely hurt Gilmore’s cause, although players like Karl Malone, Patrick Ewing and Charles Barkley didn’t win championships, either. And Gilmore did win in the ABA.
“People think what they want to think,” Gilmore says. “Nothing I can do about it. Early on (not being in the Hall of Fame) crossed my mind. Maybe it was because of the (lack of) championships. But I am proud of my resume and my contributions to the teams.”
Gilmore was traded to the Spurs after the 1981-82 season and led San Antonio to a then franchise best 53 wins and the conference finals. He played five seasons with the Spurs and was twice an All-Star and finished his NBA career in 1987-88 splitting a season between the Bulls and Celtics. He then played a season in Italy and made the Europe all-star team. He is now a special assistant to the president of Jacksonville University.
It has been a truly remarkable ride, and Artis finally pulls into the station where he belongs: Springfield! Springfield! Get aboard the A-Train.