Vintage Wit Defines Gilmartin's Gowdy Award, Career

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by Matt Petersen

When asked about a defining image of Joe Gilmartin, Basketball Hall of Fame Chariman Jerry Colangelo smiled as he described one of the former sports writer’s “little idiosyncrasies.”

“Whenever his glasses went up on his head, I knew it was something very special that was about to be said or happen,” Colangelo said.

Gilmartin was in full glasses-less form on Thursday night as he accepted the 2014 Curt Gowdy Media Award for print journalism, the highest honor a basketball media member can receive. The long-time Pheonix journalist met the moment much as he would have with a typewriter: with humor and style.

“When I was first told I’d won this award,” he began, “I was speechless. You’ll be relieved to know I still am.”

The resulting laughter increased as Gilmartin faked a prompt exit off the stage before returning to finish his acceptance speech.

Joe Gilmartin Accepts the 2014 Curt Gowdy Award

Such was the wit that graced the sports sections of the Phoenix Gazette and Arizona Republic, among other publications, for half a century. During the Suns’ inaugural season in which they went 16-66, he put his own spin on the team’s rough year.

“In March I wrote ‘the Suns extended their winning streak to four months. They’ve won at least one game in every month,’” he laughed.

Gilmartin’s light-heartedness, mixed with his particular spin of words, served as a constant reminder of one of his key convictions.

“I never thought sports were life and death,” he said. “I still don’t.”

That may have been what attracted him to sports in the first place. Gilmartin still jokes that he was a “big disappointment” to his parents, who wanted him to be a doctor.

“Truth of the matter is I was just too lazy,” he said.

Gilmartin’s work in his chosen field seems to say otherwise. The 16-time Arizona Sportswriter of the Year admitted to “sweating out the things that I did.” Even as his writing voice gained in local and then national prominence, he made a concerted effort to ensure it never crossed the invisible lines of journalistic integrity.

“I can remember looking at lines that I wrote, trying to judge whether I should use them or not. Were they funny or were they just stupid?” Gilmartin recalled. “Sometimes I didn’t guess right either way.”

He must have been right often enough, though hard work trumped guesswork more often than not. Gilmartin would make a pile of his columns, wait a month for them to accumulate, then read through them. His goal: to eliminate as many words as possible while keeping the article as unchanged as possible.

“When I really think of Joe Gilmartin, I think of a creative guy. I don’t think of him as a typical reporter. I think of a guy that knows how to turn a phrase, a guy that really puts a little zippity-doo-dah in what he does.”

— Eddie Doucett

It also may have helped him in family matters as well.

“He always out-worded me in all our arguments,” laughed his wife, Evelyn.

Of course, the stories couldn’t be written without meaningful interviews. As the former East Coast native grew synonymous with West-Coast basketball, he continued to establish the kind of relationships and rapport that are all too rare for media members to achieve.

 “I think Joe was very transparent,” Colangelo said. “He doesn’t expect favor. In my particular case, there was a trust that developed between the two of us that is very uncommon in sport, in terms of media. He is one of a kind.”

Similar thoughts were expressed by 2013 Curt Gowdy award winner Eddie Doucette, who covered the Bucks when both Milwaukee and Phoenix were new to the NBA. He and Gilmartin ran into each frequently in those days thanks to the relatively small amount of teams.

“When I really think of Joe Gilmartin, I think of a creative guy,” Doucette said. “I don’t think of him as a typical reporter. I think of a guy that knows how to turn a phrase, a guy that really puts a little zippity-doo-dah in what he does.”

The reputation grew to the point where even his family members couldn’t escape it. His son Leo worked as a ball boy for the Suns in the franchise’s early years, and he vividly recalls the reaction whenever he gave his full name to those who asked.

“A lot of times when opposing coaches or players found out who I was and who my father was, they would go out of their way to compliment him to me,” Leo Gilmartin said. “They would talk about how fair he was, how much they enjoyed his writing. That always meant a lot to me.”

Keep in mind that Joe Gilmartin never intended to become Phoenix guy. College basketball and spring training assignments brought him to the Valley on occasion, but an opening at the Gazette proved to be too enticing an opportunity to turn down.

His eventual role as sports editor opened the window to what is now a seemingly bottomless well of memories. Gilmartin remembers standing roughly a foot away from the Suns’ bench in the triple-overtime Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals. He recalls showing up an hour late for the press conference when Lakers legend Earvin “Magic” Johnson announced he had HIV – and accidentally getting a one-on-one interview with Johnson as a result.

There was also this poignant scene, in which the main character was fellow Hall-of-Famer Charles, Barkley:

“I thought everyone else was gone and I’d forgotten something in the locker room. I went back in and Charles was still there getting dressed. There were a couple people there, including a little girl. A bald-headed little girl. Charles was talking to her and listening to her. It turns out she had leukemia. Charles was cheering her up and she was talking to him.

“I wrote a column about it. I said, “Charles Barkley, if you could just see this side of him. He’s sitting there and this little girl says “If Mr. Barkley doesn’t need hair, I don’t need hair either.” It was a very touching story.”

As fate would have it, Gilmartin received a phone call from a friend who was in Phoenix. He told Gilmartin that he’d met the father of the little girl, who introduced him to the now-grown leukemia survivor.

That may be the best testament of Gilmartin’s relationship to sports in general and, specifically, to the Suns. Doucette, whose own work spanned several eras of NBA basketball, summed up his colleague’s work

“When I think of Joe Gilmartin, I think of the Phoenix Suns,” he said.

Hall of Fame works, too.

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