In Need of a Hall Pass

Posted May 17, 2006

By Brett Ballantini

When you sneak a peek into the hallowed Basketball Hall of Fame, located in Springfield, Massachusetts, there’s a name of a notoriously quiet player that shouts out in absentia.

He’s the all-time shooting leader in two professional leagues (yes, he was more accurate than Wilt Chamberlain). He’s the NCAA’s all-time leading rebounder (yes, he dominated the college glass better than Bill Russell).

He was the ABA Rookie of the Year (and MVP) in the same year that Hall of Famer Julius Erving and six-time All-Star George McGinnis were rookies. And, off the court, none other than Chicago Bulls legend “Stormin’” Norm Van Lier says that “if I had a son, I would want him to be just like this man.”

The gentle giant who leaves a gaping hole in the Hall is Artis “A-Train” Gilmore, who played five ABA seasons and a dozen in the NBA. Few players were as powerful and consistent on both ends of the floor as Gilmore, and, while there are centers with more titles, MVP awards and higher profiles, you can count the pivotmen with more outstanding overall careers as the A-Train’s on one hand.

Don’t overlook the fact that, playing the most physically demanding position in the sport, Gilmore played 1,329 regular-season games in 17 seasons—an average of more than 78 games per season—and ran up consecutive games-played streaks of 670 and 212. And through incredible pounding in the paint, “He never complained about pain,” former Kentucky Colonels’ trainer Lloyd Gardner says. “He was an unbelievable competitor, who never wanted to miss a game. He took a lot of pride in that.”

Gilmore won one ABA MVP award, in his rookie year of 1971-72. His Colonels made it to two ABA Finals, losing in seven games to Indiana in 1972-73 and winning in five games vs. the Pacers in 1974-75. His regular season ABA numbers were 22.3 points and 17.1 rebounds, mirrored by his playoff averages: 22.0 points and 16.1 rebounds.

“Artis is one of those guys who made the ABA what it was,” says Hall of Fame coach Hubie Brown, who coached the Colonels to the 1975 ABA title. “It became a monster league with all of its talent, and he was All-ABA First Team all the time. He was a major, major star in the ABA, and I don’t think he should be penalized for that. If Dan Issel is in the Hall of Fame, then Artis Gilmore should be in the Hall of Fame. They were both on my team!”

It was the 1975 title that marked the highlight of Gilmore’s professional career, which was dogged by impossibly high expectations once the 7’2” center moved into the NBA. Gilmore set the all-time ABA rebound mark with 40 vs. the New York Nets in the stretch run of that season, and followed that up with a 33-rebound effort in a one-game playoff with the Nets in May to determine the Eastern Division titlist.

Gilmore’s consistently even keel bordered on the extreme. Says Gardner of the 1975 title clincher: “When the game was over with, Artis shook hands and went to the locker room. There was an electrical storm that night and the lights went out. We started to celebrate with the lights out, and it really took off when we got the electricity back. But, as we’re celebrating, nobody sees Artis. We had to go down into the locker room to bring him back out for the celebration.”

Issel acknowledges Gilmore’s enormous performances during the Colonels’ championship season, but notes that there was a wider scope to Gilmore’s play. “Artis coming along kind of forced the rest of the teams in the ABA to start getting some big people that played the kind of style that the NBA played. Up until then, the ABA was more wide open and up-and-down than the NBA—but Artis was such an unbelievable basketball player, he forced the league to change its style of play, or at least be willing to. He was just an awesome player who really gave the ABA some credibility.”

Among all professional centers—discarding the royal coupling of Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—Gilmore might have boasted the very best balance of offense and defense. As a scorer, he was ruthlessly efficient, hitting an amazing 59.9% of his shots during his time in the NBA, the league’s all-time best shooting mark. And on defense, no one wanted a shot in the paint—or the perimeter—when Gilmore rolled out his welcome mat.

“You were always looking around to kick the ball to somebody else, ’cause Artis had such great strength, he would flatten the Spalding on you,” says Hall-of-Famer Bob McAdoo, now a Heat assistant under Pat Riley.

“Artis had an agility that made him an amazing shot-blocker,” says Hall of Fame forward Rick Barry, a gunner who was able to score at will from two out to 25 feet. “He was so adept on defense, he could bound outside the paint and take out one of my jump shots. The referees would usually slap him with goaltending because nobody had ever seen a player block a jump shot from five or 10 feet away.”

Gilmore’s prowess scared plenty of post players, too.

“He was a wonderfully gifted defensive player,” says Jim Durham, the broadcaster during Gilmore’s entire first run with the Bulls. “Other centers sure didn’t want to play against him. The Bulls never had to double-down, not against Kareem, not against Bill Walton, not against Bob Lanier, as long as Artis was in the game.”

“Artis gave me as much, if not more, trouble than anyone I ever played against,” Walton says. “I felt Kareem was the better player, but in terms of who gave me the biggest headaches, it was Artis. He had a way about him that was overpowering, on either end of the court.”

One thing that most likely affects the overall perception of Gilmore is that he played some of his best seasons in the ABA. To an extent, the NBA acknowledges the ABA, such as the league’s adoption of the three-point line and the All-Star slam-dunk competition, but, when it comes to the record book, the ABA stats are kept completely separate.

Technically, NBA-ABA rivalry shouldn’t even matter when it comes to the Hall of Fame. The Hall is for contributions to basketball, not to the NBA exclusively. It’s the Hall’s fault for confusing the two when it comes to ABA veterans.

Former Indiana Pacers forward Darnell Hillman, who was the ABA’s greatest big-man leaper, cites Gilmore as his biggest challenge on the floor. “Our battles became an unspoken rivalry where we’d try to block each other’s dunk. Artis was always lurking somewhere, but whenever I didn’t see him, I thought I was home free. Artis almost always would let me know I was wrong.

“We both loved to block shots, especially dunks. We both would try to throw down on each other on offense and get our blocks on defense. He was my greatest—a lot of players’ greatest—rival.”

Even tossing out Gilmore’s five storied ABA seasons and looking strictly at his NBA numbers, the A-Train more than holds his own. He played in more NBA games than Hall of Famers Dave Cowens and Walton, averaged 32.7 mpg, had better shooting percentages from the floor and the line than he did in the ABA, and averaged only marginally fewer rebounds (10.1), assists (2.0), and points (17.7).

The only things Gilmore’s NBA career lacked were a championship or a league MVP award. And among Hall members, that resume gap doesn’t make him unique because Hall of Famers Issel, Lanier, and Nate Thurmond share it.

“Artis always presented a problem because he was immovable once he got position on the block,” Brown says. “He had a sweeping hook shot and a nice jump shot, and was a decent free-throw shooter, a nice rebounder and an excellent shot-blocker. He adhered to all of our offensive and defensive philosophies. That’s saying a lot. There are a lot of guys today who don’t do that, or they’re incapable of doing all that. He always maximized his tools.”

“When Artis wanted to win and the game was on the line, he closed it down within 10 feet,” Colonels broadcaster Van Vance says. “I don’t want to put Dr. J down, but in the final minutes of the game, I want the ball in Artis’ hands.”

Say Gilmore fell into the Boston Celtics’ hands in the 1976 ABA dispersal draft. Do you think for a minute Cowens wouldn’t have moved to power forward and Gilmore wouldn’t have roamed the center spot as part of Boston’s 1974 and 1976 title teams? Don’t hold it against Gilmore that the Bulls team he joined was so bad that, even with him, it lost 13 straight early in the 1976-77 season, or that the San Antonio Spurs team he was eventually traded to was veteran-heavy and a little low on gas.

“Artis was with the Spurs when we were at the height of our powers in L.A.,” recalls McAdoo. “Let’s face it. Winning a title takes some luck, and Artis didn’t get that lucky.”

Let’s pull the argument out of the paint and compare Gilmore and Hall of Famer David Thompson, two great collegians, stellar ABAers, and NBA stars. Thompson was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1996, having played the final ABA campaign with the Nuggets in 1975-76 and moving with Denver to the NBA, where the 6’4” guard played eight more seasons.

The only way in which Thompson dominated Gilmore was in his ability to soar. Yes, Thompson was an astounding collegian at North Carolina State, but Gilmore was as good or better, one of only seven players in NCAA history to average more than 20 points and 20 rebounds for his career, with final marks of 23.3 points and an NCAA all-time best 22.7 rebounds.

Gilmore played in more than twice as many professional games than Thompson. He fell short of an NBA ring and MVP award, but so did Thompson. Gilmore was certainly more consistent and reliable. Gilmore’s devastating knee injury during a 1980 game broke his ironman streak of 670 consecutive games played; Thompson was a more inconsistent player even when healthy, and suffered his devastating knee injury of his own falling down a flight of stairs at New York’s famed Studio 54 nightclub.

Is the Hall going the new-school route of recognizing an individual’s talent above a team’s, valuing the occasionally spectacular above the consistently great by enshrining Thompson and ignoring Gilmore?

Brown, whose only coaching title came with Gilmore as his pivot, says Gilmore’s gentle-giant nature made him almost polite on the floor: “Artis was probably the second-strongest guy to play the game, behind Wilt, with incredible size and physical strength, but with the capacity to be gentle. Wilt and Artis never hurt a player deliberately, and they could have very easily done so.”

“He was mild-mannered, not a braggart, just a quiet, modest basketball player who didn’t push his own case,” Vance says.

To Gilmore, clearly, being a great player and a great person were not mutually exclusive. “You can go out and take somebody’s head off, but they have a family, just like you. I wanted to be competitive and dominant on the floor, but I always wanted to leave the game on the floor.”

It appears that Gilmore’s humility and unassuming nature is costing him votes when it comes time for the decision-makers to consider placing a bronze bust of him alongside the legends of pro basketball. Durham says it succinctly: “He didn’t want the media attention, and he didn’t get it.”

Gilmore says that waiting for the Hall of Fame call has taken one toll in particular: “At one time, the Hall would have had major significance, but my mother, who was a double amputee, passed away a little more than two years ago. For my mother to have experienced that honor with me, well, it would have made it one of the greatest thrills of my life.”

But don’t the facts shout out for Gilmore, even if the modest superstar won’t?

Remember, Gilmore was a first-team All-ABA player and led Kentucky to the playoffs in each of his five ABA seasons. He was an All-Star in 11 of 17 ABA-NBA seasons. He never missed an ABA game. He shot better than 60% in six seasons, including an NBA all-time third-best 67.0% in 1980-81, and he led the NBA in shooting four times.

Still, one of the game’s greatest centers sits outside of the Hall of Fame, with little hope of garnering the necessary support for admission any time soon. As Gilmore himself says, “Beyond the facts and the numbers, the only thing we can do is talk about it, but that’s not going to change anything.”

“He was very coachable, extremely well-liked by his peers, very gracious. He was a total professional, never disruptive at any time,” says Brown, now an NBA TV analyst for ABC. “Everything about Artis was likable. The media, coaches, players, everyone liked Artis. You can’t meet a guy who has anything bad to say about Artis Gilmore. Why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame?”

Isn’t it time to put an end to that question by recognizing the most overlooked player in the history of pro basketball?