Legends profile: Artis Gilmore
In the 1970s and '80s, Artis Gilmore fashioned a dominating career in the paint in the ABA and NBA.
Artis Gilmore’s low-key personality and unpretentious playing style certainly didn’t generate the hype that illuminated many other star centers of his day. But when he went up for a rebound or to block a shot, everybody knew who he was.
Regarded as one of the strongest men ever to play professional basketball, Gilmore was one of the league’s most intimidating centers during the 1970s and ’80s. Most players knew better than to bring the ball to the hoop when the 7-foot-2 Gilmore was in the middle.
During his long career that spanned 12 seasons in the NBA and five in the American Basketball Association, Gilmore was known as a workhorse, playing 670 consecutive games at one stretch. He barely spoke above a whisper and rarely got in fights or argued with referees. Instead of lashing out verbally, the media-shy Gilmore responded to critics who called him lazy and uninspired by staging comeback after comeback and by remaining a potent force until the end of his career.
Gilmore was an All-Star in 11 of his 17 seasons as a pro, his last selection coming at age 36. Scoring most of his more than 15,000 NBA points with dunks, finger-rolls and baby hook shots, the left-handed Gilmore posted a career .599 field-goal percentage, an NBA record. He shot .600 or better in six different seasons, and he led the NBA in field-goal percentage four times. His 1,747 NBA blocked shots rank him near the top in that category as well. Gilmore also earned All-ABA First Team honors in each of his five seasons with the Kentucky Colonels, and he was the league’s MVP and Rookie of the Year in 1971-72.
Multi-million dollar contracts and NBA stardom were as far from Gilmore’s rural southern upbringing as one could get. He was born in Chipley, a town of about 5,000 in Florida’s Panhandle. As a 6-foot-5, 145-pound high school freshman, Gilmore wanted to play tight end on the football team, but his parents couldn’t afford the required insurance.
Gilmore’s father, a fisherman who worked irregularly, could barely scrape together enough money to house and feed his 10 children. And Gilmore’s mother (like her son, taller than average at 6-foot) was too busy taking care of the kids to bring in much money on her own. Sometimes the children went without food, clothes, and school supplies. The young Artis went barefoot when his shoe size grew beyond 13; the local stores didn’t have anything that big. And his friends worried that he wasn’t eating enough.
Gilmore’s parents, although of limited education, did their best to teach their son right from wrong. “They had been taught there was one way to live-the right way-and they instilled it into us,” Gilmore told the Chicago Tribune in 1977.
As a 6-foot-9½ high school senior, Gilmore moved to Dothan, Ala., 30 miles to the north. He quickly took to his new surroundings and was named a third-team high school All-American.
After two years at Gardner-Webb Junior College in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gilmore had reached his full height and had bulked up to enormous size. He was ready for the big time — Jacksonville University, which was closer to his family. As a senior in 1970-71, he led the Dolphins to a 27-2 record and the NCAA title game, where they lost to UCLA.
In two years at Jacksonville, Gilmore became one of the few college players ever to average at least 20 points and 20 rebounds over a career. He led the nation in rebounding as both a junior and a senior, and he still holds the highest career rebounding average (22.7 rpg) in NCAA Division I history.
Then came the bidding war between the NBA and the ABA. The Colonels wanted Gilmore, and they signed him to a 10-year, $2.5 million contract with the team. The investment immediately paid big dividends as youngster with the mutton chop sideburns, 31-inch waist, and 27-inch thighs was an instant star.
The ABA was at its peak around the time Gilmore entered the league. The names of future NBA stars such as Julius Erving, George McGinnis, Dan Issel, Rick Barry, George Gervin, Spencer Haywood and David Thompson graced the top of the statistical charts.
Gilmore led the Colonels to an ABA-record .810 winning percentage during the 1971-72 season. Gilmore won both the Rookie of the Year and MVP, finished 10th in the league in scoring (23.8 ppg), first in rebounds (17.8 rpg) and first in field-goal percentage (.598). He was named to the All-Star Team, as he would be in all five of his ABA seasons. In the playoffs, however, the Colonels lost 4-2 to the New York Nets in the first round.
Gilmore would star as long as the league lasted. Over the next four seasons, he carried the Colonels to the playoffs every year and in his five-year ABA career, he played in every game — 420 in all. He led the league in rebounding four times and in field-goal percentage twice. He also finished in the top 10 in scoring all five seasons and set ABA records for career blocks (750), blocks during a season (422 in 1971-72), career field-goal percentage (.557), and rebounds in one game (40 versus New York, on Feb. 3, 1974).
Gilmore, joined by the high-scoring Issel in the frontcourt, led the Colonels to two ABA Finals, both against Indiana. The Colonels lost in 1972-73 in seven games but won the title in 1975 title in five games.
When the league folded after the 1975-76 season, Gilmore was the No. 1 pick in the ABA dispersal draft, picked ahead of Maurice Lucas, Moses Malone and other stars. The Chicago Bulls, with a league-worst 24-58 record the season before, selected Gilmore and agreed to pay him $1.1 million over three years. Much of Gilmore’s early time in the Windy City would be unpleasant, as the Bulls opened the 1976-77 season with 13 straight losses.
Gilmore and the Bulls erupted in the second half of the season, however, winning 20 of their last 24 games to make the playoffs. In a late-season game against Seattle, Gilmore registered 32 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and four blocks. He ended the season averaging 18.6 ppg, 13.0 rpg (fourth in the league) and 2.48 bpg (also fourth). The Bulls’ postseason visit was short, as they were swept by the Trail Blazers.
In 1977-78, Gilmore made the first of six All-Star appearances and also earned a berth on the All-Defensive Second Team. But the Bulls lost ground, finishing 40-42 and missing the playoffs. They would return to postseason play only once more — in 1981 — during Gilmore’s six years in Chicago.
Statistically, at least, Gilmore slipped only slightly after making the transition from the weaker ABA. He nearly matched his ABA high in scoring in 1978-79 with a 23.7 average, placing ninth in the league. He averaged at least 17.8 ppg each year with the Bulls and consistently ranked near the top of the league in rebounds, blocked shots and, of course, field-goal percentage. His .670 field-goal percentage in 1980-81 is the third highest of all time; Wilt Chamberlain owns the top two spots. He played in four All-Star Games as a member of the Bulls and played 250 straight games until he hurt his knee in the fourth game of 1979-80. He then returned to play in 212 straight games.
Despite Gilmore’s efforts, many complained that the passive center didn’t look mean enough on the court. Or that his playing style was too predictable. Or that he wasn’t aggressive enough. Or that he didn’t know what to do when he didn’t have the ball. Or that he didn’t make the most of his awesome size and strength. (One writer once said Gilmore had a “6-2 soul in a 7-2 body.”) The Bulls weren’t as good as Chicago fans wanted them to be. Naturally, the public thought to blame the big guy in the middle.
Naturally, Gilmore never quite understood what his detractors were talking about. “The biggest guys get so much of the blame anyway because they stand out,” he reasoned. “I went out and played hard every night, but there’s only so much one individual can do. You know everybody’s giving their all, but you just don’t match up with other teams.”
After the 1981-82 campaign, the 32-year-old Gilmore asked to be traded. He left as the franchise’s third-leading rebounder and fourth-leading scorer. Gilmore was dealt to the Spurs for Dave Corzine, Mark Olberding and cash.
Unlike the Bulls, the Spurs were already a fine team when Gilmore arrived. Behind Gervin’s league-leading scoring, San Antonio had won two straight Midwest Division titles. Although many thought he was too old to contribute significantly, Gilmore fit right in.
With the Spurs repeating as division winners in 1982-83, Gilmore repeated as the league field-goal percentage champ (.626) and was an All-Star. The Spurs’ 53-29 was their best since joining the league in 1976, but San Antonio lost to the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in the West finals.
Perhaps best of all, Gilmore was appreciated. “I love it,” Gervin told the Houston Chronicle. “I have never played with a dominant center before, and I’m enjoying it.” Perhaps as a result, Gilmore’s personality lightened, and he started making promotional appearances around San Antonio.
In the years that followed, Gervin kept scoring and Gilmore did what he does best: rebounding, blocking shots, intimidating and shooting with record precision. He finished among the top two in field-goal percentage in each of his five years in San Antonio. In 1985-86, at age 36 and with the Spurs finishing last in the division, Gilmore played in his last All-Star Game.
By the mid-1980s, the Spurs were a team on the decline. They won between 28 and 41 games per year during Gilmore’s final four years there and made the playoffs twice, losing in the first round both times.
Gilmore, his scoring reduced to 11.4 points per game, was sent back to Chicago after the 1986-87 season. After playing 24 games for the Bulls in 1987-88, he was cut and then picked up by Boston, where he finished the season as a backup for Robert Parish. Gilmore, the gentle giant, retired that summer at age 38.
After 909 regular-season games, Gilmore left the NBA with 15,579 points (17.1 ppg), 9,161 rebounds (10.1 rpg) and 1,747 blocked shots. During his five years in the ABA, he tallied 9,362 points (22.3 ppg), 7,169 rebounds (17.1 rpg) and a league-record 750 blocks. He is one of only 24 players to score a total of 20,000 points (ABA and NBA combined).
A year after retiring Gilmore made yet another comeback. Playing for Bologna Arimo of the Italian League in 1988-89, he averaged 12.3 points and 11.0 rebounds and made the European All-Star Team.
Though he stopped playing in the NBA in 1988, it took a long time for Gilmore to receive a much-overdue accolade: a spot in the Hall of Fame. He was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011.