Posted Jul 27 2011 6:57PM
Artis Gilmore, they said, wasn't mean enough.
Not mean enough? The man was 7-foot-2, with an Afro hairstyle that added another six or seven inches. He had hands that made a basketball look like a grapefruit and an intimidating strength borne the hard way, in the backs of the watermelon trucks he loaded in his youth. Dirt-poor and "dirt-strong," as they say down South, which is where Gilmore grew up more than a half century ago enduring slights and prejudices left over from a half century before that. Perpetrated by people whom the tall, powerful athlete quite literally could have snapped in half.
Not mean enough? Gilmore was born in Chipley, Fla., by the light of a kerosene lamp in his home and given a name ("Artis") that the midwife offered. The second oldest of Otis and Mattie Gilmore's nine children, raised in the family's three-room house, he eventually shared a bedroom with five brothers. Their father was a fisherman, his work not steady, so Gilmore and his siblings would take to the fields, picking cotton, peanuts, watermelons. Cotton paid $2.50 "a hundred" (pounds picked), watermelons $5 for the day. And even then there were weeks when the young man went without shoes, size-13's being a little hard to come by in their small town on the Florida panhandle.
Not mean enough? Gilmore not only survived all of the above, he thrived. He carried a tiny private school, Jacksonville University, to the Final Four and an NCAA championship showdown with John Wooden's dynasty from UCLA. He had instant success as a pro as the ABA's Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in 1971-72, dominating that rebel league, winning a championship ring in his fourth season and showing up every night, 420 out of 420 games (and another 250 straight in the NBA), same as if it was the truck pulling up, headed to the fields, Gilmore's black neighbors jammed in the back.
He arrived in the NBA in 1976 with the burden of carrying a Chicago Bulls team -- post-Walker, Love and Sloan, pre-Jordan and Pippen -- to an imagined title. Instead, he only stacked up eight double-double seasons in nine years (five in Chicago, three in San Antonio), earned six more All-Star appearances (after five in the ABA) and stayed selective and accurate enough in his shooting to rank No. 1 all-time in NBA field-goal percentage (.599).
And then, of course, wait around for 23 years after his retirement to get the Hall of Fame call that should have come a decade or so earlier.
Not mean enough? The greater question might be why Artis Gilmore -- finally headed into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Aug. 12 as part of the Class of 2011 -- wasn't meaner, going through all that.
"Thank goodness," said Kevin McHale, the fellow Hall of Famer who played against, and for one season in Boston, with Gilmore. "Had 'The A-Train' had a different mindset, there would have been bodies strewn around the NBA for a long time."
Nah. Not by this gentle giant.
"When you lose your emotions, it can be very severe," Gilmore calmly explained over breakfast on a recent trip back to Chicago. "I left it on the court. Once we were off the court, I never had a situation where I was really upset and hated that guy."
So Gilmore never wondered if his critics might be onto something, that he might have had a more successful career if only he'd packed a mean streak?
"I don't think so," the big man said, smiling.
Neither does Hubie Brown, another Hall of Famer who -- as coach with the ABA Kentucky Colonels from 1974-76 -- had Gilmore at his best.
"Why would anyone want [him to be mean]? Artis was extremely liked by his peers," Brown said. "He had a wonderful, warm personality. He's a humble man. He's not about himself. He was all about the team and during my two years with him, never late. Never fined. He was one of the guys -- that's a hell of a statement when you're talking about guys of this talent level."
The idea of wanting more, the wrongheaded notion that the big guy must be holding something back, is right out of a Wilt Chamberalin's "Nobody loves Goliath" playbook. He heard it about championships and his intensity in certain playoff situations. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar heard it about his rebounding and his aloofness. Gilmore heard it for his teams' results -- he appeared in only 28 postseason games in his first 10 NBA seasons, before going along for a 14-game ride with the Celtics in 1988 -- and for what some mistook as a passive style, just because he wasn't diving and skinning his knees like Dave Cowens.
Brown never bought any of it. "When you separate guys, I always use the word 'attendance.' Attendance is the No. 1 criteria to me," he said. "The second criteria to me is, how was the guy on the defensive end of the floor? Well, he was superior there, not just because of the rebounding but because of the shot-blocking. And I know that Rick Barry, one of the truly great scorers of all time, said that Artis was the best shot-blocker that he ever played against. That's a heavy statement."
A contributing factor in Gilmore's long wait for the Hall, some of his family and friends believe, was the choppiness of his career. He truly seemed to be caught in the switches, splitting his time at every level.
As a boy, he switched high schools, finishing up in Dothan, Ala., in a better program and a chance to get out of that crowded Gilmore house. In college, he spent two years at Gardner-Webb right before the junior college converted to a four-year school, then transferred to Jacksonville to be closer to home. Along the way Gilmore skipped an invitation to the 1968 U.S. Olympic trials, fearing that his grades and eligibility might suffer.
It wasn't UCLA or Kentucky -- but Jacksonville, with Gilmore, was headed straight at those college basketball powers. Led by coach Joe Williams, Gilmore, fellow 7-footer Pembrook Burrows and guard Rex Morgan, the Dolphins became the first NCAA team to average more than 100 points per game in a season and the tiniest school (with about 2,200 undergraduates) to reach the Final Four and the title game.
Gilmore averaged 26.5 points and 22.2 rebounds to help Jacksonville reach the tournament with a 23-1 mark, then beat Western Kentucky, Iowa and Kentucky. In their semifinal game, the Dolphins beat St. Bonaventure -- future Hall of Fame big man Bob Lanier was hurt -- before falling to Wooden's squad, 80-69.
As a senior, Gilmore led the Dolphins to 15 consecutive victories and, as they outscored opponents by 20 points nightly, another NCAA berth. A loss to Western Kentucky this time sealed Gilmore's Jacksonville record at 49-6. He averaged 23.3 points in 121 college games and his 22.7 rebounding average still ranks No. 1 in NCAA history, ahead of Bill Russell (20.3), Elgin Baylor (19.5), Wes Unseld (18.9) and Chamberlain (18.3).
And then Gilmore was on the move again. The ABA was a funky, flashy '70s league of shooting guards and small forwards -- think Julius Erving, the dazzling dunker who will introduce his friend Gilmore into the Hall soon -- but it was desperate for big men. So the Colonels landed Gilmore with a 10-year, $1.5 million contract before the NBA could even draft him. Teaming with Dan Issel and Louis Dampier, Gilmore dominated at both ends and helped Kentucky to a 68-16 record (the Lakers set an NBA record that season at 69-13).
But the Colonels could not get over the postseason hump -- they lost in the first round, in The Finals and in the semifinals in Gilmore's first three seasons. That's when owner John Y. Brown hired Hubie Brown, an assistant under Larry Costello in Milwaukee, who brought along the Bucks' playbook for Abdul-Jabbar.
"There was no better offense run for any center at that time than what Larry Costello ran for Kareem," the coach said. "Getting Kareem in position where he could make the catches against whatever defenses you were playing, and then be able to get him hot for second shots in his best areas. ... We went through [Gilmore] in the pivot area and we ran all of our plays to make sure that he would touch the ball every third time down the floor."
With the big man as focal point, Kentucky lost a total of only three games -- going "fo', fo', fo' " -- in the playoffs against Memphis, St. Louis and finally Indiana. But John Y. Brown, citing money problems, sold Issel's contract to Baltimore after the season and, with the popular U.K. star gone, the Colonels' finances only got worse. When the NBA cut its deal to accept four ABA teams (Pacers, Nuggets, Spurs and Nets), Kentucky and St. Louis were disbanded, with Gilmore winding up in Chicago as the No. 1 pick in the 1976 dispersal draft.
The NBA was ripe for the talent transfusion that the blending brought -- 10 of the 26 players in the 1977 All-Star Game were ABA alumni -- but Gilmore was saddled with a Bulls team that dropped 14 of its first 16 games. Chicago finished 21-6 after the break, though, before falling to the eventual champs, the Portland Trail Blazers, in the first round.
And so it went, with Gilmore excelling individually while his teams in Chicago and San Antonio sputtered. Before and after his trade to the Spurs in July 1982, he put together six seasons in which he posted a .638 field-goal percentage. From age 31 to 36, Gilmore averaged 17.7 points and 10.3 rebounds while missing only 30 games; Shaquille O'Neal, at the same ages, averaged 19.1 points and 9.5 rebounds while missing 117.
At the end, Gilmore even sampled the Euroleague, exiting the Celtics and playing the 1988-89 season with Bologna Arimo in Italy. He and his wife Enola Gay took the whole family over -- they have five mostly grown children now (Artis Jr., 14, is the youngest) and two grandchildren -- for the cultural experience as much as for the basketball. He works these days as a special assistant to the president at Jacksonville University.
For a long time, the NBA was resistant even to the ABA's statistics, first ignoring and later keeping them separate on all the all-time lists. But the acceptance of NBA/ABA stats has grown -- it's hard to claim Erving, Issel, George Gervin, Moses Malone, Maurice Lucas, David Thompson and others as your own without acknowledging the work they did with the red, white and blue basketball -- and put Gilmore's achievements in perspective.
He ranks 10th in games played, eighth in minutes, fifth in rebounds, fourth in blocks and second in field-goal percentage (Shaq has him with .5823 to Gilmore's .5819). In the metric of win-shares, which estimates the number of wins contributed by an individual, his total of 189.7 is sixth, trailing only Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Karl Malone, Michael Jordan and John Stockton.
As for his ranking in points scored -- 24,941 for the No. 20 spot -- Gilmore used to look up at the 19 names above him and see 19 enshrined (or soon to be) Hall of Famers. He could look below him and see the next 18 already in or headed to Springfield. Now -- thanks to the Hall's new ABA selection committee that eventually might honor Dampier, Mel Daniels, Roger Brown and others -- there's no gap in that scoring list named Gilmore.
He's in, without ever turning mean. His induction speech could be the gentlest of the night in Springfield this summer.
The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.