Artis Gilmore’s basketball career remains underappreciated


If you’re a UCLA basketball fan of a certain age, your first glimpse of Artis Gilmore probably was at the Final Four.

Forty years ago this week, looking every bit the heir apparent to former UCLA star Lew Alcindor as college basketball’s dominant big man, the 7-foot-2 Gilmore led upstart Jacksonville to the championship game of the NCAA tournament.

Once there, however, Gilmore and the Dolphins were cut down to size by Sidney Wicks and UCLA, the Bruins winning their fourth consecutive title and an unflattering image of Gilmore forming in the minds of skeptical fans from coast to coast.

Gilmore had four shots blocked by Wicks, who gave away six inches in height but nothing in fire or moxie.

Gilmore would go on to play 17 seasons in the ABA and NBA, scoring nearly 25,000 points and leading the Kentucky Colonels to an ABA title, but to some he never shook the initial impression that he was too nice for his own good, too sensitive to be great — or at least as great as everybody seemed to expect.

Perhaps that’s why Gilmore, 22 years removed from the NBA, still has not been voted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame despite numbers suggesting that he belongs.

Not that Gilmore, 60, is about to plead his own case.

“I don’t really have any comment I can make,” says the Florida native, who returned to his alma mater two years ago to serve as a special assistant to university President Kerry Romesburg. “Certainly, I would like to be in the Hall of Fame, but the individuals that make those decisions. …”

His voice trails off.

He’ll leave it to others to suggest that his omission from the Hall of Fame is perhaps the basketball shrine’s most glaring.

Hubie Brown, who coached Gilmore and the Colonels to an ABA championship in 1975, calls it “baffling.” Along with Wilt Chamberlain and Shaquille O’Neal, Brown says, Gilmore ranked among the three strongest players in NBA history.

Born into poverty in Chipley, Fla., a village of 3,000, Gilmore grew into a “Tyrannosaurus rex … in a league of giraffes,” one writer noted, with a 32-inch waist and 27-inch thighs.

One of 10 children, he wanted to play football in high school, but his parents couldn’t afford the insurance required.

“We couldn’t afford many things,” says Gilmore, whose father was an itinerant fisherman who didn’t work. “Most of the time it was whether or not we could afford to put food on the table.”

In two seasons at Jacksonville, Gilmore averaged 22.7 rebounds a game, setting an NCAA record that still stands.

Of his championship matchup with Wicks and the Bruins, Gilmore says, “He was a good player; he was able to block a couple shots. I can’t look back and say it was goaltending because it wasn’t called, but there were some questionable decisions that were made, probably on my part as well.”

In his first season with the Colonels, Gilmore was the ABA’s rookie of the year and its most valuable player.

Generally considered the ABA’s second-best player behind Julius Erving, Gilmore joined the Chicago Bulls in 1976 after the ABA-NBA merger. A six-time NBA all-star, he averaged 17 points and 10 rebounds in 12 seasons with the Bulls, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics. He made 59.9% of his shots, setting a still-standing league record for career field-goal percentage.

As a pro, he averaged 18.8 points and 12.3 rebounds.

Critics, however, dismissed the shy and soft-spoken Gilmore as methodical and dispassionate, saying that he rarely showed emotion and played the game with an expressionless face.

“I have no idea what that meant,” Gilmore says. “When we played, if I dunked the ball, there was no celebration. You didn’t stand over your opponent, beating your chest.

“That’s not what we did. We weren’t about that.”

Says Brown, who coached Gilmore during the big man’s last two seasons in Kentucky: “I don’t understand the criticism or the lack of support because I saw how he dominated in the ABA — and I don’t think anyone could say we didn’t have talent.

“He was an excellent rebounder, great shot-blocker, intimidator in the painted area and, for me, a major scorer.

“If you didn’t like his gait, please look at his numbers.”

Gilmore, in his playing days, often escaped into environments where he was treated like anybody else, such as underwater, where he was an oversized but enthusiastic scuba diver.

He no longer dives, he says, but loves to golf.

He and his wife, Enola Gay, married 37 years, have three sons and two daughters. Like her father, daughter Priya played in an NCAA championship game — with the Louisiana Tech women’s basketball team in 1998.

“That,” Gilmore notes, “was quite a thrill.”

No less thrilling, he imagines, would have been making it into the Hall of Fame while his mother, Mattie, was alive.

A diabetic and double amputee, she died in 2004.

“She was the backbone of our family,” Gilmore says. “I thought it would be an incredible acknowledgement to her to be sitting in front with that beautiful smile of hers, enjoying the moment.

“That would have been one of the highlight moments of my life.”

But she’s gone, and he’s still waiting.