Friday, June 10, 2011


The Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame’s Class of 2011, inducted on June 8 at Louisville’s Crowne Plaza Hotel. (Seated, l-r) Judy Holiday, representing her sister Bunny Daugherty, Artis Gilmore, George Tinsley, Kaelin Rybak, representing her father, Ed Kallay. (Standing, l-r) KAHF President Jim Ellis, Jerry May, Rex Chapman, Phil Roof, high school athletes of the year, Sara Hammond and DeVante Parker, and event emcee Dick Gabriel.


by Billy Reed

LOUISVILLE – At a Kentucky Colonels reunion before Artis Gilmore’s induction into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame, the biggest man in the room sat quietly in a corner, listening and laughing as old friends and former teammates told stories, some of which may have even been truthful, about the late, great American Basketball Association.

It has never been Gilmore’s way to dominate anywhere except on a basketball floor. He was never as, ah, socially active as Wilt Chamberlain…never as politically active as Bill Walton…never a self-promoter like Shaquille O’Neal. If anything, his quiet, almost regal demeanor, was more like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, against whom he had many epic battles after he joined the NBA in 1977.

Impossible as it might seem to overlook a man officially listed as 7-feet-2 –and who seemed even taller because of the huge Afro he wore during his heyday – Gilmore has never gotten the recognition he earned during a remarkable career with Jacksonville University, the Colonels, and several NBA teams, most notably the Chicago Bulls.

Only this year was he elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. His fans believe it should have happened 10 or 15 years ago, given his records and stats. The honor from the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame came years after his most celebrated Colonels’ teammates, Dan Issel and Louie Dampier, were inducted.

Asked about it the night of the Colonels’ reunion, Gilmore took the high road, of course, and said that the honors have come when they were supposed to. He was gracious and grateful instead of angry and bitter.

“Yeah, Artis,” piped up Dampier, the shooting guard for the University of Kentucky’s famed “Rupp’s Runts” team of 1966 before becoming the Colonels’ foundation signee, “maybe it would have happened sooner if you had gone to college in Kentucky.”

“Louie,” said Gilmore, smiling and pointing a longer finger at Dampier, “I like you too much to respond to that so we’re going to leave it right there.”

At 61, Artis has lost the Afro and gained some pounds. When you say he fills up a room, it is more than a cliché. But he has aged gracefully and happily. After his pro career ended in 1988, Gilmore went into business for a few years. He now works as a special assistant to the president at his alma mater.

When O’Neal announced his retirement in June, it immediately touched off a debate about where he ranked on the list of all-time-great centers. He was compared frequently with Chamberlain, Jabbar, Bill Russell, and Walton. Typically, however, Gilmore was on the fringe of the conversation despite the fact that his roots in the Deep South were closer to O’Neal’s than any of the others.

Born in the rural town of Chipley, Fla., Gilmore was raised there and in Dothan, Ala., a larger town to the north. For many of his formative years, Gilmore and his eight siblings lived in a three-room house. He has vivid memories of picking cotton and doing other hard farm labor as a youngster.

After graduating from Dothan’s Carver High in 1967, he played college ball for two years at Gardner-Webb, then a junior college, before transferring to Jacksonville, where he joined another 7-footer, Pembroke Burroughs, on a team coached by Joe Williams, whose trademark was the white suits he wore on the sidelines.

In 1970, at the end of Gilmore’s junior season, he and Issel crossed paths in the finals of the NCAA Mideast Regional in Columbus, Ohio. It was the first season after Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) had ended his run of three consecutive national titles at UCLA, and it was widely assumed that the Jacksonville-Kentucky winner would be the next NCAA champion.

The game was a classic until Issel fouled out on a controversial backcourt collision with Jacksonville’s Vaughn Wedeking. That opened the way for a 106-100 Jacksonville victory that put Gilmore’s team in the NCAA Final Four against Villanova and its star, Howard Porter.

After dispatching the team from Philadelphia, the Jaguars went for the championship against a UCLA team that had Steve Patterson at center instead of Jabbar. Nevertheless, thanks in large measure to bookend forwards Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe, the Bruins upset Jacksonville, 80-69, in the Houston Astrodome to give Coach John Wooden his fourth consecutive title and sixth in seven years.

A year later, Gilmore’s senior team was eliminated by Western Kentucky in the NCAA’s opening round. Nevertheless, Gilmore was the No. 1 draft pick in both the NBA and ABA. Many were surprised when he rejected the Bulls to accept the Kentucky Colonels’ offer of $1.5 million spread over 10 years. More than anyone except maybe Rick Barry, he gave the upstart league the credibility it needed to land future superstars such as Julius Erving, and Moses Malone.

His first season (1971-’72), he teamed with Issel and Dampier to take the Colonels to the ABA finals, where they were defeated by Utah. Nevertheless, Artis was named both Rookie of the Year and MVP. During his ABA career, Gilmore set league records for career field-goal percentage (.557), blocked shots (750), blocked shots in a season (287 in 1973-’74), and rebounds in a game (40).

The only championship of his college or pro career came in 1975, when the Colonels defeated the Indiana Pacers in the ABA finals. After the final game, Colonels’ owner John Y. Brown Jr. offered to put up $1 million (big money in those days) if the NBA champion Golden State Warriors would agree to play the Colonels in a best-of-three series to decide the overall champion.

But the Warriors declined, quite possibly because they had nobody who could match up against Gilmore. Brown’s response was to put “World Champions” on the Colonels’ rings. Alas for Brown, he made the mistake of trading Issel to Denver and the Colonels were unable to repeat in 1976, the last year of the ABA, even though Gilmore had another dominating season.

When Brown decided to fold his franchise instead of joining the merger that brought Indiana, the New York Nets, San Antonio and Denver into the NBA, his players were put into the ABA dispersal draft. To the surprise of nobody, the Bulls made Gilmore the No. 1 pick and paid Brown $1.1 million to finally get the star they had drafted five years earlier.

From 1977 through 1982, Gilmore was the Bulls’ main attraction. He led the NBA in field-goal percentage for four consecutive years, including a career-best .670 in 1980-’81, the third best in league history. Unfortunately for Gilmore and Bulls fans, he was traded to San Antonio in 1983, a year before Michael Jordan arrived from North Carolina to take the franchise to unprecedented heights.

After playing with the Spurs for four seasons, Gilmore rejoined the Bulls for part of the 1988 season before finishing his NBA career with the Boston Celtics. He’s still the NBA career leading in field-goal percentage (minimum of 2,000 shots made) at 59.9 per cent.

Maybe the fact that Gilmore never played on an NCAA or NBA championship team is one of the reasons he’s overlooked. Or maybe it’s because he played with an economy of motion that sometimes made it seem that he wasn’t playing as hard as, say, a Dave Cowens or a Walton. But that’s baloney. A man doesn’t play in 670 consecutive pro games, as Gilmore once did, unless he has a work ethic that’s off the charts.

Where does Gilmore rank on the all-time list?

Well, although he didn’t win an NCAA title at Jacksonville, he took his team to a championship game and became one of only five players to average 20 points and 20 rebounds for his career. And although he didn’t win a championship in the NBA, he played on an ABA championship team that arguably was the best pro team in the nation that season.

He was a force who always gave contemporaries Jabbar and Walton all they could handle. Other than his championship season with the Colonels, he never was surrounded by the kind of talent that surrounded Russell during his never-to-be-repeated run with the Celtics. His numbers argue that he deserves to be ranked with Shaq, if not above him.

But Gilmore lets others worry about that sort of stuff. He’s at peace with himself and his place in basketball history. He didn’t need that to be certified by the Kentucky and Naismith Halls of Fame, but he’s appreciative that his accomplishments finally are getting recognized. As Gilmore said upon his first Hall-of-Fame induction in Louisville, “This is a special summer for me.


By Mark Story — Herald-Leader Sports Columnist

When Artis Gilmore shocked the basketball establishment by shunning the NBA to sign with the Kentucky Colonels of the renegade ABA in 1971, he had one concern.

"I was afraid the fans in Kentucky didn't like me," Gilmore recalls.

As a star player at Jacksonville University, Gilmore had been part of two epic NCAA Tournament games against schools from the commonwealth.

In the 1970 NCAA tourney, Gilmore led Jacksonville (25-1) into an Elite Eight matchup with Dan Issel and Kentucky (26-1). The 7-foot-2 Gilmore had 24 points and 20 rebounds against Adolph Rupp's Wildcats. Issel had 28 points and 10 rebounds but fouled out midway through the second half on a controversial charging call.

Jacksonville 106, Kentucky 100.

The loss meant Issel — arguably the most revered player ever to wear UK blue — never made a Final Four appearance. Jacksonville went on to lose to John Wooden's UCLA dynasty 80-69 in the NCAA finals.

In the 1971 NCAA Tournament first round, Gilmore faced another big man showdown against Western Kentucky University star Jim McDaniels.

Jacksonville led 40-22 in the first half. After a stunning rally, WKU won 72-70 on a Clarence Glover layup with four seconds left. The 6-10 McDaniels had 23 points; Gilmore had 12. Western went on to reach the Final Four.

His college career over, Gilmore's next official game would be played on the same side as Kentucky basketball fans, not against them.

The 61-year-old Gilmore was back in the news in a big way last week. It was announced in Houston during the Final Four that Gilmore is at long last being inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

Gilmore — who led the Kentucky Colonels to the 1975 American Basketball Association title — was chosen by the Hall of Fame's "ABA committee."

As a star-caliber player in college basketball, the ABA and then the NBA, he should have been elected long ago via the traditional selection process.

This year is turning out to be a very good one for the Chipley, Fla., native in terms of Hall of Fame recognition.

On June 8 at a banquet in Louisville, the guy who wore No. 53 in the red, white and blue of the Colonels will be enshrined into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame.

"It turned out, I loved playing in Louisville," Gilmore said.

'Barely had a roofover our heads'

Gilmore was 22 when he came to the Colonels for the 1971-72 season. Kentucky secured the big center because it offered a 10-year, $1.5 million contract before the NBA held its 1971 draft.

"My agent said (the Kentucky offer) was the one to take," Gilmore said. "I did what he told me to do."

In a LeBron world, $150,000 a year seems like a pittance for a big-time pro athlete, but to Gilmore in 1971 it seemed like unimaginable riches.

He had grown up without much in the small Florida town of Chipley.

His dad, Otis, was a fisherman who "was basically disabled," Gilmore says. "My mother (Mattie) was a stay-at-home mom. My father had no education; my mother had very little. There were eight kids, six boys, two girls. We barely had a roof over our heads."

Gilmore's father stood 5-foot-7. His mom was 6-2. Artis, the second-oldest child in the family, took after his mom.

In Chipley in the 1950s and early '60s, public accommodations were segregated by race. Black people, Artis recalls, were required to sit in the balcony at the town's movie theater.

Still, the one time he was excluded from the movies had nothing to do with skin color. Children got in to see the pictures for 15 cents, while adults paid a quarter. A 12-year-old Artis showed up with his 15 cents — but he was so tall, he couldn't convince the theater ticket taker that he was a kid.

"And I didn't have 25 cents," Gilmore says.

In the 1960s and '70s, the NBA was known as "the big-man's league." Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain and, later, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar dominated play.

The ABA had no such giants, so sweet-shooting guards and dynamic small forwards tended to be the stars in a league whose style of play was wide open and fast-paced.

Signing Gilmore represented a direct challenge by the ABA to the NBA's defining strength. To boast, the Colonels took Gilmore to New York City for a news conference.

Decked out in platform shoes and boasting a robust Afro, Gilmore was measured at 7-8 from sole of shoe to top of hair in New York.

Gilmore was an immediate hit with the Colonels, averaging 23.8 points, 17.8 rebounds and five blocks in 1971-72. He helped Kentucky to a staggering 68-14 regular-season record and was named ABA Rookie of the Year.

Yet in what became a disturbing pattern, the Colonels were stunned in a six-game playoff loss to Rick Barry and the New York Nets. The next season, Kentucky made it to the ABA finals only to lose in seven games to the hated Indiana Pacers. In 1974, Kentucky went out in the second round of the playoffs.

The resulting frustration was immense. Most observers considered a roster that included Gilmore, his former NCAA Tournament rival Issel and long-range bomber Louie Dampier the most talented in the ABA and one of the best in all of pro basketball.

"I really can't pinpoint that," Gilmore says of what kept the Colonels from winning more titles. "Naturally, the first thing you do is blame the coach. Then you put it at the feet of the players. We had truly great talent. For whatever reason, we were unable to make that count in the playoffs."

Finally, champions

Before the 1974-75 season, Colonels ownership hired an up-and-coming NBA assistant, Hubie Brown, to coach Kentucky.

The new boss decided to run more of the team's offense through Gilmore, meaning less offensive emphasis for Issel. Given that Big Dan was arguably the most popular person in the commonwealth, it was a controversial, if gutsy, coaching move.

Gilmore's scoring rose from 18.7 in 1973-74 to 23.6; Issel's fell from 25.5 to 17.7.

With 10 contests left in the season, the Colonels were five games behind Julius Erving and the Nets. Then Kentucky caught fire.

The Colonels won the last 10 games of the season, beat the Nets in a one-game showdown for the division crown, and then rampaged through the playoffs. Kentucky lost only three games total while beating Memphis, St. Louis and, finally, the rival Pacers for the elusive ABA championship.

The night the Colonels clinched the crown, May 22, 1975, a Freedom Hall throng of 16,622 witnessed both history and something bizarre. As the Kentucky players began to cut down the nets, a thunderstorm knocked out electricity and plunged the arena into darkness.

Before the game, Gilmore and his wife, Enola Gay, had left their daughter, Shawna, with a young baby sitter.

"That was such a thrilling moment," Gilmore says of the Colonels' championship. "My wife and I, we were talking the other day about the big storm that night. Our baby sitter, she lit candles after the lights went out. Our daughter lit her hair on fire. We had to leave the arena and get that tended to."

End game

For the Colonels, the championship feeling was fleeting.

The ensuing summer, team owner John Y. Brown Jr. sold Issel's contract to the Baltimore Claws. He said it was necessary to keep afloat a franchise that was not making money in spite of its winning ways.

An infuriated fan base never forgave the team.

One year later, four ABA franchises, the Nuggets, Spurs, Pacers and Nets, were absorbed into the NBA, The Colonels and the rest of the league fell defunct.

"I was upset," Gilmore says. "They told me I would be going to Chicago (in the dispersal draft). At the time, I much rather would have been here in Louisville."

The reason Gilmore should have been a Basketball Hall of Famer long before now is that he went into the NBA, first with the Bulls, then the Spurs and briefly the Celtics, and was an elite player.

He averaged a double-double (points and rebounds) in eight of his first nine years in the league. His career averages in NBA action are 17.1 points, 10.1 rebounds, 2 blocks and 2 assists.

Today, Gilmore and Enola Gay have five children and two grandchildren. Artis has returned to Jacksonville University where he works as a special assistant to the school's president.

Yet the Florida native still feels a connection to the state where he won his only professional championship — the state he worried did not like him at the time he signed with the Colonels way back in 1971.

"They never forget you," Gilmore said of Kentucky sports fans. "They respect athletes there. If you are part of a Kentucky team, they treat you like a Kentuckian."