Still waiting for Hall of Fame call
Gilmore led unheralded Jacksonville to the 1970 NCAA Championship game against perennial powerhouse UCLA. Coached by the legendary John Wooden, the Bruins had already won three straight titles en route to a record seven consecutive championships. Gilmore had 19 points and 16 rebounds as Jacksonville gave the Bruins their toughest battle yet in a title game before succumbing 80-69. He was a Consensus All-America 1st Team selection in 1971, but Jacksonville lost a first round NCAA Tournament game to Western Kentucky on a last second shot. Gilmore led Jacksonville to a 48-6 record during those two seasons, averaging 24.3 ppg to go along with his record rebounding average.
He had an immediate impact upon joining the ABA's Kentucky Colonels for the 1971-72 season, winning Rookie of the Year and MVP honors after ranking tenth in scoring (23.8 ppg) and leading the league with 17.8 rpg, .598 field goal shooting, 3666 minutes played (43.6 mpg) and an ABA record 422 blocked shots (5.0 bpg). Kentucky improved from 44-40 in 1970-71 to a league record 68-16. Gilmore posted virtually identical numbers in the postseason, but a hot-shooting Rick Barry led the New York Nets to a 4-2 upset victory over the Colonels.
In 1972-73 the Colonels went 56-28 and advanced to the ABA Finals, where they lost in seven games to their arch rivals, the Indiana Pacers – Gilmore averaged 22.1 ppg, 17.3 rpg, 5.3 apg and 4.0 bpg for the series. During the regular season, Gilmore again led the ABA in rebounding (17.6 rpg), field goal percentage (.559) and blocks (3.1 bpg) and ranked second in minutes played (3502) and tenth in scoring (20.8 ppg).
Darnell Hillman, a great shot blocker who played forward and center for the Pacers, will never forget his encounters with Gilmore.
"If I wanted to be anyone other than Darnell I wanted to be Artis' size and still have my jumping ability. Every time I walked out on the floor with him, I always challenged him as best I could-6-9 versus 7-2. Artis would block my dunk shots all the time and that was the key that really turned me on to go back after him and block his dunks. So that was a rivalry right there between Artis and I."
Hillman learned the value of preparation and anticipation by playing against Gilmore and practicing against Indiana teammate Mel Daniels, a two-time ABA MVP.
"I gave away a lot of pounds and inches, so I had to be very clever. That came from playing against Mel in practice.When Artis decided to throw it down, he was going to throw it down and I had to be there to catch it before he really got a full head of steam going to throw it down."
Daniels, the director of player personnel for the Pacers since 1996, offers this scouting report of Gilmore:
"He was very efficient, a very good offensive basketball player, could defend, could block shots, run very well, and score on the block. If you look at some of the guys who are in the Hall of Fame, he should definitely be in the Hall of Fame. The guy has proven himself in both leagues."
Kentucky went 53-31 in 1973-74, sweeping Larry Brown's Carolina Cougars in the first round of the playoffs before being swept by Julius Erving's Nets in the second round. Gilmore led the ABA in rebounding (18.3 rpg), ranked first in minutes (3502) and second in blocked shots (3.4 bpg).
The Colonels hired Hubie Brown as head coach before the 1974-75 season. Gilmore echoes what teammate Joe Hamilton told this writer at the ABA Reunion: Brown's encyclopedic basketball knowledge and meticulous game planning are the hoops equivalent to the football wizardry of New England Patriots' coach Bill Belichick.
Gilmore says of Brown, "He was a very detail-oriented coach and as a result when we competed against teams he had statistics and reports about some of the things that were successful against those particular teams. In a sense, he was ahead of his time by having such detailed scouting reports."
That may not seem like a big deal now, but only a few years earlier Bill Fitch and the Cleveland Cavaliers made expansion draft selections on the basis of statistics found on basketball cards.
In 1974-75, Gilmore ranked first in minutes (3493), second in rebounding (16.2 rpg), second in field goal percentage (.580), second in blocks (3.1 bpg) and sixth in scoring (23.6 ppg). The Colonels finished with a 58-26 record, including a 22-3 mark in the last 25 games. Kentucky stormed to the title with a 12-3 postseason run. Gilmore ranked first in playoff rebounding (17.6 rpg) and was among the postseason leaders in scoring, field goal percentage and blocked shots. He averaged 25 ppg, 21 rpg and 1.2 bpg in the 4-1 win over Indiana in the ABA Finals. In a game three victory he rang up 41 points and 28 rebounds and in the game five series clincher he had 28 points and 31 rebounds.
Kentucky's success on the court did not lead to financial stability for the franchise, so owner John Y. Brown sold star forward Dan Issel to the Baltimore Claws for $500,000. The Claws franchise was in much worse shape financially than Kentucky and could not pay the $500,000, so the deal was reworked with the Denver Nuggets paying the $500,000 for Issel and compensating Baltimore by shipping them Dave Robisch.
Losing Issel was a big blow to the Colonels, who fell to 46-38 in 1975-76. They beat Indiana in a first round mini-series and pushed the 60-24 Nuggets to seven games in the next round. Gilmore had his best professional
The NBA agreed to merge with four of the remaining ABA teams after the 1975-76 season. The owners of the Spirits of St. Louis and Kentucky Colonels received financial settlements in lieu of joining the combined league. A dispersal draft was held to allocate the ABA players whose teams folded and Gilmore was selected first overall by the Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls started 3-14 in the 1976-77 season, but closed on a 20-4 run to qualify for the playoffs with a 44-38 record. Chicago lost 2-1 to Bill Walton and the Portland Trail Blazers, who went on to win the championship. Gilmore ranked fourth in rebounding (13.0 rpg) and blocked shots (2.5 bpg) and tenth in field goal percentage (.522).
During Gilmore's Chicago years he perennially ranked among the league leaders in rebounding, blocked shots and field goal percentage and finished as high as ninth in scoring (23.7 ppg in 1978-79), but the Bulls never surrounded Gilmore with enough talent to be a contender.
Before the 1982-83 season, the Bulls traded Gilmore to the San Antonio Spurs, one of the four ABA teams that joined the NBA during the merger. Now the Spurs had a formidable inside-outside duo with Gilmore and All-NBA guard George Gervin. The Spurs won a then franchise-record 53 games and made it to the Western Conference Finals, losing to the defending champion Lakers 4-2. Gilmore led the league in field goal percentage (.626) while ranking fourth in rebounding (12.0 rpg) and fifth in blocks (2.3 bpg).
"Artis Gilmore was incredibly agile and was just an amazing shot blocker. In fact, I've had him on my radio show a couple times, and I think that he stopped blocking some of the shots because they were calling goaltending on him. I don't think that anybody had ever seen anything like that and they figured that he had to be goaltending, that you can't possibly block somebody's jump shot."
Although Gilmore is listed in Alex Sachare's 1997 book The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame's 100 Greatest Basketball Players of All-Time, he has not advanced beyond the finalist stage in the induction process (most of the other 99 players profiled in the book who have been retired long enough to be eligible for induction are members of the Hall of Fame).
David Friedman’s work has appeared in Hoop, Basketball Digest, Sports Collectors Digest and Tar Heel Monthly. He wrote the chapter on the NBA in the 1970s for the anthology Basketball in America: From the Playgrounds to Jordan's Game and Beyond (Haworth Press, 2005). Check out his basketball blog at 20secondtimeout.blogspot.com
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