Artis Gilmore

By Mark Story, Lexington-Herald

 

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 major concern.

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

When Gilmore led Jacksonville University to the 1970 NCAA tournament finals, two of the Dolphins’ victims along the way were Kentucky schools.

Gilmore had 30 points as Jacksonville whipped Jim McDaniels and Western Kentucky 109-96 in the 1970 NCAA first round.

With a Final Four berth at stake, the 7-foot-2 Gilmore had 24 points and 20 rebounds in a 106-100 victory over Dan Issel and the Kentucky Wildcats in the finals of the Mideast Region. 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 its Final Four season of 1971, WKU at least got a bit of revenge. Down 18 to Jacksonville in the first half of an NCAA tourney first round matchup, Western made a stunning rally and won 72-70 on Clarence Glover’s layup with four seconds left. The 6-10 McDaniels had 23 points; Gilmore had 12.

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

By the time he left the commonwealth, Gilmore teamed with Issel and sharp-shooting guard Louie Dampier to lead the Kentucky Colonels to the 1975 ABA championship. It is the only major-league professional sports championship ever won by a team from the commonwealth.

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

‘Barely a roof overhead’
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 even 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. 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-foot. 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.

7-foot-8 counting Afro
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 frustrating 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 to Julius Erving and the Nets.

The repeated playoff failures were heartburn inducing. Most observers considered a roster that included Gilmore, Issel and 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. The center’s scoring rose from 18.7 in 1973-74 to 23.6. Still, with 10 contests left in the season, the Colonels were five games behind Dr. J’s Nets.

Then Kentucky caught fire.

The Colonels won the last 10 games of the season, beat the Nets in a onegame 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 history. 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 tend to our daughter."

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."

Gilmore went into the NBA, first with the Bulls, then the Spurs and briefly the Celtics, and averaged a double-double (points and rebounds) in eight of his first nine years in the league.

This has been a very good year for The A Train entering Hall of Fames. Tonight, he is inducted into the Kentucky Athletic Hall of Fame. Later this summer, he will be enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.

Enola Gay and Artis have five children and two grandchildren. Gilmore 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."

 

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KAHF ceremony photos by Jim Reed