Artis Gilmore enjoyed a decorated basketball career, in which he played alongside every standard-bearer of the game from Dan Issel to Larry Bird. The “A-Train” competed for an NCAA championship with the 1970 Jacksonville Dolphins, won an ABA title and Playoffs MVP award with the 1975 Kentucky Colonels, and averaged a double-double for his entire 17-year professional career. Some 20 years after his final put-back bucket, rebound and vicious blocked shot, the Naismith Hall of Fame came calling, inducting Gilmore in 2011.
Before all of those accolades, however, Gilmore started his journey to basketball greatness in Boiling Springs, North Carolina.
Gardner-Webb Junior College was in its hoops heyday, guided by legendary coach Eddie Holbrook. The school was still several years away from its move to a four-year institution, but was about to welcome a “gentle giant” from Chipley, Florida, onto its campus. Gilmore played two successful years that would forever cement him in the school’s lore, including a trip to the 1968-69 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) tournament in Hutchinson, Kansas.
A time of transition
Gilmore arrived at a newly-integrated school, as two seasons prior, Sonny Johnson became the first African-American player for the Runnin’ Bulldog program. The experience was a new – but welcomed – one for the rising star, which he recalled before being honored at the school’s recent Hoopscoming event, commemorating that 1968-69 team and all Gardner-Webb basketball alumni.
“When I arrived here with Gardner-Webb, that was the first time in my culture – my whole life – in a mixed environment,” said Gilmore, who played his high school basketball at Carver High School in Dothan, Alabama, which became fully integrated in 1969. “(To) most young black athletes – not necessarily (just) athletes, but students – who attended white institutions, there were always some challenges, some really difficult times. None of those things happened (here).”
Gilmore credits the Gardner-Webb faculty and staff of the time with easing his transition.
“The staff and everybody (was) able and willing to work with us,” said Gilmore. “Considering probably faculty, staff, and everybody had not had that many opportunities during that time to have worked with black athletes – black students, period – it was a tremendous period of time.”
Going home again
Gilmore’s ascent, both on the floor and in life, was a rapid one. After two remarkable years in which he accumulated 1,543 points, averaging 22.5 points and 16.9 rebounds in his time at the school, he transferred to Jacksonville University in Florida to play for coach Joe Williams. Gilmore took the Dolphins to the NCAA Tournament in both 1969-70 and 1970-71.
After a 109-96, first-round defeat of Western Kentucky, Jacksonville pulled out a 104-103 victory over national power Iowa. That game almost ended the Dolphins’ run in the tournament, as Gilmore fouled out after recording a 30-point, 17-board effort against the Hawkeyes. Gilmore recalled the conversation he had with fellow seven-footer and Jacksonville Hall of Famer Pembrook Burrows that day, as time wound down.
“Coach (Williams) called time out with a few seconds left on the clock, and I said (to Burrows), ‘Man, listen, big guy, you’ve gotta get it going,’ and he said, ‘I guess so. You’re sitting on the bench’,” said Gilmore with a laugh. “Pembrook was able to put back a shot with three seconds left on the clock, and we were able to move past Iowa, who was probably one of the best teams in the tournament.” Burrows tallied 23 points and nine boards in the victory.
Wins over Kentucky and St. Bonaventure followed, and on March 21, 1970, Gilmore found himself at the pinnacle of college basketball. The Dolphins battled legendary UCLA and coach John Wooden for the national title. UCLA secured the 80-69 victory and its fourth of seven straight national championships, but that time playing for Holbrook at Gardner-Webb laid the foundation for that success.
“This (Gardner-Webb) was an environment where we were comfortable, and we were treated with ultimate respect here on campus,” said Gilmore. “Coach Eddie Holbrook was a young, developing star as a head coach, and Joe Williams was an experienced individual. His relationship and mine developed really (well), and he put me in a situation where I was really starting to grow and become more comfortable. With that, a transformation came in my ability to absorb the game of basketball and move forward, and allow us to compete a few years later against Coach Wooden in the national championship.”
Building a professional legend
After two seasons at Jacksonville in which he averaged a staggering 24.3 points and 22.7 boards per contest, along with five double-doubles and a triple-double in six NCAA tournament games, Gilmore joined the Kentucky Colonels in 1971. Gilmore was selected the ABA Rookie of the Year in 1972, was a part of the ABA All-Star team during his entire time in the league, and was a key cog on the 1975 ABA champion Kentucky Colonels squad. He then went on to six NBA All-Star appearances and a pro career in which he amassed 24,941 points and hauled in 16,330 boards. The ABA title still remains at the forefront of Gilmore’s mind, though, even to this day.
“In 1975, in the ABA, we beat the Indiana Pacers for the championship. That was one of the most extraordinary times, plus the birth of my kids,” said Gilmore. The ABA would close its doors just one season later, dispersing the talent on its remaining teams in a merger draft with the NBA. The Chicago Bulls – who, coincidentally enough, had selected Gilmore in the 7th round years prior – selected Gilmore first overall in that draft. He played in Chicago from 1976 to 1982, then was part of the San Antonio Spurs from 1982-1987. A brief return to Chicago came at the end of that 1987 season.
Bringing it back around in Beantown
Gilmore’s career closed in Boston as a Celtic in 1988, but one of his formative basketball experiences came years earlier in Boston, alongside teammate and fellow Gardner-Webb Hall of Famer, Ernie Fleming.
“Ernie was from Fall River, Massachusetts, and Ernie, every opportunity he had, would return his home, and I knew there was not very much to travel to my home for, so Ernie invited me once to come home with him around the Christmas holiday,” recalled Gilmore. “Ernie said, ‘There’s a basketball game tonight. It’s the Celtics and the Cincinnati Royals, with Oscar Robertson. Would you like to go to the basketball game?,’ and I said, ‘Wow! Man, to see those guys…’ I was elated. I was so excited about this opportunity.”
Gilmore flashed back in vivid detail on what he saw that day in Boston.
“We had a chance to go to the game and watch Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell play, and it was really exciting,” said Gilmore, who then brought the experience full-circle. “The last place I ended up finishing my career was on the Boston Garden floor, with Larry Bird and that group of guys. All of that transition period came back, and I finished 17 years of professional basketball with the Boston Celtics.”
Following a year in Italy, Gilmore needed just one more important conversation to assess his basketball future.
“My kids said, “Dad, are you gonna continue to play some more?’ I asked my body, ‘Body, can you handle a couple more years?’, and my body said, ‘Heck no, you’re on your own now,’” said Gilmore, with a laugh.
The center of attention
The quintessential center, one might think Gilmore would bristle when thinking of how the game has seen his position evolve. Quite the contrary. Gilmore saw the earliest vestiges of this evolution during his time as a fan and young player.
“(New York Knicks center) Willis Reed, I remember he played on the perimeter. (He had) a left-handed jump shot from the top of the key, and forced Wilt Chamberlain to come out and defend,” reminisced Gilmore. “Bill Russell, the pick-and-roll. Bill Russell was number six – the number six play, come out and pick and roll, though Bill Russell never took that many shots from the perimeter. We watched over the years how that extended.”
Gilmore has gone on to just as many outstanding achievements in his career off the court as he notched while playing, Many more Halls of Fame opened their doors for the big man, with Gardner-Webb, Jacksonville University and Alabama Sports honoring him for his achievements. He has also served as a Special Assistant to the President at Jacksonville, putting a lot of time and financial investments into the university, along with many years calling Dolphin games on television and radio.
Still, Gilmore fondly speaks of his formative years at Gardner-Webb, where he met the woman he would eventually marry and experienced so much of what led him to his eternal legacy as an all-star both on and off the court.
“When looking back and reflecting on those earlier memories, it was a great time for me to be on campus, but it was truly an educational process in many, many ways. I learned so much,” said Gilmore. “I cannot emphasize enough the patience of the faculty, understanding and being able to relate to what young black athletes were experiencing, and being able to identify and have an understanding.”