Jon Teitel's "Forgotten Legends" Series: Jacksonville's Artis Gilmore

August 20th, 2011
In the latest installment in his "Forgotten Legends" interview series CHN writer Jon Teitel spent some time with Jacksonville great and recent Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Artis Gilmore. In two seasons at Jacksonville Gilmore led the Dolphins to heights they haven't reached since, getting all the way to the 1970 NCAA title game where they fell to UCLA. Gilmore went on to have a great pro career in both the ABA and NBA, finally receiving his call to Springfield on Final Four weekend.

Jon Teitel: You were nicknamed "The A-Train". How did you like that nickname? 

Artis Gilmore: It was fitting: I got it from the Bulls public address guy while I played in Chicago.  "A" was short for Artis and the "Train" signified power, so I liked it. 

JT: You had to go barefoot when your shoe size grew beyond 13, as none of the local stores had anything that big. Was it a blessing or a curse to be so tall at such a young age? 

AG: Not having access to shoes prevented me from excelling.  I did not have a number of things besides shoes. It became a blessing as I developed, but it was difficult for me as a kid.

JT: You wanted to play tight end on the football team as a 6'5", 145-pound high school freshman, but your parents could not afford the required insurance. How do you think you would have turned out as a football player, and do you think you would have ever played basketball if you had made the football team?  

AG: I am not sure, as there is a great possibility of injury, so I would not dare try to guess.  It was not just a matter of insurance. We could not even afford to put food on the table most times. 

JT: You were named Third Team High School All-American at center, behind future college legends Howard Porter and Jim McDaniels. Did you know anything about the guys ahead of you at the time, and did you feel like you were the best center in the country? 

AG: We got some media every once in awhile, but it was hard to get exposure. Howard and Jim played for bigger schools.  We only had about 10-11 seniors graduating from our tiny school each year, plus this was a time just after integration. 

JT: You started your college career at Gardner-Webb JC for two years, then transferred to Jacksonville for your final two years. Why did you choose Gardner-Webb to start, and why did you later choose to go to Jacksonville? 

AG: I went to Gardner-Webb because I did not have all the tools necessary to develop academically and I was not ready for a four-year institution.  Jacksonville allowed me to be closer to home.  My mom had never seen me play in high school or college, but the first game she ever came to was a loss to Florida State.

JT: Your coach at Jacksonville was Joe Williams, who had no training rules and scribbled scouting reports on the backs of envelopes. What was it like to play for Coach Williams, and did you relate to him because he was such a young guy? 

AG: Joe was very well-organized but he had very little budget to work with.  He made a salary of $7,000-8,000/year, which was barely enough to support a wife and two kids.  He did a great job considering he had very little to work with, and helped me make the transition to college. 

1970 NCAA Tournament

JT: You scored a tournament school-record 30 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in a win over Western Kentucky (Jim McDaniels finished with 29 points), which was Jacksonville's first-ever game on national TV. What was the reaction like after getting the first tournament win in school history, and was it extra-special because McDaniels had been ranked ahead of you in high school? 

AG: I did not think of it in terms of McDaniels being better: it was just special for our school to beat a great school.  We were shouting for joy the previous week after we found out that we got the tourney bid.

JT: You had 30 points and 19 rebounds but fouled out in a one-point win over Iowa (Fred Brown had 27 for Iowa, but Pembrook Burrows tipped in a last-second miss by Vaughn Wedeking for the win). Did you think that your team was going to hang on after you fouled out, and how does Burrows' tip-in rank among fantastic finishes that you have ever been involved with? 

AG: If we had lost that game we would have been just another team.  My teammates showed extraordinary leadership after I fouled out.  Burrows had one of the greatest tip-ins of all time.  Iowa had a host of talented players who made it to the next level. If we played them 10 times, we would have split the series 5-5.

JT: You had 24 points and 20 rebounds in a six-point win over Kentucky (Dan Issel finished with 28 points and 10 rebounds but fouled out with 10 minutes left, and said that Gilmore was the best center he played against in his college career). Did the momentum completely turn once Issel fouled out, and could you tell at the time that Issel was going to become a star? 

AG: Issel was already a star who played on big stages.  I remember seeing him play LSU on TV the previous month. Issel scored 51 in a 16-point win while Pete Maravich scored 64!  The SEC was one of the biggest stages in the country at that time.  Issel became an extraordinary player in the ABA and NBA.  I remember picking up my fourth foul after being run over by a Kentucky guy, so I was taken out of the game.  Soon after that Wedeking ran over Issel like an 18-wheel truck, and Issel was in disbelief when he got called for his fifth foul.

JT: You had 29 points and 21 rebounds in an eight-point win over St. Bonaventure (whose star center Bob Lanier after injuring his knee in an earlier game against Villanova). Do you think you would have won that game if Lanier was healthy, and did you think that your team was going all the way to win a title? 

AG: The momentum had swung our way during the Kentucky game and continued into this game.  They played well and we did not play as well as in past games, but we were able to get the win.

JT: You were very relaxed before the title game against UCLA (as you fell asleep in an armchair in the hotel lobby the day before the game), while the Bruins were not (Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe went out at 2AM the morning of the game to get sandwiches and sat up most of the night talking with some of their teammates before sleeping into the late morning). Why were you so relaxed, and why do you think a team with a great winning tradition was so nervous? 

AG: I was not far removed from sleeping in one bed with 3-4 brothers, so I am sure that any sleep I got at the hotel would have been in a big bed of my own!  We realized that we had to play a very talented team, but we were a small school that had just beaten a huge school in Kentucky.  Most people predicted that UCLA would play the Wildcats for the title, but there we were. 

JT: You had 19 points and 16 rebounds but shot 9-29 from the field before fouling out in a title game loss to UCLA (Wicks finished with 17 points and 18 rebounds, and blocked four of your shots despite being 6" shorter). Did you consider your run in the tourney to be a success (due to making it to the title game) or a failure (due to getting so close but not winning it all)?

AG: One of our key players (Rex Morgan, who was an All-American the previous year) was injured, and we were not able to make the right adjustments.  I always want to win and have always been very competitive, but the rules did not allow dunking at the time so Wicks was able to play behind me and get a few blocks.  We had a chance to win the game, but just having a small school make a nice run was the most special thing in the history of the state until Florida won back-to-back titles in 2006 and 2007.

1971 NCAA Tournament

JT: You scored 12 points and grabbed a tournament school-record 22 rebounds in a two-point revenge loss to WKU (Jim McDaniels finished with 23 points and 13 rebounds). Did you think you would beat them after beating them the previous year, and did it seem like WKU was out for revenge after beating you earlier that season (when McDaniels scored a career-high 46 PTS on 20-29 FG)? 

AG: Our slogan that year was "Be #1 in ‘71".  We had replaced several guys from the previous year but we did not have the same focus, or the same coach, or were on the same page.  We had the ball with the lead in the final seconds, but we were called for a double-dribble and fell out of synch. 

JT: The game was decided on the famous Clarence Glover shoestring play (with the score tied in the final seconds, Glover knelt down and pretended to tie his shoe, then he jumped up, took the inbounds pass, streaked towards the basket, and made the game-winning shot). What was going through your mind when you saw Glover get the pass, and do you feel that it was unfair to lose on such a trick play? 

AG: They earned it, as they were a team of destiny.  We made some mental errors. I was guarding Glover but switched over to McDaniels without my teammate switching over to Glover, who made a wide-open lay-up to win it all. 

JT: You led the NCAA in rebounding during both of your two years at Jacksonville, and your career 22.7 RPG is still #1 in Division I history. How were you able to dominate throughout the rest of your college career, and do you consider yourself to be the best rebounder in NCAA history?  

AG: I never looked at it that way. I joked with my teammates that they missed shots on purpose in order to allow me to get the record!  I had the skill and ability to get above everyone else and take everything that came off the board; it was a gift.

JT: You are one of only eight college players ever to average 20+ PPG and 20+ RPG for their career, and you were two-time All American. Do you consider yourself to be one of the best players in NCAA history? 

AG: Absolutely: I consider myself to be one of the best ever.

JT: Kentucky signed you to a then-record 10-year, $2.5 million contract, and you rewarded them by being named ROY and MVP in your very first season. How were you able to come in as a rookie and dominate from the start? 

AG: I had some great players around me (Issel, seven-time All-Star Louie Dampier, etc.) who took a lot of pressure off me, and we had several other great veterans.

JT: That season you and Issel led Kentucky to an ABA-record .810 winning percentage (68-16) but did not win the title. How on earth did a team with you and Issel not go all the way? 

AG: There is a formula involved in getting to the next level, but we just came out in regular-season mode while the Nets (featuring Rick Barry) came out in playoff mode.

JT: In 1973 you led Kentucky to the ABA Finals before losing to Indiana (your four losses were by a total of 18 points). How frustrating was it to play so competitively and not win the title?  

AG: It was frustrating to not make the next step, but we were in a period of continuing growth.

JT: In 1975 you led Kentucky (coached by Hubie Brown) to the ABA title over Indiana and were named playoff MVP. How did it feel to win the title, and was it extra-special to do so against the team that beat you in the 1973 Finals? 

AG: It was good to win the title as an acknowledgment of reaching our ultimate goal. We played at a high level.

JT: You were the #1 pick of the 1976 NBA dispersal draft by Chicago, and you proceeded to be named an All-Star four times in the next five years. Why was it so easy for you to make the switch from the ABA to the NBA, and what was the biggest difference between the two leagues? 

AG: It was not a huge switch, but the NBA had several advantages. A larger stage to play on, larger cities, more games on television, bigger crowds, stronger players, etc.

JT: In 1981 you shot a career best 67% from the field (the third-highest single-season percentage in NBA history, as Wilt Chamberlain owns the top two spots). Did it just feel like every shot you took was going in? 

AG: It was important to make them count.  Wilt apparently decided one year that he was going to lead the league in FG%, then another year he decided that he was going to lead the league in assists. I was not like that.

JT: In 1983 you were traded to San Antonio and were a two-time All-Star there (George Gervin said, "I have never played with a dominant center before, and I am enjoying it"). Were you surprised the Chicago traded you, and what was it like playing with Gervin? 

AG: I was a little surprised. My wife was pregnant with our youngest daughter at the time and I found out about the trade in the middle of a two-week road trip.  I decided to make the best of it. The NBA was not totally ready for a small city like San Antonio to get such recognition.

JT: You finished your NBA career with averages of 17.1 points and 10.1 rebounds per game, and your career 59.9 FG% is still #1 in NBA history. What does it mean to you to be the best field goal shooter in the history of the NBA? 

AG: I know that record is not going to stand: there are many guys today who can score in the low post.  Still, I am proud to be acknowledged.

JT: Your ABA and NBA combined numbers are quite staggering (11-time All-Star, 3,178 BLK [#4 all-time], 16,330 REB [#5 all-time], 24,941 PTS [#19 all-time], and the leading left-handed scorer in pro history).  What sort of advantage did you have as a lefty, and what do you want people to remember the most when they look back on your career? 

AG: The advantage of being a lefty is that my left hand is directly opposite the ball shot by a right-handed shooter, which helped me be a good defender.  I hope to be remembered as one of the best players ever, which I feel like I was in my heart.  I assume that future fans looking at my stats will realize how good I was. 

JT: You were recently inducted into the Hall of Fame after being retired for over two decades. Why do you think it took so long for you to be inducted? 

AG: I always thought that I would be inducted one day, but I have no idea why it did not happen earlier.  I was nominated a few times. Initially I would get a call with directions about what to expect, but later on the calls stopped coming.
Gilmore is also on Jon's list of best pro players in Atlantic Sun history.

Campbell: George Lehmann (1968)
East Tennessee State: Skeeter Swift (1970)
Florida Gulf Coast: NO ALUMNI IN ABA/NBA
Jacksonville: Artis Gilmore (1972)
Kennesaw State: NO ALUMNI IN ABA/NBA
Mercer: Sam Mitchell (1990)
South Carolina Upstate: Mike Gibson (1984)
Stetson: Lorenzo Williams (1993)