Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Historical Glimpses: Artis Gilmore

(Boulder-CO) One would think that at 7’2” NBA fans would have a hard time forgetting Artis Gilmore, but sadly enough, he is not revered as the dominant center that he truly was. The man known as the “A-Train” was a standout collegiate player, a player that added legitimacy to the ABA, and solidified himself as one of the greatest NBA centers of all-time as he wrote his name all over professional basketball's record books. Artis Gilmore played the game with a humble presence without all the self-promotion, but did so in a fashion that garners him this installment of Historical Glimpses.

Often times when human beings are brought up with hardship they learn early how to do things right and seeing how Gilmore was one of ten children of a fisherman and a homemaker. He quickly learned how to utilize his height on the basketball court at a young age. Artis was already 6’5” at the age of fifteen, but it wasn’t until he was 6’10” as a high school senior that Gilmore moved from his rural hometown of Chipley, Florida to Dothan, Alabama to take the basketball world by storm at Carver High School where he was a third-team high school All-American.

Artis still must have been a small town guy at this point in his career because instead of choosing to attend a much larger educational institution. He rather chose to attend two years at Gardner-Webb Junior College in Boiling Springs, North Carolina where he would finish growing to a full 7’2” and fill-out to 245lbs. Now at full size, strength, and with two years of junior college ball underneath his belt, Gilmore was ready to take a relatively unknown Jacksonville University to the main stage of the collegiate game.

While at Jacksonville for two more years Gilmore put up absolutely astounding numbers by today’s college standards and led the Dolphins to a 27-2 record before losing to the UCLA Bruins in the championship game of 1971. How good were A-Train’s numbers you might ask? Well, aside from being one of only eight players to ever average a 20/20 in scoring and rebounding for their college career and finishing with the NCAA’s highest all-time rebounding average of 22.7 rebounds per game. Gilmore also showcased his dominance equally in both categories in both separate years at Jacksonville. In his junior season, the A-Train averaged more points than rebounds with nightly averages of 26.5 points while grabbing 22.2 rebounds before dedicating himself even more to the glass in his senior year by averaging more rebounds than points with the typical night working out to 23.2 boards and 21.9 points.

Obviously at this point Artis Gilmore was a force to be reckoned with, but it was the way that the giant dominated the game that truly made him special. Gilmore had a tremendously tender touch around the basket. Offensively, he was dangerous with a baby hook from anywhere from inside ten feet and the A-Train possessed a mid-range jumper that had ABA and NBA GM’s drooling. In addition to his refined offensive game, Gilmore was game-changing shot blocker and even more devastating force to the opposition’s center. Although they didn’t keep track of blocked shots back then, trust me when I say that Gilmore made even the most fearless of slashers think twice before challenging his size or strength.

So, when Artis was ready to take his game to the professional ranks he created quite an auction-like atmosphere between ABA and NBA franchises. Nearly everybody in the professional game wanted a piece of Gilmore, but when the chips were on the line, it was the Kentucky Colonels that decided to ante up. The ABA Colonels signed Gilmore to a 10-year, 2.5 million dollar contract which would begin paying off for Kentucky immediately.

In the A-Train’s first professional season he would have an impact not seen since the great Wilt Chamberlain nearly a decade before. With the addition of the big man, the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels set a league record with 68 wins to only 16 defeats! And what makes that tremendous team accomplish even more sweet is how Gilmore not only walked away with the ABA’s Rookie of the Year award with averages of 23.8 points (tenth league wide), 17.8 rebounds (first league wide), and shot an amazingly efficient 59.8% from the field (also good for best in the league), but how he also bagged the league’s MVP too!

In the next five years, the A-Train would become a staple on the ABA All-Star team, but the only thing missing at this point in Gilmore’s career were the championship accolades and he would have to wait until 1974-75 before raising the ABA crown. In dramatic fashion, the Colonels defeated the Indiana Pacers in five games in a series geared towards revenge from the season before with Artis leading the way. The A-Train didn’t have his best year offensively in that championship campaign, (he did that in the 1975-76 season with an average of 24.6 points before the ABA was absolved by the NBA that next year), but what he did do was find the right combination of rebounding and scoring with averages of 23.6 points and 16.2 boards that led the Colonels all the way. But what is even more special about Gilmore, along with others of this era and league, is how they had proven that the ABA was more than a run-and-gun league full of dunkers and long range shooters and how that legitimacy played a pivotal role in the league’s top four teams being bought by the NBA. It is in this sense that Gilmore was truly one of the founding fathers of the NBA as we all know it today.

The next stop in Gilmore’s basketball career was to be the first pick in the dispersal draft due to the merger of the two leagues and to continue playing for the Chicago Bulls starting in 1976.

Although his numbers were slightly lower than previously in the ABA, Gilmore continued to be a solid contributor for many years to come. He would make six NBA All-Star appearances in total and still holds the NBA's career field goal percentage mark of .582, but his stay in Chicago would be one with very few playoff runs and even less success in the postseason. After six seasons in Chicago the A-Train would be traded in 1982 to the San Antonio Spurs where he played for five more years and averaged a double-double in four out of the five years of basketball services. However, the championship level would elude Gilmore for the rest of his pro career in the NBA.

Some disliked his game because they felt it lacked intensity, but after watching a ton of ABA footage and doing some research on the A-Train I think that his demeanor was not lacking in intensity, but rather was a controlled power game that should be mimicked by some of today’s less than fundamental centers. Artis Gilmore would conclude his professional career as the ABA’s all-time leading shot blocker and professional basketball’s (NBA and ABA totals combined) third all-time leading eraser (he has since fallen a bit, but nevertheless, was still a force). He is professional basketball’s fifth all-time leading rebounder with 16,330 boards, fifth in professional basketball’s minutes played all-time with 47,134 minutes, and is the 17th all-time scorer in professional basketball’s history with a career total of 24,941 points.

And as far as career averages are concerned, Artis Gilmore’s are about as solid as they come. A-Train can boast ABA regular season averages of 22.3 points and 17.1 boards and NBA career averages of 17.1 points and 10.1 rebounds. The A-train also played in an amazing 670 consecutive games and holds the ABA single-season record for the most blocked shots (422), the all-time ABA rebounds in a single game record with an astounding 40 boards, while also winning 4 out of 5 ABA rebounding titles. Artis was even a participant in the very first dunk contest ever at McNichols Sports Arena in Denver, Colorado in 1976. He was an eleven-time All-Star throughout his 17-year pro career, which included the 1974 ABA All-Star game MVP, and is truly a model of well-rounded greatness for many of today’s young players to learn from. And for all the reasons above, Artis Gilmore is this installment of Historical Glimpses.

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