Hall of Famer Artis Gilmore was the Man the Middle for the Bulls during the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
“I always felt someday I would make it to the Hall of Fame,” says Artis Gilmore, whose playing days with the Chicago Bulls (1976-82, 1987) were the most prominent of an outstanding 17-year career. “However I never understood why it took so long. But then again it really wasn’t my place to question the people who make those decisions.”
Fellow Hall of Famer Hubie Brown says he was also baffled as to why it took the basketball world a long time to recognize his former center as one of the greatest big men to ever play the game.
“People use to come up and ask, ‘Why isn’t Artis Gilmore in the Hall?’ I never had an answer for them,” recalls Brown who was enshrined in 2005, and is now an NBA analyst for ESPN/ABC TV. “Anyone who played pro basketball during his time will tell you that, next to Wilt Chamberlain, Artis Gilmore was the strongest man to ever play the game. His super strength, great timing and incredible athleticism made him an overpowering force.”
Gilmore, who was dubbed “The A-Train” during his playing days, was for a long time the all-time shooting leader in two professional leagues — the American Basketball Association (ABA) and the National Basketball Association (NBA). He also set an NCAA single-season record by averaging 23.2 rebounds in 1971, and he was named the ABA Rookie of the Year and league MVP in the same season that future Hall of Famers Julius “Dr. J” Erving and George McGinnis were also rookies.
Gilmore, who stood 7-foot-2 and weighed 250-pounds, will forever be known also as a gentle giant. He rarely showed emotion, which at times frustrated a few of his coaches who openly wished him to be more of an animated force. But say what you will about his easy-going personality, nobody could legitimately complain about Gilmore’s production as a player.
The A-Train averaged more than 15 points for 15 consecutive seasons, surpassing 20 points six times. He also averaged at least 10 rebounds 13 times, surpassing 15 rebounds in each of his first five seasons as a pro with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels. While with the Bulls he consistently ranked near the top of the league in rebounds, blocked shots and field goal percentage. His 67.0% field goal percentage in 1980-81 was at the time the third highest in NBA history. He was an NBA All-Star in four of his six seasons in Chicago, and he appeared in 250 consecutive games with the Bulls until suffering a knee injury in the fourth game of the 1979-80 season. Afterwards he returned to play 212 straight games for Chicago. Few players were as consistent on both ends of the floor — in either league — as Gilmore.
“I’m really not in a position to judge myself,” Gilmore says. “I don’t know what factors are involved in evaluating the worth of a player’s career. I simply went out and played hard, night after night and year after year. So even if part of my legacy is that of someone who was overlooked, it doesn’t bother me. I’m proud of what I accomplished.”
What Gilmore achieved, by any measure, is extraordinary. He grew up in Chipley, Florida, a poor rural community of 5,000 located in the state’s panhandle. His father held a number of odd jobs, barely scraping enough money together to feed and house his family. Artis learned to play basketball by throwing empty cans through a peach basket. His first two years of high school basketball were played outdoors because his school didn’t have a gymnasium. “Basketball wasn’t very important around there,” Gilmore reflects. “But basketball gave me the opportunity to escape a small town that was oftentimes very boring. It also helped me grow up and move out of a very crowded house with five brothers and two sisters.
“We all turned out alright, though, and I have to credit my father (Otis) and mother (Mattie), for that. They had limited education, but they had been taught there was only one way to live — the right way — and they instilled that belief into all of us.”
After spending two seasons at Gardner-Webb, at the time a small junior college located in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, Gilmore moved on to Jacksonville University and immediately transformed the school into a college powerhouse. In his first season with the Dolphins, he led the team to the NCAA title game against UCLA. Jacksonville looked to be on the verge of pulling off a major upset after running out to a huge first-half lead, but legendary UCLA Head Coach John Wooden reworked his entire game plan at halftime and ultimately the Bruins stormed back to claim the title. The next year, Jacksonville ended up being upset by Western Kentucky, a team later ruled ineligible by the NCAA, in the Tournament semifinals. Gilmore’s lifetime 22.7 per game rebound average remains the best in college history, and he is one of only five players to ever average 20-plus points (23.3 ppg) and 20-plus rebounds a game as a collegian.
After graduating from Jacksonville Gilmore would quickly sign with the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels, as the Colonels offered him a 10-year contract worth an unheard of (at the time) $2.5 million. As mentioned earlier, he went on to win the league’s MVP award, as well as being named the ABA’s Rookie of the Year. During his time with Colonels the team made their way to two ABA Finals, losing in seven games to Indiana in 1972-73 but then winning in five against those same Pacers two years later in 1974-75. His regular season ABA stats of 22.3 points and 17.1 rebounds, virtually mirrored his playoff marks of 22.0 points and 16.1 rebounds.
“Artis is one of those guys that made the ABA great,” insists Brown. “It quickly became a monster league because of all the amazing talent, and Artis was an All-ABA First Team player every year. He was a major, major star.”
It was the 1975 title that marked the highlight of Gilmore’s professional career, which was often dogged by impossibly high expectations once he moved to the NBA. That season Gilmore had set the all-time ABA record by pulling down 40 rebounds against the New York Nets, and followed that up a couple of weeks later with a 33-rebound effort in a one-game, win-or-go-home playoff battle against those same Nets to determine the Eastern Division title.
Among all-time centers it can be justly argued that Gilmore boasted the best balance of offense and defense. As a scorer, he was ruthlessly efficient, hitting an amazing 59.9% of his shots during his time in the NBA, which for many years was the league’s all-time best shooting mark. And, on defense, no player during his era ever wanted to drive to the basket when Gilmore was on the floor.
“Guys were always looking around hoping to kick the ball out to somebody else, because Artis would flatten the ball on top of you,” laughs fellow Hall of Fame superstar Bob McAdoo.
“Artis had an agility that made him an amazing shot-blocker,” adds another Hall of Famer, Rick Barry. “He was so adept on defense. Besides dominating down low he could also roam outside the paint and swat away one of my jump shots. The referees would sometimes call goaltending on him when he did that because nobody had ever seen a player his size block a shot 15 feet away from the basket.”
Gilmore’s prowess scared plenty of big-time post players, too.
“Artis gave me as much, if not more, trouble than anyone I ever played against,” says another Hall of Fame big man, Bill Walton. “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was probably the better all-around player, but in terms of who personally gave me the biggest headaches, it was Artis. He had a way about him that was simply overwhelming, on both ends of the court.”
“Oh yeah, Artis was big trouble,” adds Abdul-Jabbar with a laugh. “He seemed to always be able to counter my every move.”
Even throwing out Gilmore’s five sparkling ABA seasons and looking solely at his NBA stats, he more than holds his own as a Hall of Fame talent. Gilmore played in more NBA games (909) than Boston Hall of Famer Dave Cowens (766) and Walton (468). He averaged 32.7 minutes over 12 NBA seasons, and posted better shooting percentages from the floor (59.9%/55.7%) and from the free throw line (71.3%/66.8%) than he did in the ABA. The only thing Gilmore’s NBA career lacked was a championship or an MVP award. And, among Hall members, that gap doesn’t make him unique, because Hall of Famers such as Dan Issel, Bob Lanier, and Nate Thurmond also share it.
“Artis had a sweeping hook shot and a really nice jump shot, and he was also a pretty decent free-throw shooter,” asserts Brown. “He was also a great rebounder, and an excellent shot-blocker. There are a lot of guys in the NBA today who don’t do half as much as what he did.”
When then ABA and the NBA merged in 1976, Chicago’s seventh-round pick in 1971 became the ultimate trump card. Gilmore joined the Bulls amid enormous expectations and embarked on a journey that was often cursed by underachieving teams and playoff heartbreak. Indeed, after losing 13 straight games early in his first Bulls season, Gilmore turned into the cornerstone of the club’s memorable “Miracle on Madison” playoff run, which saw Chicago win 20 of their last 24 games and make the playoffs with a 44-38 record — a 20–game improvement over the previous season. Gilmore averaged 18.6 points and ranked fourth in the NBA in rebounding (13.0) and blocked shots (2.48). With the A-Train barreling down the tracks, the Bulls came within a game of upending the Portland Trail Blazers’ exciting run to the 1977 NBA championship.
The next season Gilmore made the first of six NBA All-Star appearances (four as a member of the Bulls, two later with San Antonio) and also was named to the NBA All-Defensive Second Team.
Statistically, he slipped only slightly after making the move to the NBA. In 1978-79 he almost matched his best ABA scoring output (23.8) in posting 23.7 points a game.
“What I think made Artis so special was his capacity to be gentle. He played the game like a gentleman,” Brown reflects today. “Wilt and Artis always played to win but they also would never look to hurt a player deliberately, and they could have very easily. Everything about Artis was pleasant. The media, coaches, players, everyone liked him. I guarantee there isn’t a person on earth today who has anything bad to say about Artis Gilmore.”
To Gilmore, clearly, being a great basketball player and a wonderful human being were not mutually exclusive.
“I guess I could’ve taken somebody’s head off, but I never looked at an opponent as an enemy. Sure, I was competitive and I always wanted to dominate every game I played, but I also realized the guys I was going up against were a lot like me in that most of them had a family. So I never wanted to hurt anyone. I could leave the game on the floor at the end of the night.”
Back in the late 1970s the Bulls essentially invented the modern player introductions by turning the lights off inside the old Chicago Stadium, sending sellout crowds into a frenzy. The agonizing wait for tip-off would finally be broken by a spotlight shined on each member of the Bulls starting lineup. It hasn’t been all that much different for Artis Gilmore in retirement. More than three decades of career recognition darkness finally came to an end in 2011 when the A-Train was enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.