For his senior
year in high school Gilmore moved in with a family in Dothan, Ala., 30 miles
north of Chipley, because there was no longer room for him at home. By then he
was 6'9½" and seriously into basketball. That season he was named a
third-team high school All-America center behind Howard Porter and Jim
McDaniels. After two years in junior college, Gilmore enrolled at Jacksonville.
He had grown to his full height and was well muscled. Standing flat-footed
under the basket, he discovered he could reach within 2½" of the rim.
In his senior
season Gilmore led Jacksonville to a 27-2 record and the finals of the NCAA
tournament, which the Dolphins lost to a UCLA team led by Henry Bibby and
Sidney Wicks. In his two-season career Gilmore had become one of only seven
players in NCAA history to average more than 20 points and 20 rebounds per
game. An estimated $2 million, multiyear pro contract awaited him, but Gilmore
found little cause for celebration. After all, he was a long way from Chipley,
and he remained pensive, even a bit scared.
"I thought a
lot about where I was from," he says. "I still do. In Chipley, when my
feet grew beyond size 13, the last size they carried in stores, I had to go
barefoot. Now they have a little park in town named after me—Artis Gilmore
Park—with lights in it, where people can go after dark to talk and play music.
It's nice. Before, when it got dark, everything just stopped and you had to go
In 1976 Gilmore
came to the Bulls as the first player taken in the ABA dispersal draft. He had
torn up the lesser league, averaging 22 points and 17 rebounds a game and
leading the Colonels to the playoffs in each of his five seasons and the ABA
championship in 1975. On his living-room wall Gilmore has a framed color photo
of himself taken during his first ABA season. The angle is high—the camera was
mounted so that the picture was shot through the glass backboard—and it shows
Gilmore from behind, his head above the rim, arm outstretched, hand flicking a
shot back in Rick Barry's disbelieving face. In a league with few dominant
centers, Gilmore ruled the sky. In one game he got an ABA-record 40 rebounds.
(George McGinnis once tried to break that record by going down alone on a fast
break and bouncing the ball off the backboard several times before shooting.
McGinnis missed the record but showed why some critics said the ABA, with its
comical red, white and blue ball, resembled a circus.)
The Bulls acquired
Gilmore for the then-extravagant figure of $1.1 million for three years,
certain he was the man to lead Chicago out of the fading Jerry Sloan-Chet
Walker-Norman Van Lier-Bob Love era and into new puissance. Gilmore was less
sure. He'd been surprised to learn that many newspapers in NBA cities hadn't
even printed ABA box scores, that his name meant next to nothing to NBA fans.
And then, on his first night out in Chicago, he and teammate Mickey Johnson
were turned away from B.B.C., a popular disco. Not enough ID's, said the
doormen, meaning to Gilmore too tall, too black and not famous enough. He was
stunned that this could happen in his new hometown.
Matters were worse
on the court. The Bulls lost 14 of their first 16 games, and the press came
down hard on Gilmore. He was too slow, too predictable, too impassive, a waste
of money. At about this time convicted murderer Gary Gilmore was to face a Utah
firing squad, and Chicago Stadium wags began yelling that maybe the wrong
Gilmore was being executed. Artis jogged up and down the floor silently, brow
furrowed, slightly walleyed, dazed. "I could hear those people," he
says. "I'm sensitive, analytical, I think about things way into the night.
I started to have real doubts about myself—not anybody else—just me."
Enola Gay Maddox met Gilmore while he was attending junior college and she was
in high school in nearby Shelby, she wasn't overly taken with the tall man.
"There were no bells ringing," she says today. Only after Gilmore went
to Jacksonville and they began writing each other did she realize that his
quietness and sincerity were not a device, that he was "really a serious
and gentle man." When Gilmore took up scuba diving shortly after their
marriage in 1972, Enola Gay knew he was doing it to escape things on land.
"The fish don't see him as anything special, just part of the landscape, I
guess," she says. "But I can't swim, and I know there's danger down
there. When we're on vacation in Florida, sometimes I'll wade out as far as I
can and watch his bubbles, and wonder if I'm ever going to see him
Off court during
that first season in Chicago it was fashionable among the players to wear high
stacked heels, and with those and his full-blown Afro, Gilmore went about
7'9". He was too tall and he was nearly paranoid. He began avoiding public
places. He hated going through airports because he dreaded the gawkers and the
inevitable lines: "How's the weather up there?" "I don't like your
altitude, Buster." He tried to sit as much as possible. But what pained him
most was the rap that he was lazy and didn't try. Chicago fans, accustomed to
the gung-ho play of The Human Chainsaw (Sloan) and The Flying Dutchman (Van
Lier), couldn't comprehend a man who played the game with a blank face. Van
Lier, who played two seasons with Gilmore and now does color for WVON's radio
broadcasts of Bulls games, recollects urging his teammate to show more
"I don't care
how much enthusiasm I showed," says the 6'1" Van Lier, who accumulated
countless career technical fouls, "I couldn't win games. He could. I think
it's an act of nature that big men are the way they are. Most of the
destructive, dangerous men in history have been little guys with small-man
that 1976-77 team reversed itself, winning 20 of its final 24 games and
finishing six games over .500. The fans came charging back for the first round
of the playoffs, which Chicago narrowly lost to Portland, the eventual NBA
champion. What had happened? As a team the Bulls had simply "jelled"
(that banal, cookbook term for that most mystical of sporting phenomena), and
Gilmore had played marvelously down the stretch. In one game against Seattle's
Marvin Webster, he finished with 32 points, 17 rebounds, five assists and four
blocked shots to Webster's nine points, 11 rebounds and no assists or blocks.
In a game against Philadelphia, Gilmore scored 29 points and grabbed 23
rebounds while holding Philly's entire center contingent of Darryl Dawkins,
Harvey Catchings and Caldwell Jones to 13 points and 13 rebounds.