SI Vault
Rick Telander
February 23, 1981
So says Artis Gilmore, the 7'2" Chicago Bull center, who has seen only five people taller than he, two of them freaks
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February 23, 1981

'do You Play Basketball?' 'no, I Wash Giraffe Ears'

So says Artis Gilmore, the 7'2" Chicago Bull center, who has seen only five people taller than he, two of them freaks

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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 home."

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."

When 5'9½" 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 again."

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 emotion.

"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 complexes."

Then, abruptly, 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.

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