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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The fans and the press expected the magic to continue the next season, but it didn't. The Bulls lost something over the summer—no one is quite sure what—and haven't finished above .500 or made the playoffs since. And there are those who say the problem is still Gilmore's lack of effort. "That's wrong," says Bulls General Manager Rod Thorn. "Artis may look like he doesn't care, but he plays as hard as he can. It's not his personality to be vocal and obnoxious. Nobody realizes how many minutes he plays, how many fouls he takes or how far he has to move that huge body. Artis is not a finesse player like Jabbar or Sampson. He's a strength player who really takes a beating. And he's playing better this year than ever."

The Bulls, in fact, are daring to think playoffs once again. In hope, apparently, of battering opponents to death, Thorn and blue-jeaned Managing Partner Jonathan Kovler have assembled the tallest starting lineup in the NBA, averaging 6'9" across the board—6'7" Reggie Theus and 6'7" Bobby Wilkerson at guard, 6'9" Larry Kenon and 6'9½" David Greenwood at forward, Gilmore at center. In the past three weeks these Goliaths have won 10 of 14 games, and Chicago's 31-31 record, compared to 20-42 at this time last season, has given the Goliaths a 1½-game lead over Washington for the Eastern Conference's last playoff spot.

At times the Bulls have played like a big, slick machine, crashing the boards and flying down the court behind Theus' wild Las Vegas dealings. Chicago destroyed the Celtics 108-85 during its current hot streak by playing that way. But at other times the Bulls have looked lethargic, as when they lost to the wretched Dallas Mavericks in late January. "I guess we're just moody," shrugs Greenwood. "There are times I can feel, yeah, it's there, and then it's gone. Don't ask me where."

Kovler intends to find it, wherever it has gone, regardless of cost. "We have unlimited funds to build up this team," he says determinedly. "All seven Bulls' owners are in the Jerry Buss-Fitz Dixon financial league. The names Arthur Wirtz, George Steinbrenner and Lamar Hunt should sound familiar. They're owners. Plus we haven't mortgaged our future. We have two first-round draft choices this year. And we have Artis. As Al McGuire says, 'The first thing you need is an aircraft carrier.' "

The Bulls have just crushed Golden State in Chicago, and Gilmore is lying on the locker-room floor with bags of ice underneath and on top of each knee. For years this is how he has unwound after games. There are people around him now, the press and others, and they are staring at him. Giimore is worthy of inspection even when lying down. But he's oblivious to the onlookers, his eyes are closed, he's somewhere else.

Mike Adamle, the NBC sportscaster. is a friend of Gilmore's—Rudoy represents them both—and he understands the need people seem to have to simply look at Artis. Two summers ago while vacationing together in Jamaica, Adamle, Gil-more and a few other Rudoy clients spent an afternoon jumping off a 50-foot cliff into the sea. "All of us dropped according to Newton's law of gravity," says Adamle. "Then Artis jumped, and it was wonderful, like suspended animation. It seemed to take him 30 seconds to hit water, this giant black swan. And that's the thing, you're mesmerized by Artis because he's such an awesome human being."

Eventually, Gilmore opens his eyes. Where has he been? Reviewing the game? Down on a reef somewhere, stabilized with a weight belt and custom-built flippers? Back in Chipley, the town of 3,347 where he was accepted—"Everybody knew me while I was growing, so it was no big thing"—but not expected to succeed? Nobody was. The town was poor and black. The high school court was outside, cracked asphalt, and rainouts were frequent. During cold spells players on the bench warmed themselves around bonfires. "I've never really been hungry," says Enola Gay. "But Artis has. We've talked a lot about how he grew up, about how he dreamed of things he saw in books. It has made him thankful and humble. But he's very quiet, and there's so much he keeps inside."

Gilmore answers the reporters' questions in a soft, careful voice. He doesn't dislike the press, but he would be happy if sports-writers never talked to him. He doesn't care about the things they can give him—fame, controversy, a forum. What the Tall Man needs most is understanding. He lives under virtually total surveillance. At various times Abdul-Jabbar, Chamberlain, Bill Russell, Bill Walton, Moses Malone and others of their stature have become near recluses. All of them, if they chose, could speak knowingly of solitude, self-consciousness and the loneliness of crowds. Tom Boerwinkle, who was Gilmore's 6'11" backup for three years with the Bulls, talks of the night he and Gilmore sat for hours in a back booth in a dark little bar in Boston and "spilled our souls to each other." Boerwinkle won't say specifically what they talked about, just Tall Man stuff.

Friends say Gilmore is a different man away from basketball. Taken as just another tourist or good buddy, he soon acts that way. "I remember we—Herb Rudoy's crew—were at the Club Med in Martinique," says Adamle. "We were watching the employees put on this rendition of Hello Dolly, and some of us were wondering why Artis wasn't around. We hadn't seen him in a while. It got down to the feature number, the big production, and when the curtain opened, there was Artis onstage, wearing a dress and with his hair in curlers, lip-synching the words to the title song. It was unreal."

Gilmore increasingly finds himself seeking wide-open places after hours, places where his height counts for little or nothing. Financially, he is well set, with real estate investments that should allow him plenty of time to decide on a career after basketball, something he is unsure about at present. In the off-season he spends time with his children, travels, recoups. He enjoys golf—he wields a four-foot driver and an 18 handicap—and he wants to try gliding, but his real passion is scuba diving. "Ever since I saw Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges on TV as a kid, I told myself that if I ever got the money I was going to go diving," he says. "To enter another environment, to just float and look into another world and only hear bubbles, that's a pleasure."

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