No one is all of a
piece, seamless as a tabletop or a glass egg, but we tend to describe people
that way. Pretty Boy, Nice Guy, Mr. or Ms. Success, Bore (or Boor), Rich Kid,
Animal, Tough Guy, Fool—the terms we use to define the people around us show
our need, however unjust, to focus and condense, to label and move on. Thus,
7'2" Artis Gilmore is defined: Tall Man.
Oh, certainly, the
31-year-old Gilmore is more than that. He's the starting center for the Chicago
Bulls, 240 pounds, a three-time NBA All-Star, an ABA All-Star in each of his
five years in that league, the 1972 ABA Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable
Player, a performer homing in on 16,000 career points and 12,000 rebounds. He's
a quiet man, sensitive and gentle, with a degree in physical education from
Jacksonville University obtained—how rare this has become among pro stars—on
schedule; a player of backgammon; a devoted family man with three daughters and
a lovely wife, Enola Gay (named after the plane that dropped the bomb on
Hiroshima); a jazz buff; a scuba diver with size-16 fins.
But all that is
fluff, mere detail. Gilmore is a Tall Man. That's how people see him; that's
how he must confront a society built for Average Man. Consider: Gilmore is
sitting with his agent, Herb Rudoy, in a downtown Chicago lounge. "Lean
over here, Artis," says Rudoy, who's 5'10". Gilmore bends across the
table, and Rudoy brushes white specks from his client's slightly receding Afro.
Rudoy examines them. "Part of the ceiling," he says.
Or this: Gilmore
is appearing in one of the few TV commercials he has been signed to do, making
a plea for Chicago-area Commonwealth Edison customers to turn down their
thermostats. A nearly emotionless Gilmore—he hates being in front of cameras:
"What can I play in the movies besides a giant or a clone or
something?"—says, "I know where my head is at. And it's hot up
here." The camera pulls back to show Artis' heated brow high in the corner
of a normal-ceilinged room. The Tall Man looks unhappy, bored, bizarre.
And then there's
this: Gilmore is in Cleveland, and a woman asks him if he plays basketball. He
says, "No, I wash giraffe ears." Gilmore doesn't like to be flippant,
but it's one of the few ways he can protect himself. "I try to be polite to
people," he says, "and if they ask me something courteously, I'll
answer them that way. But I can't let people take advantage of me anymore. I
try to keep my close friends to a minimum, to be more cautious. I've learned
something from everything that has ever happened to me."
Gilmore, whom Dave
Vance, general manager of the defunct Kentucky Colonels, Gilmore's ABA team,
once described as "maybe too nice a guy for his own good," lives in a
world that regards his kind oddly and with something that might be called
unintentional hostility. Indeed, beyond exploiting the Tall Man, society deals
him little but blows, most of them to the head. Chandeliers, pipes, heating
ducts, exit signs, the standard 6'8" doorways that catch Gilmore almost at
mid-lip—all are messages sent by Average Man. "Those new sprinklers are the
scariest," says Gilmore. "The star-shaped ones that hang down. They're
very dangerous. They can scalp you." Airplane lavatories, phone booths, bus
seats, beds, clothes, drinking fountains, mirrors, bicycles—there's no end to
the reminders to shorten up.
customizing his house in suburban Glenview, Ill. to fit his own
dimensions—something Wilt Chamberlain did a few years back—but decided against
it. The house would be too safe, womblike, he concluded, and ultimately
dangerous. "I'd still have to go out into the real world," he says.
Indeed, the Tall Man can't afford to be complacent. Wariness gets him through
the day. It's what makes him seem so reserved, aloof and finally lonely.
Numbers set the
Tall Man apart. There are not very many American men who stand more than
7'2". In his entire life Gilmore has encountered only five taller than he,
two black, three white. One of the blacks is a fellow pro and friend, Kareem
Abdul-Jabbar of the Los Angeles Lakers. Gilmore has played in Abdul-Jabbar's
shadow for years, and as a consequence he has been criticized somewhat
unfairly—"He's Kareem without moves," says one scout—but he bears
Abdul-Jabbar no ill will. "The difference between Kareem and me is that
he's got one incredible offensive weapon—the sky hook," says Gilmore.
"It's unstoppable. I don't have anything like that." The other black
man is 7'4" Ralph Sampson, the 19-year-old center for the University of
Virginia. Gilmore dozed off while watching Sampson on TV recently and remembers
little about him except that he's "very, very thin but quick."
One of the white
men is 7'2½" Tom Burleson, now of the Atlanta Hawks, whom Gilmore met while
Burleson was attending Avery County (N.C.) High in Newland and Gilmore was at
Gardner-Webb Junior College in the same state. "I walked into a high school
gym and had to bend way over to get through the door," says Gilmore.
"Then I saw this other guy come in and he had to bend even more than me. I
was amazed." The other two taller men were more or less freaks. "One
was a giant I paid to see at the Florida State Fair," says Gilmore.
"And the other was this man who drove a car from the backseat, a kind of
promotion, I think. He was about 8'2" and old, but he could stand under a
rim and just drop a basketball through."
Well, yes, thank
God for basketball then, the only sport other than horse racing, with its
diminutive jockeys, to reward a man so directly for his size. In high school
Gilmore at first wanted to play football—to be the first 6'5", 145-pound
freshman tight end in the Florida panhandle, where Gilmore's hometown of
Chipley is located. But his father, Otis, a 5'7" pool player and fisherman
who provided for his 10 children and 6-foot wife, Mattie, without any visible
means of support, vetoed the idea. The Gilmores couldn't afford the required
insurance. There wasn't even enough money for food, and Artis worried that he
was suffering from malnutrition and that, as a friend told him, he was growing
too fast and his "bones were in trouble."