Peers applaud Spurs great Gilmore

By Mike Monroe

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Spurs great George Gervin remembers his first game against the Kentucky Colonels during his rookie season in the ABA.

The 20-year-old Gervin had joined the Virginia Squires for the final half of the 1972-73 season after leaving Eastern Michigan University.

Early in that first game against the Colonels, one of the ABA’s best teams, Gervin found himself sprinting on a fast break. Two strides past midcourt, he wheeled toward the basket, grabbed a pass and then took one long, loping stride. He rose and extended his right arm to roll the ball off his fingertips with just the right spin, certain it would settle softly into the net.

Before the ball had gotten more than a few inches from his fingers, Gervin watched a huge hand appear, as if from nowhere, to smack the ball into the stands.

Gervin’s signature shot, the finger roll, had run smack into the “A-Train,” rejected by Artis Gilmore, the 7-foot-2 center who had caught up with Gervin from behind.

“We’d all heard Artis could block a lot of shots,” Gervin said. “But I didn’t know the cat could run the floor like that. I could put that finger roll up and over just about anybody, but Artis, well, he was something else. Man, Artis even blocked one of Dr. J’s (Julius Erving) dunks in that game. He really made his presence known.”

Years later, Gilmore would join Gervin in San Antonio, where he played for five seasons and represented the Spurs at two NBA All-Star Games. Tonight, he will represent the Colonels, the Chicago Bulls and the Spurs when he is inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a member of the Class of 2011.

Gilmore will become the third player with strong Spurs ties to reach the Hall, preceded by Gervin (1996) and David Robinson (2009).

His presence there is long overdue, and it took the establishment of a new committee, convened for the express purpose of recognizing the ABA, to finally pay proper homage to a player who scored 24,941 points and grabbed 16,330 rebounds in 17 ABA-NBA seasons.

While he enters as the first to be chosen by the new committee, Gilmore’s entire body of work is Hall worthy, including his two seasons at Jacksonville University. There, he averaged 22.7 rebounds, an NCAA record that still stands, and led the Dolphins to the NCAA championship game in 1970.

Snubbed by the Hall for nearly two decades, Gilmore never expressed bitterness at his exclusion. At a pre-induction news conference Thursday, however, emotions nearly got the best of him. Acknowledging what an earlier enshrinement would have meant to his mother, who died six years ago, his eyes watered and he had to pause before continuing.

“I’m a very emotional guy,” he said. “I express my emotions. But for my grandkids I need to try and hold it together.”

Gilmore was 33 by the time he arrived in the Alamo City in 1982, the best days of his career behind him. Nevertheless, Gervin recalled the excitement that surrounded his arrival.

“The big fella coming to San Antonio really lifted our spirits,” Gervin said. “He was still a dominant force when we got him. With him, we always felt we had a chance to defeat the Lakers. We felt that matchup with him and Kareem (Abdul-Jabbar) gave us a competitive center in the middle.”

Bob Bass was the Spurs general manager who acquired Gilmore.

“After we made that deal, we were able to stay with Jabbar,” Bass said. “Defensively, he could do a job on Jabbar. I will tell you this: After he joined the team, I felt like when you walked out of the building after a game against the Lakers you didn’t feel like Jabbar had just dominated, like he had in past years.”

Gilmore believes he did what the team expected of him in that matchup.

“Yeah, Kareem and I matched up pretty well,” he said. “But Magic Johnson and James Worthy, well that was kind of overpowering in those particular areas.”

It was his domination of the ABA for five seasons that led the new committee to put his name forward for enshrinement.

Why did Gilmore pass on the established league in favor of the fledgling ABA?

Growing up with eight siblings in a three-room house in tiny Chipley, Fla., Gilmore had picked cotton and watermelons from a young age to help feed the family. When the Colonels came calling, with promises of a six-figure salary, the choice was easy.

“Back then, nobody in Chipley dreamed of being in any Hall of Fame some day,” he said. “Back then, the dream was to get out of the cotton fields and be able to put food on the table.”

Gilmore was both ABA Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1971-72, when the Colonels won 68 games. But not until Hubie Brown was hired to coach the team in 1974 did the Colonels realize their full potential.

An assistant to Larry Costello on the 1971 NBA champion Milwaukee Bucks, who featured Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor), Brown brought with him the inside-out, half-court offense that had optimized Abdul-Jabbar’s dominant skills.

“We had a rule, as with Kareem,” Brown said. “Every third time down the floor, (Gilmore) had to get the ball in the post with a play, and he backed that up because in the ABA he shot over 60 percent, and in the NBA he still has the record, No. 1 (59.9 percent). And he never tried to do things just to get up shots. He did what he did best, and the fact he could be a team player defensively, with the rebounding and shot-blocking and stay within the offense and shoot such a high percentage, that’s a staggering stat.”

In their first season under Brown, the Colonels romped to the 1975 ABA title, losing only three of 13 playoff games. They beat the Indiana Pacers in the ABA Finals 4-1, with Gilmore scoring 28 points and grabbing 33 rebounds in the series clincher.

When the Colonels folded in 1976, Gilmore became the No. 1 pick in the ABA dispersal draft, going to the Bulls. Chicago went from 24 victories to 44 in Gilmore’s first season, but had only one more winning season during the six-year stint in Chicago.

Could that have been the reason he never gained traction as a Hall of Fame candidate in the past?

“I couldn’t answer that,” Gilmore said. “I don’t know why.”

And finally, as of tonight, it no longer matters.

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