February 24, 2008 6:12 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
Most basketball fans know the 7-2, 240-lb. "A-Train" as one of the greatest centers ever to play the game, a 12-time All-Star who played five seasons in the American Basketball Association before pounding the paint for 11 seasons for the Bulls and Spurs. Artis Gilmore scored a total of 15,579 points and grabbed 9,161 rebounds during his NBA career, and was the ABA's all-time block leader with 1,431 during his days with the Kentucky Colonels. His pro total of 24,941 points ranks first all-time among left-handers. The Basketball Hall of Fame stands as an illegitimate institution until such time as he is properly enshrined there.
But you may not know about some of his other distinctions. Gilmore, who set the NCAA career record with 22.7 rpg while at the University of Jacksonville, is the only player in history to have his number retired at two current Atlantic Sun schools (he started at Gardner-Webb when it was a junior college). In 1970, he and guard Rex Morgan -- nicknamed "Batman and Robin" by the national press -- led the 23-1 Dolphins on an improbable Final Four run. During the campaign, Jacksonville scored 100 or more points and toppled Iowa and Kentucky on the way to the national championship game, where they finally fell short against Lew Alcindor and the UCLA dynasty.
After the North Florida native spent years away from home in Texas, Gilmore was invited back to campus by an school eager to undo decades of relative neglect to its athletic department, one that was once the giant-killing pride of northern Florida. As of this January, Gilmore's giant presence is back in Jacksonville, where he's serving a role in the administration and calling games for JU's radio broadcasts. We caught up with him last Thursday after an A-Sun tilt with Mercer, and discussed his new role in the university, the program's future, and Jacksonville University then and now. We talked about his playing days -- the rough travel in that old "mid-major" pro league called the ABA, and of course, teenage idol deluxe Bob Costas.
TMM: So what are you doing back in Jacksonville, sir?
AG: I was living in San Antonio... I challenged George Gervin, I said, "This town is not big enough for the both of us." So he said, "Well, you gotta go."
I joke about that. But you know what, my hometown is not that far away from here. I made the choice to come back to Jacksonville, thinking in terms of business opportunities and the chance to be back in my home community.
TMM: You took on a role with the university at the start of the year, what do they have you doing?
AG: My title is "assistant to the president," and that's going to include a whole lot of things, many things. From representing the president at different events when he's unable to be there. Certainly I'm going to be involved in some fundraisers to generate income for the program, utilizing my awareness and national exposure for the good of the university.
TMM: This school is really the only college in this conference that has a rich athletic history to draw on, a lot of pride in past accomplishments, but that was lost for a while. Now it's reaching out to you, your team, and some of the icons of the teams from the Seventies. Have you found that there's been a difference in the level of commitment to athletics over time here?
AG: I think that at one time, there was less emphasis on success in athletics. There have been so many different personnel changes within the institution, as a result it's been difficult to create any kind of a supporting link between the program and the institution.
TMM: Do you think it's important for colleges to embrace athletic programs as Jacksonville is trying to do again now, do you have any deep-set feelings about the role of sports at a college?
AG: Absolutely. There's no question that academics and education are the primary goals of any institution, but athletics certainly enhances its ability to perform those functions. You can look at a comparison with the University of Florida. Much larger institution, but they won back-to-back championships... that certainly increased the support from the fans, from the alumni, and other willing sources of income. Athletics is a means of access to avenues of financial support.
TMM: How has this school changed since the early Seventies, in your opinion?
AG: There's a tremendous amount of growth on the campus. When there was the success back in the Seventies, it enabled the program to access funds from the national level, from television and the NCAA, that was not available before. Instantly, the school has able to develop from that, and that's continued to accelerate in academics. It's an incredible challenge being a private institution, but they have made terrific progress over time.
TMM: So what do you like about the basketball program nowadays? Great coach in Cliff Warren, came in from Georgia Tech a few years ago, and he's brought in wave after wave of good recruits. What's your opinion on the direction of the program?
AG: Ever since Coach Warren has been part of this program, we've observed significant positives. We just hope that we can continue to convince talented players to be a part of this program. We have not been able to maintain consistency, and to have a great, energized coach like Cliff Warren... he has a terrific rapport with his players. We're in second place [11-3 in the A-Sun], and we just need to complement that start with a strong finish. We feel confident that Cliff Warren is going to continue to elevate the program and make things happen.
TMM: I just wanted to ask you a few questions about your playing days, I came of age basketball-wise when you were playing for the Spurs in the Eighties. But basketball in the Seventies... a lot of people romanticize that era, the nicknames, the hair, the dunks, all the dynamic elements that entered the sport. You were all like superheroes back then! But there's another side to popular opinion, some people think that the Eighties actually to actually save basketball from the Seventies. What do you think?
AG: In the early Seventies until the late Seventies, that's when the NBA went into something of a tailspin. But Magic Johnson came along, Larry Bird came along, and they had that televised NCAA matchup... then those two individuals were able to bring that same elevated performance to the next level. The NBA has gone through some ups and downs, in the beginning of the Eighties there's no that Bird and Magic brought about something special, and increased the interest in basketball across the nation.
TMM: When you remember the ABA, do you remember it fondly? Do you have good memories of it? Or was the second-class status to the NBA, traveling to all those smaller cities, was that as difficult as a lot of your fellow players and coaches have indicated it was?
AG: I have great memories, but overall it was really tough, Kyle. For instance, we would have a game in Virginia against the Squires, we'd leave early in the morning and go to Washington and sit in the airport for most of the day just to catch a Piedmont flight into the Virginia area. We'd arrive there just prior to the ballgame, and we'd have to get ready. There were some tough cities to get into, and certainly a lack of national exposure... but you look at the situation, there were only three networks during that time anyway. It was tough to command network time. The NBA dominated pro basketball those years, they were in larger cities, they had control over us.
TMM: From being in the ABA, do you have any memories of Bob Costas when he was getting his start as a broadcaster for the Spirits of St. Louis?
AG: Yes, I do remember, I have fond memories of Bob Costas. Whenever we'd play St. Louis, there would be this little bitty young guy there. He still has that young face, he's like Dick Clark was. He's a teenage idol! I like that little comment that Marvin Barnes made on national TV. He said, "Man, I made you into the star you are today. So now I want you to share the money with me!"
TMM: This may be a real stretch, but is there any parallels at all with a league like the Atlantic Sun? The travel is tough, it's not on television, the games are played away from the national spotlight in the shadow of larger leagues like the ACC and SEC. Since you've arrived back here, do you see any similarities between what these kids go through with you went through at the beginning of your pro career?
AG: I wouldn't compare it like that, this is amateur basketball. But in this situation, you can get one or two great players and you win the Atlantic Sun, then you have a chance to compete in college basketball's Super Bowl against Duke and Kentucky. And you have Cinderella teams all the time get into the NCAA's. Nothing that the Kentucky Colonels did would get them into the NBA. It's not even close, no similarities.
TMM: Granted. But it's difficult for a school like Jacksonville to compete, there are a lot of built-in disadvantages.
AG: A small institution like JU, with a student population of just over 3,000, that certainly makes it difficult to compete with the SEC conference programs for players. Talented kids these days have other options, they might think, "why should I go to a smaller school?"
TMM: So did you ever ask yourself the same question?
AG: I came from a very small town. There were invitations extended to me from all over the country. But one of the things was that I had difficulty with my grades. So I spent a couple years at Gardner-Webb, in junior college, and was fortunate enough to go to summer school and make sure I was prepared to be eligible to play for Jacksonville University. I was able to do that. But as far as the decision of going to a bigger school, a more dominant school, that was not my desire. I just wanted to be near home. And there have been a number of great ballplayers who have had that same philosophy, who have been able to excel for their schools and turn their programs around.
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