Centers of Attention: Artis Gilmore and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1975

[I once did a telephone interview with Artis Gilmore. The topic: Why he signed with the ABA? After about 20 minutes, the conversation meandered off topic, and Gilmore asked me out of the blue. “Have you ever ridden in a hot air balloon?” He then explained that’s what a pro career is like. You’re flying high for a while, and the world below is seemingly their oyster. Then you come down, and you’re back down on the ground just like everybody else. 

But in the 1970s, while Gilmore and his 5,000-foot pro career hovered above the clouds, a question would sometimes get bandied about back down on terra firma. Was Gilmore as good as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar? The most-common answers were no, hell no, and getoutta here, although most common fans had never seen Gilmore’s Kentucky Colonels play in person or on television. 

That’s what makes this article, from the magazine Pro Basketball Illustrated 1974-75, worth a second read. It’s main source is Hubie Brown, then an assistant coach with Jabbar’s Milwaukee Bucks. But Brown, who was about to become the head coach in Kentucky, had spent many hours watching Gilmore on film. He’s diplomatic in some of his answers, but there’s also plenty of his typical candor. 

Brown would go on to win the ABA championship with Gilmore in his first season in Kentucky. Though the ABA and its Kentucky franchise would implode a season later, Brown would remain a huge fan of the “A” Train. In 2017, before Gilmore’s enshrinement in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Brown said, “Anyone who played pro basketball during his time will tell you that, next to Wilt Chamberlain, Artis Gilmore was the strongest man to ever play the game. His super strength, great timing and incredible athleticism made him an overpowering force.”

But could the A Train roll with Jabbar? For now, we’ll have to suffice with this article from Moss Klein, then the president of the N.Y. Metropolitan Basketball Writers. Klein would go on to enjoy an award-winning career as a writer and sports editor with the Newark Star-Ledger.]

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Artis Gilmore had their best years as professionals last season. That’s a thought that intrigues basketball watchers and undoubtedly frightens players. Because the two giant centers, despite their dominant play, came away losers. And they’re both hungry. 

Individually, Jabbar and Gilmore are the most assertive forces in their respective leagues. But last year’s Bucks, despite Kareem, didn’t have enough to withstand the Celtics in the NBA, and the Colonels couldn’t cope with the Nets in the ABA, regardless of how well Gilmore performed. 

For Gilmore, last season’s playoff wipeout extended the trend of his entire career. His high school team in Florida was defeated in the state championship tournament. Then he brought Jacksonville to college basketball prominence in 1970, but the Dolphins would be doomed to become another answer in the “name-the-teams-UCLA-beat-in-the-NCAA-finals” quiz. 

Finally, he came to Kentucky three years ago to help make the Colonels the power. But he was done in by the Nets in 1972 and again in ’74. And in 1973, the Colonels lost the final game of the championship playoffs to Indiana. 

Jabbar has been on championship teams at every level—high school, college, and pro. But the Bucks’ lone title came three seasons ago, and that’s a long dry spell for the team with the best center in the history of professional basketball. 

Gilmore wants to be the best and, during the second half of last season, he played better than he ever had before. Perhaps he was angered by the booing he received in Virginia when he was named the MVP in the All-Star game, an honor the fans thought belonged to Swen Nater. 

Whatever spurred the 7-foot-2 Gilmore had its effect around the league. He became more offensive-minded. He became more aggressive. He destroyed Carolina in the first round of the playoffs. “After each game,” said then Cougar coach Larry Brown, after his team was swept by the Colonels, “I came away saying that Gilmore played the best game I had ever seen anybody play.”

But while Gilmore strives to be the best, Jabbar is the best. He has surpassed the predictions that were unenviably his to confront since the days when he was known as Lew Alcindor. He has exhibited talent that was unexpected.  

“He is the best ever,” said Bill Russell, the previous best-ever. “And he keeps getting better. Whenever he retires, even if he retires tomorrow, he deserves to be remembered as the greatest.”

Hubie Brown has seen every game Jabbar has played in the last two years of his five-year career in the NBA. Brown was the assistant coach of the Bucks under his friend and former college roommate Larry Costello. Actually, Brown’s position with the Bucks was more than an assistant coach. Costello did certain things; Brown did certain things. 

In July, Brown was named head coach of the Colonels after having turned down several head coaching offers in the past year. Brown is one of those dynamic-type coaches who has devoted his life to basketball, from his days as a guard at Niagara, to the Eastern League, to nine years as a high school coach in New Jersey. Then there was an assistant’s job at William & Mary, followed by another assistant spot at Duke. Then the Bucks. 

Brown, understandably, is more knowledgeable at this point on Jabbar than he is on Gilmore. But he has studied Gilmore on game films, has talked to others about him, and is ready to do his part in aiding Gilmore’s quest to become the best. 

“Offensively, Gilmore is not in Jabbar’s category yet,” Brown says. “Defensively, it’s hard to say. Gilmore might be slightly better as a shot-blocker and defensive rebounder. But I’d have to preface that by saying that Jabbar plays against bigger centers in the NBA than Gilmore does in the ABA, so it’s difficult to determine.”

Since offense sells tickets, Milwaukee officials have entertained visions of Jabbar twinkling the twine with his sky hooks since drafting him in the spring of 1969. These sky hooks are truly unstoppable, and Jabbar propels them consistently into the basket. Who else would take—and make—a hook from deep in the left corner when a miss would mean a loss in the sixth game of the playoffs against the Celtics? Just Jabbar.

“Jabbar is in complete control and command of the entire offensive situation,” said master strategist Brown. “And that means a lot more than it sounds like.”

What it means is that Jabbar knows, without even consciously thinking about it, where every player is and where he’s going at all times on offense. He readily foresees developing patterns and possibilities and turns them into points.

“The thing some people don’t realize,” Brown said, “is that Lew is developing into one of the greatest assist men in the game (386 last year, second only to Oscar Robertson on the Bucks). 

“Besides the hook,” Brown continues, “he has incorporated that turnaround jump shot that he banks in from the left side so consistently. Kareem worked on that shot, worked on it for hours every day. Now it’s another of his weapons.”

Jabbar made 54 percent of his shots from the floor last season. Gilmore made 49 percent of his shots. But while Gilmore doesn’t have the arsenal that Jabbar does, Gilmore is improving.

“From what I’ve been told—and what I’ve seen on film—Gilmore played his greatest offensive ball the second half of last season,” Brown said. “In the playoffs against Carolina, he was unstoppable, averaging 29 points per game.”

When Gilmore played at Jacksonville, the rap on him was that although he made most of his shots from in close, he never made them from anywhere else. That tag followed him to Kentucky and, until last season, he lived down to it. But in that second half of last season, Gilmore began to display a touch from outside, up to about 15 feet, and that added to his overall improvement. 

Jabbar averaged 27.0 points last year. Gilmore averaged 18.3. Each could score much more. But Gilmore has Dan Issel, the rugged 6-foot-9 forward, and Louie Dampier, the little guard, to pick up the scoring while Artis makes sure to pick up the rebounds. And Jabbar, perhaps learning from the days when Wilt Chamberlain averaged about 50 points a game and his team kept losing, doesn’t want to become a one-man scoring show. 

“In the two years I was with Milwaukee,” Brown said, “Jabbar never asked for a play to be run for him. Never. He is as happy with 14 points as he is with 35. When he feels that it’s important for him to score, he does. Otherwise, he’d rather get an assist.”

Rebounding, as Brown pointed out, is hard to compare. Gilmore has been the more-dominant rebounder, especially defensively. But Gilmore has less competition from the ABA centers than Jabbar has in the NBA. And Gilmore has Issel to aid him. Rather than taking rebounds away from Gilmore, Issel serves the purpose of boxing out prospective crashers while Artis gets the ball. 

Gilmore has made his reputation as a super defensive player, but it’s hard to rate him over Jabbar. “The entire philosophy of the Bucks defense,” Brown said, “was based on Kareem. We played either a fan or funnel defense, and he was the crucial factor. The other players, in effect, were working to force the offensive player into Kareem’s territory. Then they knew he would take over. 

“It was very gratifying, both to him and to the team, when he was named the NBA’s top defensive center last year. He always has been, but last year was finally appreciated.”

But Brown doesn’t mind going to a team where he has Gilmore as the defensive stalwart. “If anybody can be better than Jabbar defensively,” Brown said, “it’s Gilmore. He’s definitely the best in the ABA. He is awesome as a shot blocker. You should see those films of the Carolina series. He just kept knocking their shots away (23 in four games).

There’s more to both of the giant centers. Neither is a problem player, neither is carried away with himself. And, unlike so many other athletes these days, neither is lulled into contentment because of his astronomical salary. 

“Jabbar is the greatest because he is so coachable,” Brown said. “His attitude is the best I’ve ever seen. Basketball is a tough business. It lasts about eight months a season, and a player that makes hassles can really be a drag. Kareem made the seasons enjoyable.” 

Gilmore has always been known as a refreshing personality, a problem-free character. “Artis has a reputation as a beautiful person,” Brown said. “From my association with him so far, I’ve found that to be true. None of his coaches has ever said anything against him. He always gives 100 percent.

“I loved being with Jabbar these two years. I’m going to miss him. But I know I’m going to love coaching Gilmore.”

And maybe he’ll help Gilmore to become the best. Or at least as close to Jabbar as anyone can come. 

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