Artis Gilmore: Sleeping Giant of Florida, 1966

[The blog has already looked in on Wilt Chamberlain and Lew Alcindor as preps. Let’s take a peek at the young Artis Gilmore tucked away in the Florida panhandle town of Chipley. Al Levine, who would soon cover the ABA Floridians for the Miami News, took a jaunt up to Chipley in January 1966 to scope out this seven-foot Sleeping Giant who had yet to appear on any college recruiter’s radar. 

Levine puts into perspective the myriad challenges that confronted Gilmore as a teen, on and off the basketball court. It’s a testament to Gilmore’s high character that he just kept rising and rising—and now is among the greats enshrined in Springfield, Mass. And in Chipley, over on Church Street, there is now Artis Gilmore Park.

Forgot to add, Levine wrote two versions of his 1966 story. I’ve combined details from both into the post below.]

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Wilt Chamberlain wasn’t quite seven-feet tall in high school, but he was easy to find. He played in Philadelphia. Lew Alcindor reached seven-feet as a junior. Lew came from New York City and, before his junior year was over, every basketball fan in the country had heard the name. 

It’s just the opposite for Artis Gilmore. Few people this side of the Apalachicola River have heard the name. Artis is just a junior, but already stands 7-feet-1. He lives in Chipley (pop. 12,249) in the northwest part of Florida. He’s not so easy to find. 

Artis Gilmore as a junior at Roulhac High. Sorry about the resolution, the original was in bad shape.

Artis is Florida’s sleeping giant. He’s been blessed with height, hindered by inexperience, and hurt by lack of exposure. There’s a good chance he will grow taller than Wilt or Lew. He might be worth knowing. 

Artis is the giant-size center for little Roulhac High, a class B Negro school. He is a totem-pole of problems, which include inexperience, undernourishment, lack of publicity, even less competition. 

Gilmore hasn’t made very many North Florida papers just for being 7-foot-1. And the Roulhac Fighting Lions haven’t helped the cause with a winning streak—their high this season is two games. 

Artis’ statistics aren’t spectacular for a seven-footer, although he pulled down 72 rebounds in one game. He’s averaging 27 points, 32 rebounds, and 18 assists. Not bad for a 17-year-old playing his second full season of organized basketball.

Artis is the second oldest of the Gilmore family’s eight children. The oldest is 19. Earl, 16, is already 6-foot-5. Patrick, 15, is only 6-foot-2. Artis’ father, a 65-year-old retired landscape worker, is 5-foot-8. His mother is 6-foot-4. “The height comes from my mother’s side,” Artis says. 

The family has lived in Chipley all Artis’ life. The small farming town has to be the perfect place to hide a 7-foot-1 basketball player. There are two high schools, one movie house, a radio station, and a weekly newspaper serving Chipley. Greyhound stops here.

“When the sun goes down here,” says Amos Barnes, Roulhac’s basketball coach, “there’s nothing much to do. One movie house, no bowling alleys, and no activities for young people. The town is building a recreation center, but it isn’t finished.”

Barnes is five years removed from Albany State (Ga.) College. Gilmore has been a big challenge in Barnes’ brief coaching career. Amos is aware of the problems. 

“We’ve got a small school, about 500 students, and we play other small schools in other small towns,” Barnes says. “This limits the exposure Artis gets. But there’s nothing much we can do about it. We have a limited budget, with no funds for travel. It would be nice to tour South Florida and show him off, but we can’t afford it.” Roulhac’s longest roadtrip this season is 90 miles.

Artis didn’t take up basketball seriously until two years ago, as a ninth-grade member of Roulhac’s junior varsity. “I only got in about the last two minutes of every game,” he says. “But I was only 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 then.”

Barnes has spent enough time with Gilmore the past two seasons to know his every move. He is the first to point out the giant’s shortcomings, his improvement, and he’s working on that diet. But is this giant green and jolly? Or is he a basketball player?

“He’s a basketball player,” Barnes says. “And he’s improving all the time. He’s young, still growing. He’s a legitimate 7-foot-1. Our junior varsity coach put the tape to him in front of people.”

Amos remembers the early days of last year. “Artis couldn’t catch the ball, he couldn’t pass well, and I had a hard time trying to get him to score. He loves defense. Really gets a kick out of blocking shots and rebounding. But I know what people expect a big man to be able to do—score. And we’ve been working on that.”

Gilmore and Barnes have been working on it so hard that now Artis has a variety of moves and shots. “He’s left-handed, but he drives with either hand,” says Amos. “The opponents don’t know which hand he’ll use to put the ball up. He drives from one side and dunks the ball with another.”

At 220 pounds, Artis is a string bean. “The kids call me ‘Slim,’” he says. Barnes is working on this, too. “We feed him pretty heavy in the lunch room,” Barnes says. “He gets extra helpings. We also give him snacks after practice.”

Rival coaches who have watched him the last few seasons have been impressed with this improvement. Dwight Baggett, basketball coach at Carver-Hill High in neighboring Crestview, has followed Artis enviously for three seasons. Carver-Hill, one of the few Black schools with a football team, doesn’t start its basketball season until January. “Until that time, nine of my 10 boys are tied up in football.”

What was Gilmore like in his first year? “Unspeakable,” says Baggett. “But he’s improved so much this year that no one around here can contend with him. The more he plays the better his skills become. When I first saw him, he was a detriment to his team. When they’d take him out, the team would look better. Now it’s just the opposite.” 

Other coaches may not agree with Baggett, but they probably share the same reaction. “Knowing he’s a basketball player,” Dwight says, “you do one thing when you see him: You wish he was yours.”

Abraham Jackson of Union Grove High in Greenwood says Artis can be better. “He’s nothing like he could be with that height,” says Jackson, “because no one around here gives him a challenge. He seems better coordinated this year, and perhaps one day he’ll develop. Right now, he seems undernourished to me.”

Union Grove offered Artis little challenge. Union’s tallest man is 5-foot-9, and Gilmore had an easy time getting 37 rebounds in a 25-point victory. Union Grove, which has no gym, practices four times a week for two hours at a nearby community center. However, Coach Jackson had to agree to share the gym during practices while “mental patients” from a local training facility exercised.

Such is the underserved state of competition that Gilmore faces. Artis had his biggest game against Bethune High of Bristol. He scored 32 points, got 72 rebounds, and 12 assists. Bethune, possibly Florida’s smallest public school, houses grades 1-12 in one building, with a student body of 165.

“His height just frightened my boys,” says Coach Richard Stallworth. “I tried to double team him using my tallest boy, 6-foot-2, behind him and my next tallest, 6-foot-0, in front. But they got scared.” Bethune doesn’t practice more than twice a week. No gym. All its basketball games are played on the road, including this 109-32 loss to Gilmore and Roulhac.

“I’m afraid we didn’t give him a good game,” said Stallworth, the school’s sixth-grade teacher. Stallworth added, “I’m not certified in physical education. There’s a tradition in the school that the sixth-grade teacher coaches the team. I was drafted, sort of.”

Artis studies Chamberlain on the Sunday pro games on TV. “I made a chart of his plays,” Gilmore says. “I tried to follow his moves and find out how he works around the men who cover him. I’ve been thinking about using some of the plays.”

The plays will help, because Gilmore is just getting over a case of timidness. “I used to be scared. But I grew out of it,” he says, seriously.

If Artis is to develop into a Chamberlain or an Alcindor, he’ll have to do it in the gym—or in the fields. He loads watermelons in the summer and hasn’t got the time or money for a basketball camp. But Artis wouldn’t have it any other way. Somehow, basketball camps have no place in the Artis Gilmore fairy tale. 

Gilmore at Gardner Webb

Addendum to a Fairy TaleTwo years later, Al Levine published a follow-up story about Gilmore, borrowing generously from his earlier one. Here’s where Levine picks up:

The coach at the white Chipley High School persuaded Gilmore to transfer there for his senior year. But a controversy arose over his curriculum—something about Artis taking three grades of English at the same time—and his age. So, Gilmore skipped across the state line to Dothan, Alabama.

At Dothan Carver, Artis averaged 33 points and 28 rebounds a game and made several high school All-American teams. “I realized at Carver how little I really knew,” Artis says. “And that I wanted to make something of myself in basketball.”

Now he’s at Gardner Webb in Boiling Springs, N.C., (pop. 2,500). He’s averaging 24 points and 18 rebounds and finally getting challenged. “Actually, I had never heard of Artis until I saw him mentioned in a basketball magazine article,” Gardner Webb basketball coach Eddie Holbrook says of Gilmore’s recruitment. More accurately, Holbrook saw Gilmore’s name next to his height and hustled the giant off to the North Carolina woods before 200 other college recruiters who read the same magazine got in a plug.  

“I had heard from about 200 schools,” Artis says. “But Gardner Webb was the only school I visited, and I liked the place.” Holbrook took the grassroots approach—his recruiting pitch included a 7-foot-6 bed. 

“He has as much God-given talent as Alcindor,” says Holbrook. “But he’s still what you’d call a diamond in the rough. 

“We’ve got to make him mean under the backboards. He’s got to put all his talent together. He can completely dominate a ballgame and control the blamed thing. But he has mental lapses. He’ll look like a blamed pro for the first 10 minutes, and then you won’t see him do a thing for the next 10.”

At Gardner Webb, Gilmore is getting the chance to become an all-around better player because he is not the central figure. Five of his teammates also average in double figures for the 18-1 Bulldogs. Artis always had the reputation of being timid in high school—maybe nobody pushed him around—but he is coming out of it now. “I’d like to play pro basketball,” he says. “That’s what I’m working real hard for.”

Gilmore has been around, too. He’s worked this summer washing dishes in New York, and last summer attended his first basketball camp. Because Gardner Webb is only a two-year school, Artis is recruitable and has heard from nearly every college in the country. “But we may go four-year,” says Holbrook. “I’ll probably have to recruit him.”

Rumors have Gilmore going to Villanova or possibly following Alcindor at UCLA, despite his poor academic background. “Stranger things have happened,” says a scout from the cast. 

But Artis may not be at Boiling Springs much longer. “This is such a small town,” he says. “I know it’s never bothered me before because I knew everyone in Chipley. But there are only five black girls in school, and that limits your social life. And a friend and I have been considering going someplace else ever since we were turned away from a restaurant in South Carolina on a roadtrip.”

He will finish college, though. Artis is the first of the Chipley Gilmores to be graduated from high school and attend college. “I’m making a way for my family,” he says. 

And finally, this from the Lexington (Ky.) Herald. It ran on June 11, 1967, or shortly before Gilmore got his extra-long bed at Gardner Webb. It helps to explain how Gilmore could slip so easily to Gardner Webb:

Sport [Magazine] has an editorial this week saying, “It’s time the Southeastern Conference stop dragging their feet. It’s time for them to face up to the law of the land. Race should no longer be a question in the SEC.” The editorial cited Mississippi, Alabama, Auburn, and LSU as schools which have not recruited Black athletes. Auburn looked at 7-foot Artis Gilmore of Dothan, Ala., who had 115 college offers. “Not good enough,” was the verdict. 

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