Hall of Fame welcomes some familiar Bulls


Apr 5

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In some respects, Artis Gilmore was going to be Derrick Rose, the man who would erase memories of recent failures and carry the Bulls to their championship aspirations.

It didn’t happen because, really, the best of Artis had passed in the American Basketball Association, where he was that league’s version of Wilt. Like when Gilmore came up with 28 points and 31 rebounds in the clincher for the 1975 ABA championship. Big time stuff.

In fact, Gilmore’s team, the Kentucky Colonels, didn’t make the cut in the NBA/ABA merger because the Bulls wouldn’t agree to accept Kentucky because they refused to yield their original draft rights. Gilmore was going to make up for all those near misses of the early 1970s with Sloan, Van Lier, Love, Walker and Boerwinkle.

Artis and his guys, Mickey Johnson, Wilbur Holland, Scott May and Norm, did come closer than most realized when the Portland Trail Blazers won the 1977 NBA title.

The Bulls played a classic then a three game opening round series with the future champions and Bill Walton always told me that series was the Blazers’ toughest on the way to the 1977 title. Same ‘ol Bulls. Just as it was in 1975 when the Golden State Warriors rallied to overtake the Bulls in the conference finals and then swept through the Finals over the Washington Bullets 4-0. Oh so close again, but ultimate disappointment. It would be the Bulls’ legacy until Michael Jordan.

Gilmore never got close again with years of Bulls management mistakes and with good but not great San Antonio Spurs teams after the Bulls traded him for Dave Corzine following the 1981-82 season. The Bulls had made just two playoff appearances in Gilmore’s six seasons despite Artis averaging 20 points and 11.5 rebounds those five seasons. So he wasn’t exactly done.

But Gilmore finally got his ring Monday when the Basketball Hall of Fame announced that Gilmore joined two men with strong Bulls connections, Dennis Rodman and assistant coach Tex Winter, and the likes of Chris Mullin, Satch Saunders and Arvydas Sabonis for inclusion in the Hall of Fame Class of 2011 to be enshrined in Springfield in August.

But, more significantly, the selection finally signified a long overdue recognition of the ABA as the great pioneer league it was for bringing the NBA into its modern era.

Gilmore was one of the most significant figures of the ABA as one of the league’s great stars, practically unprecedented as both rookie of the year and MVP, a champion who averaged more than 22 points and 17 rebounds in his five magnificent ABA seasons with one of the dominant small market teams ever, the Kentucky Colonels with West suburban Batavia’s Dan Issel.

Gilmore was the league’s gentle giant, likely the game’s strongest man among classic tough guys like Marvin Barnes, Zelmo Beatty, Mel Daniels and Maurice Lucas.

The NBA always has tried to make the ABA something of a footnote to its history, though the ABA really was responsible for dragging the NBA kicking and screaming into its golden age with fair pay and true free agency, the showmanship with dunking and performing, the three point shooting and imaginative defenses that are a staple of today’s game, for good and bad.

Gilmore, quietly, except for the giant Afro haircut fashionable in the era (hey, I cut quite the figure with my leisure suit and wide collared flower shirts), was in the midst of it all, though you never would hear him say much about it. It never was his way.

Mostly thanks to new Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo, the ABA is beginning to receive its appropriate recognition as Gilmore had been a Hall of Fame candidate before, though his NBA credentials never quite measured up. Now, in effect under Colangelo’s direction, the ABA guys will gain some deserving legitimacy with one of several new Hall of Fame special committees.

Gilmore is the first to open the door a crack and step through. Many figure to follow.

This year is not generally a Hall of Fame class of superstars and automatic selections like in recent years with Jordan, Scottie Pippen, David Robinson, Karl Malone, Jerry Sloan, John Stockton and the 1992 Dream Team.

This was a year for those forgotten, like Winter.

I’ll admit, like Jordan, I wasn’t initially a huge proponent of the triple post offense. I had been schooled in NBA ball and we all viewed the triple post or triangle—though many offense sets form triangles—as a college offense. One sense was the “equal opportunity” aspect, the notion that the ball and movement would find the open guy and he’d shoot.

Phil Jackson was an easy adherent having learned under Red Holzman with the Knicks teams of the early 1970s, which had five fairly equal shooters on the floor. Not many NBA teams ever could claim that, and certainly not the Bulls of the late 1980s.

But Tex insisted the offense was adaptable and could incorporate all sorts of offenses, including isolations. Back in those days the Bulls didn’t have a charter plane, so the players and traveling media flew together. The 12 players were in first class. Any others inactive traveling went in coach with the staff and media.

One of my tricks was to get an aisle seat as I booked my own travel. Phil always needed an aisle seat with his long legs and wouldn’t always have one, especially when he was an assistant to Doug Collins. So I’d offer Phil my aisle seat and take the seat next to him (middles always were open in that era) and pepper him with questions.

It was an education in basketball.

I’d also often sit with Tex trying to learn the offense, which the Bulls really didn’t use much until Phil became head coach. Doug as a former All-Star player believed in the beat your man theory of offense. And Jordan liked that as well.

So Tex would patiently explain to me the elements of the offense and write formations and plays. Sometimes he’d bring with him his book he wrote on the offense and when I’d demur about something, he’d send me home with it with an assignment. When I got home the first time I realized it was his copy he’d signed for his late mother.

I smiled. I often did when I was around Tex. He remained a simple panhandle Texas kid who never cared for or needed much. Never had much, so it didn’t matter, anyway. I’m sad that he had a stroke a few years back before he could fully revel in this Hall of Fame election, not that he would.

Tex, they called him when the family moved to California. He was Morice Fredrick, but he had that drawl then and he was just Tex, playing the studying the game as long as he could remember. He just loved the teaching and the work. He loved the game as much as anyone.

And he was honest. He was the only one on the staff who’d get on Jordan when he’d go off on his scoring binges against triple teams. Often Jordan seemingly had to. Still, Tex would be in Michael’s ear: Pass the ball! It was great stuff. It was the game, always about the game.

Tex loved kids and teaching, and would always be finding one of these projects that Jerry Krause would draft and Phil generally would want no part.

“You win with men,” Phil would always say.

But Phil was a disciple as well and it always helped clear his thinking about the way the game should be played in concert with Tex.

And Tex knew winning as well. He apprenticed under Sam Barry at USC, where he refined his beliefs about the triangle, and then went to Kansas State, where his little team one year knocked off Wilt at Kansas and another season Oscar to get to the Final Four. Then Tex left, typically, for a lesser job. He just felt his assistant, future NBA coach Cotton Fitzsimmons, deserved a chance. That was Tex. Compare that thinking to college basketball coaches today. Tex took on projects with no chance to win like Northwestern and Long Beach State for the work and the teaching. He once was the nation’s youngest coach at Marquette. That was enough, eventually joining the Bulls on the urging of Jerry Krause.

I remember Tex in his simple way shocked about the money the team would spend on the road, a per diem for coaches of maybe $50 for meals. I remember Tex making the team bus stop on the way to Madison Square Garden once at the Port Authority, one of the grungiest places in New York City, because it was just a few dollars to go across the river to scout the Nets. Tex wasn’t taking a cab and spending $35 even if the team was paying.

Tex got one pro head coaching chance with the Rockets in the early 1970s when they were moving from San Diego to Houston. The famous story was with Elvin Hayes, who wasn’t sure about relocating. After all, he’d been in Houston and now this was San Diego. And Elvin didn’t much like the heavy lifting, anyway.

Tex was trying to tell him how great it would be in Houston.

“They’ve got some great cafeterias,” Tex exclaimed.

On a bad day, I often pictured that conversation between Tex and Elvin.

Tex loved Luby’s. Unlimited seconds. He loved the press room food at the arenas, a standing joke among media and coaches. Sometimes, you never take the Depression or West Texas out of the kid.

Perhaps Artis as well with Jacksonville. He’s been around some of the Bulls outings in recent years, notably the summer golf outing, always in his big panama hat with the gentle demeanor.

But those ABA guys were pioneers.

They were willing to challenge the given of the superiority of the NBA and take their chances with their inheritance, their athletic gifts.

They were some of the biggest stars of the day, and if they failed, there was no getting those days and that earning power back. The NBA wasn’t happy with what they were doing.

The NBA back then was a vestige of the old baseball reserve clause with players almost boycotting the All-Star game once to just get someone in ownership to listen to a hearing for health benefits and a pension.

There were NBA guys fighting the old unofficial limitations, like a certain number of black players per team and a strong contingent of white players. The theory was the NBA basically appealed to upper and middle class whites, so they’d want to see more white players.

Maybe Jo Jo White.

There always were threats of competing leagues, and the NBA came together, essentially, from divided leagues. But the NBA viewed every other league, like Abe Saperstein’s brief try with the American Basketball League, like the old Eastern League, just a minor league. Though Saperstein, the Chicago entrepreneur who ran the Globetrotters, did basically invent the three point shot in his ABL.

But the ABA thought big and invested big, wresting away some of the biggest potential stars of the game like Julius Erving, Rick Barry, David Thompson, George Gervin, Moses Malone and basically reinventing the game in their image.

It’s little recalled the NBA eventually began playing preseason games against ABA teams before the merger in 1975 when Gilmore’s Colonels won the title. The ABA teams won 16 of 23 preseason games that fall.

In the respect that the All-Star game has become something of a celebration of one aspect of black culture in the U.S., so was the ABA. It introduced or popularized some of the best elements of the beauty and style of basketball games with flamboyant dunking, which was frowned upon in the NBA, the three point shot and the best of basketball as entertainment. Most of the great so called innovations to make basketball a complete entertainment experience now really germinated from the ABA.

The NBA preferred to treat it as an illegitimate step child, a circus act. They had the arenas and the big money owners, many of whom also owned the hockey teams so they controlled the venues. So the league went to forlorn places like Louisville and Hampton Roads, Va., where you could see Dr. J and George Gervin on a team with Johnny Kerr as co coach.

And some amazing basketball. Sometimes not so amazing.

I used to go to Commack, L.I. and Teaneck, N.J. to watch the New Jersey Americans, forerunners of the Nets, playing before a few hundred or a thousand people, guys like LeVern “Jelly” Tart, Art Heyman, Mel Nowell and later Willie Sojourner. No it wasn’t all stars, and it was a traveling circus like atmosphere at times. Guys came and went, and there was the time Marvin Barnes refused to board a 55 minute flight to St. Louis that changed time zones because he’d arrive before he left. He said he wasn’t getting into a time machine.

It was a trip, and a trip back in time. But it also was coaches like Hubie Brown with Gilmore in Kentucky who came up with the switching and rotating and zone like defensive concepts that revolutionized defensive play in the NBA.

And when you’d get into the playoffs, it was truly great basketball. There were classic series with Artis going against the Pacers Mel Daniels and George McGinnis with legends like Roger Brown, whom hardly anyone saw given the lack of any TV contract, blackballed guys like Connie Hawkins, whom the NBA eventually was forced to take. Larry Brown got his start there with buddy Doug Moe, also a bogus blackball victim of the NBA’s arrogance and self determined domination.

There were NBA fighters from the inside, like Oscar Robertson, whose suit eventually opened free agency along with the NBA absorbing the top ABA teams, and former Bull Chet Walker, another vital NBA players’ union advocate.

Many around the NBA leadership never forgot how those guys pushed them into a new era and never forgave. So Gilmore’s inclusion in the Basketball Hall of Fame is also something of a long awaited acceptance for the scorned and rebuffed of the basketball family.

Great ones like James Silas, Louie Dampier, Donnie Freeman, Mack Calvin, Ron Boone, Freddie Lewis, Ralph Simpson, Billy Keller, Warren Jabili, Charlie Scott. It may not matter if they all don’t get the recognition. In some ways they are like the old Negro Leagues stars who didn’t get a chance and then were overlooked by the major leagues, which never was truly major without those players. As the NBA never featured the best in the world while the ABA existed. Others of ABA pedigree, like Erving and Gervin, have gotten into the Hall of Fame, though their NBA and collegiate credentials were deemed enough.

Quietly, without rancor or bitterness, with dignity and class Gilmore helps lead the way back for many of these greats of the game. Which is appropriate for the man.

Just as were the lessons the teacher from Texas brought the basketball world.

They aren’t two of the biggest names joining the Basketball Hall of Fame. But they are two with some of the most profound influence.

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