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Sports Saturday

Bulls legend Artis Gilmore returns to Chicago for NBA All-Star Weekend

Though he’s unable to return as often as he would like, Chicago always will hold a special place in Gilmore’s heart.

Artis Gilmore returned to Chicago this weekend for the first time since 2013.
Artis Gilmore returned to Chicago this weekend for the first time since 2013.
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Artis Gilmore is back where it all started.

On most days Gilmore can be seen walking across Jacksonville University’s campus in crisp slacks and a polo shirt featuring the school crest. Or sometimes he’s in the dining hall, enjoying a meal among college students.

Wherever Gilmore is, people notice.

‘‘There aren’t many 7-foot-2, 300-pound people on any college campus,’’ university president Tim Cost said. ‘‘Everyone knows who Artis Gilmore is.’’

Artis Gilmore works as a special assistant to the president of Jacksonville University.
Jacksonville University

Gilmore, a special assistant to the president at the school, is a walking campus historian. His impact on the university goes back 50 years, when he helped the Dolphins pull off one of the best underdog runs in NCAA tournament history before losing to UCLA in the championship game in 1970.

In his two seasons at Jacksonville, Gilmore established himself as a major force by averaging 24.3 points and a record-setting 22.7 rebounds.

His strength and scoring ability propelled Gilmore into the spotlight. He was selected in the first round of the 1971 American Basketball Association Draft and played for the Kentucky Colonels until the league folded in 1976. He then went on to become one of the best centers in Bulls history for six seasons (1976-82).

Gilmore, a six-time NBA All-Star who averaged 18.8 points and 12.3 rebounds in his 17-year pro career, said he never will forget getting the call that told him he had made it into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

‘‘It was the first of April, and certainly it would’ve been a cruel April Fool’s joke,’’ said Gilmore, a member of the 2011 class that also included Dennis Rodman and Chris Mullin. ‘‘So I was trying to control the emotional roller-coaster ride.’’

Gilmore is soft-spoken, but his work ethic sets him apart. He never has seen a task too intimidating to take on because he learned at a young age what it’s like to struggle.

Gilmore grew up in Chipley, Florida. As a young boy, he worked long days in the blistering sun in cotton and melon fields to help his family make ends meet.

‘‘Having grown up very poor, I knew early that the only way to achieve good things in life is to work hard,’’ Gilmore said. ‘‘Everything worth having requires discipline and practice, but getting ahead also means being willing to learn from others, whether that’s a teammate, a coach, a friend.’’

Inside Gilmore’s home, you won’t find displays highlighting his basketball achievements, walls overflowing with photos of his dunks or other great moments of his time as a player. That’s not really his style.

‘‘My great memories of my time on the court are enough,’’ Gilmore said.

He would be lying, however, if he said he didn’t cherish his ABA championship and Hall of Fame rings.

‘‘My ABA ring is important to me because it represents a high point in my playing career,’’ Gilmore said. ‘‘My Hall of Fame ring is important because it represents how others saw me as a player and symbolizes that many have felt me deserving of an honored place in the history of basketball.’’

After having to get a replacement ABA ring after his original was stolen from a hotel room years ago, Gilmore has learned to keep his most prized possessions close.

‘‘I don’t keep them anywhere special, except on my hand, which I figure is as safe a place as any,’’ he said.

At 70, Gilmore is long removed from his playing days. He reckons he hasn’t shot a basketball in five years, though he’s still a fan of the game. Gilmore works as a color analyst for the Jacksonville men’s and women’s radio broadcasts and catches glimpses of the NBA on TV every once in a while.

Does he think he still can play with the best of them?

‘‘Yes,’’ Gilmore said. ‘‘My 5-year-old grandson, I can take him.’’

Gilmore hasn’t visited Chicago since the Bulls played the Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2013. But he’ll be in town this weekend for the All-Star Game.

Though he’s unable to return as often as he would like, Chicago always will hold a special place in Gilmore’s heart.

‘‘That was a significant time in the life of a young man for all the expected reasons,’’ Gilmore said. ‘‘The sports fans of Chicago have always been absolutely wonderful to me. I was welcomed; I was treated well.

‘‘Some of my dearest friends in life were met in Chicago, and my life is much, much better for having spent those important early years in such a great city.’’