Artis Gilmore shows no chagrin over the fact that while he started the year holding the most lucrative contract in professional sport, he now ranks third (behind baseball’s Jim Rice and Dave Parker). The consoling factor may be that he still is tops among basketball players. Or it may be that Gilmore, the 7’2″, 240-pound center for the Chicago Bulls, remembers growing up poor, with eight siblings, in tiny Chipley, Fla. “I slept in the same bed as two of my brothers until I was 16,” he says. “At Christmas we would get the Sears Roebuck catalogue—’The Pretend Book,’ we called it—and make believe we could have anything we wanted. Of course, we never got anything for Christmas. Sometimes we wouldn’t be able to eat on Christmas Day unless some neighbors left a fruit basket.” The ultimate consolation is a seven-year, $4.5 million contract Gilmore and lawyer Herb Rudoy extracted from the notoriously stingy Chicago management in December.
Gilmore earns his money. In eight years as a pro, he’s never missed a game, and this season he’s one of only two players in the National Basketball Association’s top 10 in scoring, rebounding, blocked shots and shooting percentage (the other, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, earns a reported $625,000 a year, with annual options to renew). “Let’s face it,” says a Bulls official, “Artis is the hub of the team. You can lose a spoke and the wheel will still work, but you can’t lose the hub.”
The Bulls nevertheless have little chance of making the playoffs this season, but Gilmore, also an all-star optimist, says, “I want to win the NBA title for Chicago. If I could win one NBA championship—no, make that back-to-back titles—I would retire.”
Gilmore, his six brothers and two sisters grew up in a tar-paper shack and often had to fish for their supper. His dad, Otis (he didn’t want a Jr. and created “Artis” as a replacement), 5’10”, did odd jobs. But Artis earned a Jacksonville U basketball scholarship by putting in two years at Gardner-Webb College. Even then he almost quit. “I called my mother once and told her I was homesick,” he recalls now. “She said, ‘Sure, I can see your point, Artis. You just come home—you have such a great future here in Chipley.’ I got the message.” (Unlike so many pro stars these days, Artis eventually got his B.A.)
A year after leading Jacksonville into the NCAA finals against UCLA in 1970, Artis signed with Kentucky of the old ABA. He helped the Colonels to the championship four years later, then in 1976 went to the NBA Bulls—first choice in the draft of players at liberty when the ABA folded. The Bulls made the playoffs his first season with the team.
Gilmore was earning $200,000 a year even before he signed his new contract last December and, inevitably, he has acquired the trappings of superstardom: red jump suits, a beaver fur coat, and a Mercedes, a Pontiac and a custom-built Chevy van with a shag rug and wraparound stereo. (He traded two Rolls Royces for the three vehicles.)
But Gilmore, a basically conservative dude, has also invested heavily in real estate. He is part owner of a Dolton, Ill. shopping center and 2,500 apartment units in Texas and may buy into racquetball courts. His own primary off-season activities are pickup basketball, soaks in the sauna and occasionally fishing back in his native Chipley.
A modest ranch house in Glenview, just north of Chicago, is home for Gilmore, his two daughters and wife Enola Gay, 25. (She was named for the U.S. B-29 that dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima when her mother saw a movie about the attack just before Enola was born.) Artis helped his parents relocate from Florida to Chicago Heights, where brother Oren, 16, a 6’8″ junior, is a high school basketball ace. Gilmore says that he prizes his huge contract with the Bulls mostly because it means “security for my family.” After his unemployed brother Patrick visited in December, Gilmore mused, “He will have to find a job as a common laborer. If it hadn’t been for basketball, I would probably be in the same situation.”