by Tim Gilmore, 5/27/2023
The year Artis Gilmore, “the A-Train,” all seven feet and two inches of him, led the Jacksonville University Dolphins to the National Collegiate Athletic Association championship, you had to hold the college yearbook sideways and flip through seven pages to get the full portrait of the star basketball player.
The first page caught the front of one shoe, nothing more. Pages two and three got you most of the way up one leg and started to bring the other leg into frame. Artis’s thighs made page four; page five was the belt of those too-tight basketball shorts and just the “NSONVIL” of his jersey. Page six gave you that celebrity jersey number: 53. When, on page seven, Artis finally faced you, he looked like you’d caught him by surprise.
Newspapers called March 21, 1970 “the day Jacksonville stood still.” It almost didn’t matter that the Bruins of the University of California-Los Angeles won, 80-69. JU was the smallest university ever to bring a team to the NCAA championship game. Sportswriters elsewhere asked where Jacksonville was located. Just a few seasons earlier, the school’s total yearly recruiting budget was $250.
It hadn’t mattered much when only a few hundred people came to games, because this small liberal arts college had but a couple thousand students, but as excitement grew, that 1969-’70 team moved from JU’s Swisher Gymnasium to the Jacksonville Coliseum downtown.
Somehow now, from a city constantly rocked by racial violence, a city that had re-elected four times a mayor, Haydon Burns, who promised Jacksonville would never racially desegregate its public spaces, came a “Cinderella” basketball team that featured three black players and warmed up to the theme song of the Harlem Globetrotters, “Sweet Georgia Brown,” and Jacksonville loved them.
The Dolphins scored more than 100 points in 15 of their 24 regular season games that year and lost only to Florida State. Georgetown’s coach forfeited before halftime after his forward Art White threw a punch at Jacksonville’s Mike Blevins that led to the crowd rushing the court in a brawl. Across the season, Artis Gilmore led the team in points, rebounds and blocks. Against St. Peter’s, he scored 46 points and made 30 rebounds in a single game. Against Harvard, he blocked 16 shots.
In January, Sports Illustrated called JU a “transformed junior college” and Jacksonville “the commercial, financial, cultural, medical and urban heart” of “the Okefenokee Swamp,” but the magazine could only praise the Dolphins:
“With 7’2″ Artis Gilmore at center, 7′ Pembrook Burrows III at the high post and 6’10” Rod McIntyre at forward, the Dolphins (their nickname is appropriate; the average dolphin is seven feet long) went north to Evansville, Ind. and did what they have been doing since the season began. They toyed with the opposition like so many porpoises tossing a ball around Marineland.”
Valerie Kennedy Grisham was a student at JU that year, hanging out with the hippies, walking shyly beneath the canopies of Spanish moss-soaked oaks, and remembers seeing Artis Gilmore and Pembrook Burrows (Some said that with his afro, Artis was seven-foot-eight!) walking around campus. She countered her shyness long enough to get their autographs.
Even Val’s father, Gurney Kennedy, a professor of music theory, history and composition who wrote his own 900-page textbook, got swept up in the season. Val calls him “an intellectual purist who was very strongly oriented to the liberal arts” and hated to see the college, in future years, add business and medical programming to academia.
Nevertheless, he took Val to basketball games at the Swisher Gym throughout her childhood and celebrated the 1970 season. “He thought athletics were important,” she says; “it was the Greek Ideal,” referring to the ancient Athenian philosophical concept of attaining a balance of physical, mental and spiritual strength.
Sports Illustrated reported, “Gilmore is not a skinny, gawky freak. He has a good athlete’s physique — with muscular thighs and arms — and his coaches insist he could play for them if he were a mere 6’5″ or so. He is, in fact, taking a physical education course with a 6’5″ teammate whom he often outperforms on the trampoline.”
Artis Gilmore grew up playing on an outdoor clay court in rural Chipley, Florida, 80 miles from Tallahassee. “Sometimes there would be barrels of fuel burning around the court so you could stand next to them to warm up, then go play some more,” he said.
Gilmore said he came to JU because Coach Joe Williams, “treated him as a person and not just an athlete.” Said Sports Illustrated, “Gilmore speaks very softly, like a man who has been yelled at too many times in his life.” Decades later, his Basketball Hall of Fame bio would call him “basketball’s greatest gentle giant,” then note his professional career lasted 17 seasons, beginning with the American Basketball Association and continuing with the NBA’s Chicago Bulls, San Antonio Spurs and Boston Celtics.
Unlike Professor Kennedy, my own father probably never heard of the Greek Ideal, denigrated “intellectuals” as having no “common sense” – never mind how idiotic “common sense” often is – and, until I as a child shamed him for doing so, used “the n-word” regularly.
Commentators have argued that the 1970 JU Dolphins made Jax a more progressive place after its long history of bloody and seemingly intractable racism. If Ax Handle Saturday was 1960, Artis Gilmore was 1970. It’s a simple story, one that made the city feel better about itself. Or that story might be simplistic, self-congratulatory.
How much did racial successes in sports translate to the rest of American society? Jackie Robinson became the first black Major League baseball player when the Brooklyn Dodgers signed him in 1947 and Hank Aaron broke “the color line” in the South Atlantic League when he played for the Jacksonville Braves in 1953.
Still the Ku Klux Klan rose again in the South in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and white Baptist preachers like Trinity Baptist Church’s Bob Gray called that more famous black Baptist preacher “Martin Lucifer King” and started private church schools for white parents who didn’t want to send their kids to desegregated public schools.
When I was 10 years old, I watched the Boston Celtics and the Dallas Cowboys with my father in the panelboard den he’d converted from the garage before I was born. If the Celtics and Cowboys were my teams, they first were my father’s. Two of “the Big Three” players who helped the Celtics beat the L.A. Lakers in the NBA finals that year were white, but it didn’t seem to matter. Football quarterbacks were white, but only exceptions deserved comment.
(For my father, commenting on successful black firsts could be offensive. What did race matter when the first black person did this or that? It was offensive not to comment on race, however, when a black man was arrested.)
When I was six or seven years old and asked my father if we were related to Artis Gilmore since we shared the same name, he told me slaves had taken the surnames of their owners. I doubt he ever knew that Malcolm Little became Malcolm X, but he said Muhammad Ali’s “real name” was Cassius Clay.
Victory can’t be denied by its limitations though, especially when its constraints are the failures of the culture in context. That 1970 JU victory march touched off tangential triumphs across the landscape. Five decades later, Pembrook Burrows remembered coming home through the middle of the city on the team bus. When they passed the Blodgett Homes, the infamous housing project, the players convinced the driver to pull over so they could “go play ball with the kids.”
And “the next thing I know,” Burrows says in the 2018 documentary Jacksonville Who?, “the crowd begins to grow. In a matter of minutes, the word has spread that the JU basketball team is in the middle of the Blodgett Homes playing ball.” Half an hour later, “maybe a couple hundred people” had come out to see the city’s celebrity team when police cars rolled in, lights flashing.
If it looked like all hell was about to break loose, as it had so often and would again, Burrows, who later became a lieutenant with the Florida Highway Patrol, would remember a “police officer walking through the crowd,” then “getting on the radio and saying, ‘Don’t worry about it. It’s just JU’s basketball team down here playing in the park.’”
When the Dolphins got to the NCAA Final Four, they marched 100+ points a game against Western Kentucky, then Iowa, then Kentucky, then beat St. Bonaventure 91-83. The “transformed junior college” from the capital of South Georgia had fought and won their way to the national championship. They started with dazzle, took the lead, 14 to six, then stalled and fizzled. The Bruins got into Gilmore’s head, blocked his shots, forced bad throws.
It mattered like nothing else and then it didn’t. Chip Dublin, JU’s first black player, led the “Sweet Georgia Brown” slam dunk festivities before each game, but it was Pembrook Burrows who led the team chant, “The Rooster,” partly riffing off Cab Calloway, in locker room rallies:
“Jacksonville has a rooster. / We put him on the fence. / He crows for the Dolphins / ’Cause he’s got good sense. / Hi-dee, hi-dee, hi-dee ho! / Hi-dee, hi-dee, hi-dee ho! / Oh what a team! / Jacksonville’s got a team!”
The Final Four was the “Big Dance” and Jacksonville was “Cinderella.” National became local and the country grew bigger. Artis Gilmore and Pembrook Burrows expanded possibility. They darkened the national hue. No longer just the second and third tallest buildings in Jax, they’d become American titans.