Sunday August 14, 2011

SPRINGFIELD

Artis Gilmore should have never played for the Chicago Bulls or the San Antonio Spurs.

That's because he should have gone into the NBA with the ABA team he put on the map -- the Kentucky Colonels.

The Colonels were the flagship of the old ABA, having won the title in 1975. That summer, the owner of the team -- one John Y. Brown (the same guy who messed up the Boston Celtics as owner) traded Dan Issel to a team that folded before the season started. So Gilmore was asked if the Colonels had not traded their former University of Kentucky star, would the NBA be in Louisville today?

"In my opinion, there's a good probability," he said on Thursday at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Gilmore was one of 10 inductees from the Class of 2011. He came in via the ABA Committee, and was introduced by Hall of Famer Julius Erving, who was another of the greatest players in ABA history.

The American Basketball Association merged with the National Basketball Association after the 1976 season, but the NBA was going to take only four teams. By all rights, the Colonels should have been one of the four. But the NBA took Utah, San Antonio, Indiana and the New York Nets.

Had the NBA taken Kentucky, Brown would have stayed with the team. Instead, he bought the Buffalo Braves before buying the Celtics. He trashed both teams -- does anybody remember the Bob McAdoo years with the C's? Thought so.


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Gilmore is one of six unanimous selections to the 30-year ABA All-Time team. He wasn't the MVP; Julius Erving was. But to me, Gilmore was the dominant big man of the ABA, and those Kentucky Colonels were perhaps the dominant team.

The Kentucky Colonels of 1974-75 were a juggernaut. They won 23 of their last 26 regular-season games and beat Indiana 4-1 to win the title. I happened to be in Freedom Hall that night, having just moved to a city outside of Louisville to begin my journalism career. I saw Gilmore score 28 points against George McGinnis' Pacers and pull down an incredible 31 rebounds.

When that series was over, Brown offered the NBA champion Golden State Warriors $1 million to play the Colonels. Who would have won? Gilmore didn't want to commit, but ...

"They played extraordinarily well and we were playing super basketball," Gilmore recalled. "We had a great rhythm. It was a great time for the Kentucky Colonels.

"I'm sure the Warriors would have emphasized the exact same thoughts, that they were the best. Who's going to argue?"

The Colonels showed what they were made of in the playoffs as they lost only three games in three series. They beat the Memphis Sounds 4-1, the Spirit of St. Louis 4-1 and the Pacers 4-1.

That was a great basketball team, as was the Kentucky team of the next season. Issel may have been gone, but the Colonels suited up former NBA players Will and Caldwell Jones, Jim McDaniels, the late Maurice Lucas and Jan Van Breda Kolff.

His induction in Springfield was an honor long overdue, and most definitely the crowning glory for the ABA.

To reach Howard Herman:
hherman@berkshireeagle.com,
(413) 496-6253.