July 20th, 2017

Artis Gilmore has special bond with Trinity LAX star

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Billy Reed

Executive Editor 


Artis Gilmore has special bond with Trinity LAX star
Artis standing with his buddy Aaron Higdon / photo provided by Steve Higdon

This year Trinity High will have a senior athlete who committed to Jacksonville University months ago. He plays lacrosse, not basketball, and yet basketball has almost everything to do with his decision to play for the Dolphins.

The connection is Artis Gilmore.

The story begins back in the early 1970s, when young Steve Higdon was a rabid fan of the Kentucky Colonels of the American Basketball Association. Every chance he got, Higdon went to Freedom Hall to watch players such as Dan Issel and Louie Dampier work magic with the league’s trademark red-white-blue ball.

But the dominant presence at every Colonels game, the guy everybody had to watch on both ends of the floor, was Gilmore, whose monster Afro made him even taller than his listed 7-feet-2.

He and Issel had some history. In 1970, the year after the mighty Lew Alcindor had graduated from UCLA, Issel’s top-ranked Kentucky team and Gilmore’s Jacksonville squad met in the NCAA tournament Mideast Regional. The Dolphins upset the Wildcats and advanced to the championship game before being stopped by a UCLA team led by Sidney Wicks and Curtis Rowe.

That run still is the most shining moment in JU’s athletic history.

Those were the days where the ABA and the established NBA were engaged in a monumental bidding war for the nation’s best college seniors. Like Issel, Gilmore opted for the bigger paycheck in the ABA, thus denying himself – and pro hoops fans – the prospects of classic duels between the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (the former Alcindor), Wilt Chamberlain and the NBA’s other giants.

After years of coming close, the Colonels won the ABA championship in 1975. But the league folded a year later, and owner John Y. Brown Jr. declined to fold his team rather than take it into the NBA. In the ABA dispersal draft, the Chicago Bulls made Gilmore the No. 1 overall pick.

Young Steve Higdon was heart-broken, but he never got over his love affair with the Colonels. Even as he was becoming a successful business and civic leader in Louisville, he collected Colonels memorabilia and followed the players until their careers ended. In Gilmore’s case, that came after the 1988 season.

Although Gilmore had acquitted himself well in the NBA, becoming a six-time all-star and leading the league in field-goal percentage four consecutive years, he had a special place in his heart for the Colonels, with whom he earned his only championship ring as either a collegian or pro.

So in 2005, when Higdon contacted him about returning to Louisville for the 30th reunion of the 1975 ABA champs, Gilmore was an easy sell. He showed up at Higdon’s home and spent a happy night laughing and telling stories with his former teammates, general manager David Vance, and team manager Lloyd “Pinky” Gardner.

Of Higdon’s three sons, two were pretty much unimpressed with this gathering of large old men. But the third, Aaron, was fascinated by their stories and their place in basketball history. And like his dad 30 years earlier, he became particularly enchanted with the giant, his Afro now long gone, who talked so softly and seemed so modest.

Throughout his career, Gilmore had been stuck with various nicknames. At Jacksonville, he and teammate Rex Morgan were known as “Batman and Robin” because of Gilmore’s shot-blocking and Morgan’s supporting role. With the Colonels, play-by-play announcer Van Vance liked to call him “The Big A.”

But the one favored most by the Higdons, father and son, was “The A-Train.” It had nothing to do with the New York City subway system, but everything to do with the way Artis carried his teammates to glory.

From then until now, Artis became a regular visitor to the Higdon home, usually for some type of event related to the Colonels.

“Artis has been to the house probably 10 times,” Steve said this spring, “Aaron would challenge him to one-on-one games on the backyard court, and he would constantly quiz Artis about what it was like to play against Kareem, Dr. J, and Wilt. His buddies got into modern stars such as Lebron and Curry. But not Aaron.  When he played against smaller kids, he always was Artis; against bigger kids, he was Louie Dampier.”

Today Aaron is 5-11 and 155 pounds, and he long ago gave up his dreams of playing D-I basketball. But his passion for hoops was replaced by an affinity for lacrosse, a growing sport for which he has exhibited enough talent to make All-State as a junior. To be a star in lacrosse, you don’t have to be especially big or tall. But you must be tough. There’s a reason that lacrosse uniforms bring football to mind.

The national recruiters became aware of Aaron at the national FaceOff championships last December in New Jersey. It was sort of like an unknown basketball player making a big splash at an elite camp. But Aaron didn’t do the recruiting dance too long. In January, he verbally committed to Jacksonville.

“I love the coaches and their philosophy of leading young men on the field and off the field,” Aaron said. “Jacksonville is the perfect fit for me. They are building something really exciting, and I want to be a part of building a championship team.”

He didn’t mention his connection to Gilmore, who has worked for his alma mater as an assistant to the president since 2007, but there was little doubt why he picked the Dolphins.

“We had dinner with Artis on our official visit,” says Steve, “and Artis was a very convincing host.”

The Dolphins certainly can use a player of Higdon’s caliber. Coached by John Galloway, a former star at Syracuse and 2014, the Dolphins got off to an 0-9 start last year, but got better at the end and finished 3-10. They play lacrosse as members of the Southern Conference and are the only NCAA D-1 program in the state.

This year Aaron will lead a Trinity High team that won the state title last season in the Kentucky Scholastic Lacrosse League. The Shamrocks are as strong in their 13-state area of high school lacrosse as the Dolphins are weak in the NCAA.

When former Colonels general manager Vance learned that Aaron had signed with Jacksonville, he said the school should call him “A-Train 2.0.” The Higdons liked that. If Aaron, who’s 5-11 and 155 pounds, can’t be the next “A-Train” in basketball, he could be the first one in lacrosse.

“At dinner, Aaron and I asked Artis jokingly if Aaron could be the next ‘A Train’ at Jacksonville. Artis got extremely reflective and told a story about Dez Bryant wanted to wearing Michael Irvin’s retired No. 88. Irvin said yes, and so he did. Artis then said there is absolutely room for another ‘A Train’ at JU and he would be proud for that person to be Aaron.”

So Aaron has been cleared to wear Gilmore’s No. 53 for the JU lacrosse team in 2018-’19. His dad is ecstatic – and emotional -- about the way things have turned out.

“To see Artis get so reflective and thoughtful,” said the old Colonels fan, “and then grant the request of his little buddy was a moment I’ll never forget.”

 

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