Born: October 25, 1948 Position: Center, Power Forward Professional Career:
Kentucky Colonels (ABA): 1970-1975
Denver Nuggets (ABA/NBA): 1975-1985
Pat Williams, general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers, says of Issel, “He’s not a pro-type center, not defensive-minded, not an intimidator, and you can’t win a title with him. But when his career is over, he’ll be an immortal.”
The complaints of so-called dainty “big men” that prance around the perimeter are nothing new, basketball fans. Elvin Hayes and Bob McAdoo took their fair share of heat in the 1970s for not being “tough enough” and so did Dan Issel despite the evident utility of such big men then and now.
And by the way, Pat Williams, Dan Issel’s Kentucky Colonels did win the ABA title in 1975.
Ten years later on May 22, 1985, a great career came to end in Los Angeles. In the final game of that year’s Western Conference Finals, the Laker fans in attendance gave a rousing standing ovation as Dan Issel trotted off the court for the last time. Moments earlier Issel, a 6’9″ center, had nailed a three-pointer. It was one of just two field goals he made that night exhibiting the decline his body and skills had taken over 16 years of pro ball.
Of course, Dan Issel never played a single year, game, or minute for the Lakers. Still, the fans of Los Angeles and basketball worldwide had to give it up for a player such as Dan Issel.
Considering the latent sheer force he could muster, there was no doubt the A-Train could steamroll anybody. Standing 7’2″ and weighing 240 lbs., Artis Gilmore was the biggest and strongest man in the history of the ABA. However, Gilmore was somewhat of a gentle giant, generally affable and gracious. He played basketball with strength, but never resorted to using his power as a despotic, diabolical force like other players who’d have been uncontrollable intimidators if they possessed Artis’ capabilities.
Artis merely used his towering frame and divine strength to just win ball games. And he won a lot of ball games.
Teaming with Louie Dampier and Dan Issel, Gilmore formed the core of the Kentucky Colonels who were always in title contention in the ABA. In his rookie year of 1972, Artis’ Colonels won an ABA record 68 games. The next year they made the ABA Finals only to be downed by the Indiana Pacers in 7 games. In 1975, the Colonels exacted revenge by beating Indiana in five games to capture the title.
When the ABA shuttered its doors and merged with the NBA, Gilmore was THE big prize since the Colonels were folding and presumably any NBA team had a shot at the skyline tall center. Truthfully, though, the fix was in and the Chicago Bulls were awarded Gilmore as a way to invigorate basketball in the NBA’s third-largest market. Things didn’t quite work out as the A-Train was derailed by a cast of unremarkable players until 1981 when Reggie Theus gave him some aid and the Bulls won a playoff series.
All and all, though, the Chicago days were disappointing from a team perspective, but Artis was not slowing down one bit.
During his Chicago stay, Gilmore averaged 20 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 2.2 blocks. His field goal percentage, already exceedingly high, rocketed to the moon. He led the league in 1981 with a field goal percentage of .670. Over the next five years he maintained a shooting percentage of over 60%.
He shot so high from the field thanks to two shots: the dunk and the hook. His dunks weren’t flashy, but holy Naismith did they deliver some force. If Artis rose for a dunk you weren’t likely to stop him without some serious repercussions for your own well-being. The A-Train’s hook shot was nearly as devastating as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s more famed sky hook, but it was no where near as graceful.
Indeed, take stock of what’s just been mentioned: Gilmore dunked powerfully, but not with flash. He dropped hooks, but they weren’t pretty. The A-Train’s other nickname was “Rigor Artis” as the big man petrified as his career wore on.
Even as he once again found team success with the San Antonio Spurs during the mid-1980s, Gilmore’s game just never enlivened the average imagination. His best attributes were rebounding, stonewall defense and flawless shot selection. The closest thing to gorgeousness Gilmore had on the court was a precipitous drop step.
When it’s all said and done, Gilmore will never be first choice for most entertaining center, but there’s definitely a beauty in his methodical, unrelenting style and power.
Years Played: 1971 – 1988
ABA – Champion (1975)
Playoff MVP (1975)
Rookie of the Year (1972)
5x All-ABA 1st Team (1972-’76)
4x All-Defensive 1st Team (1973-’76)
5x All-Star (1972-’76)
All-Star Game MVP (1974)
All-Rookie Team (1972)
6x All-Star (1978-’79, 1981-’83, 1986)
All-Defensive 2nd Team (1978)
ABA - 420 Games
22.3 PPG, 17.1 RPG, 3.0 APG, 3.4 BPG, 55.7% FG, 66.8% FT
4x RPG Leader (1972-’74, 1976), 2x FG% Leader (1972-’73)
NBA - 909 Games
17.1 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.9 BPG, 59.9% FG, 71.3% FT
4x FG% Leader (1981-’84)
Contemporary NBA/ABA Ranks (1971-72 season through 1987-88 season)
5th Points, 38th PPG
5th FGs Made, 2nd FG%
4th FTs Made, 30th Assists
1st Rebounds, 4th RPG
1st Blocks, 3rd BPG
1st Games Played, 2nd Minutes Played
When the ABA comes to mind, the likes of Julius Erving, George Gervin, Mel Daniels, and Artis Gilmore flicker first in memory. However, there was a small little guard in Kentucky who may not quickly come to mind, but was steadfastly attached to the ABA.
Louie Dampier played every season of the ABA’s existence. Dampier played more games and minutes than any other ABA player. He also scored more points, dished out more assists, and made more three-pointers than anyone else in that league’s history. He should have a place right alongside Dr. J and the Ice Man in ABA lore.
He debuted with the Colonels in the 1967-68 season. His career benefited immensely from the three-point shot, a shot debuted professionally in the American Basketball League in the early 1960s. Precious few may have used that shot before Dampier, but he made it a deadly basketball weapon. In 1969 he nailed 199 three-pointers. The following season he swished 198. These stood as the record number of three-pointers made by a player for a single season for over 30 years.*
*(A few players broke it in the mid-90s, but they benefited from a shortened distance)
The Colonels however weren’t quite successful on the court during these early years. After the acquisition of Dan Issel and Artis Gilmore, though, the Colonels became perennial contenders in the ABA. Dampier transitioned into more a passing guard with that tremendous front-line. His number of field goal attempts also decreased, but the quality increased. His overall FG% rose steadily from 42% his rookie season to 50% in 1975 with Issel and Gilmore providing him cover.
During his decade in Kentucky, Dampier endured only one losing season and helped lead the Colonels to three ABA Finals including the title in 1975. The powerful Colonels, however, didn’t make the transition to the NBA in 1976 when the ABA was merged with the older league. Dampier still found his way onto the San Antonio Spurs, an ABA team that did survive to the NBA.
His years with the Spurs were not as productive or illustrious but by this point, Dampier was 32-years old and was already showing signs of decline in his final Kentucky season (1976). That his glory days came in a defunct league with a defunct team doesn’t help folks recover the career that Dampier enjoyed. It was one that truly presaged today’s era of three-pointer domination.
A shame that the man who indeed presaged it all isn’t always given his proper credit and due.
Years Played: 1967 – 1979
4x All-ABA 2nd Team (1968-’70, 1974)
7x All-Star (1968-’70, 1972-’75)
All-Rookie 1st Team (1968)
ABA - 728 Games
18.9 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.1 RPG, 0.9 SPG, 43.9% FG, 35.8% 3PT, 82.6% FT
3PT% Leader (1974), MPG Leader (1969)
All-Time ABA Ranks
1st All-Time Points, 19th All-Time PPG
1st 3PTs Made, 4th 3PT%
1st FGs Made
1st Assists, 4th APG
10th FTs Made, 15th FT%
1st Minutes Played, 1st Games Played
NBA - 232 Games
6.7 PPG, 2.8 APG, 1.1 RPG, 0.7 SPG, 48.8% FG, 74.8% FT
If the Lord Almighty taught any ball player how to shoot, Louie Dampier is indeed a fine candidate. His release was divine. The stroke heavenly. The touch transcendent. Dampier’s jumper wasn’t just long-range, it was fluent from downtown. His early years in the ABA were a prophetic oracle of what was to come in the NBA 25 years later.
Although drafted by the Cincinnati Royals, Dampier took to the ABA’s Kentucky Colonels during that league’s inaugural season, 1967-68. His rookie campaign was solid: 21 points, 3.5 assists, and 4.5 rebounds per game. Just good enough for an All-Star appearance and placement on the All-Rookie 1st team. Pretty good. But the next two seasons really saw Dampier go to town.