Guest Column

Artis Gilmore and the Cinderella team that put Jacksonville on the map

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On March 21, 1970, the Jacksonville University Dolphins basketball team took the court in College Park, Maryland, to play in the finals of the NCAA Tournament. Their opponent was the UCLA Bruins, winners of three titles in a row and five of the last six.

The mighty Bruins were led by legendary Hall-of-Fame coach, John Wooden. The improbable matchup between basketball aristocracy and the unknown upstart from Jacksonville would have seemed impossible just a few years earlier.  JU had only been playing basketball for six years. As a pretty, blonde-haired, dewy-eyed cheerleader exclaimed on film in a bewitching Southern drawl, “A year ago, they didn’t even know we had a school!”

The route that brought Jacksonville to that momentous event is worth remembering. Jacksonville University was the first Florida school to make it to the tournament at all. Credit for the rapid rise rests largely on the shoulders of flashy-dressing, young head coach Joe Williams and his willingness to defy convention and prejudice in order to win. During his career, Williams would take three different schools to the NCAA Tournament. Jacksonville was his first. Williams recruited some high-profile players, including, not one, but two 7-foot African Americans — Artis Gilmore and Pembrook Burrows. The “original twin-towers,” stood out in the segregated South. By contrast, the entire SEC only had one Black player at the time.

Gilmore and Burrows were playing for junior college programs one year before the team’s magical run. Gilmore would lead the team in points, rebounds and blocked shots and go on to a long and storied career in the ABA and NBA. He still holds an NCAA record for most rebounds per game for a career.  The two 7-footers were joined on the front line by another junior college transfer, 6-foot-10 Rod McIntyre. Those three coupled with high-scoring guard Rex Morgan and little Vaughn Wedeking from Indiana, who played point guard, combined to form a high-powered offense that regularly scored over 100 points a game. 

Williams believed his team should have fun. They never had a curfew, although the Black players were warned to never cross the river into the city. He never yelled at his players during games other than to offer encouragement and he took them on trips to Hawaii and the Virgin Islands to play games. The team began the season unranked against Morehead State. JU administered a 117-63 drubbing, and after the game, Morehead’s coach announced, “If there is a better team in the country, I don’t want to play them this year.” JU slowly climbed the standings as the Dolphins just kept winning. They beat Harvard and Georgetown. Gilmore blocked 16 shots in the Harvard game. Georgetown quit in the first half. 

The Dolphins scored in bunches and often annihilated weaker opponents. Sports Illustrated, reporting on a game versus Evansville, alleged that the Dolphins “toyed with the opposition like so many porpoises tossing a ball around Marineland.” As the team won, it won the hearts of local fans. Jacksonville was craving a winner and finally had one. Games were moved from the JU campus to the Jacksonville Coliseum in order to meet the demand for tickets. The team finished with one regular-season loss. That loss came at the hands of Florida State.

Jacksonville was not a part of any conference and made it to the 25-team field as an at-large bid. Critics suggested the team did not belong, that it had played a weak schedule. Gilmore and company quickly silenced the critics by reeling off three straight victories against Western Kentucky, Big Ten Champion Iowa and the venerable University of Kentucky. Jacksonville scored over 100 points in each of those games. Kentucky, led by legendary coach Adolph Rupp, was making its 18th appearance in the “Big Dance,” Jacksonville its first. JU’s 106-100 win sent the Dolphins to the Final Four. The win stunned the sport’s world. Basketball experts expected Rupp’s all-white squad would end the upstart Dolphins’ improbable run. Morgan led the team with 28 points. Gilmore added 24 more and 20 rebounds. 

In the semifinal game, JU faced St. Bonaventure. The Bonnies were considered to be the stronger team, but they were without star player Bob Lanier, who went on to Hall-of-Fame career in the NBA. Lanier’s injury led to 91-83 win for the Dolphins and a date with UCLA to decide the National Championship. Jacksonville fans were all atwitter. The day of the game, all eyes in the city were seemingly glued to the television. They call it, “the day Jacksonville stood still.” The Dolphins got off to a 14-6 lead and then fizzled. The star of the game would be UCLA’s Sidney Wicks, who out-rebounded Gilmore and blocked his shot five times. Gilmore, who was not used to having his shot blocked by anyone, let alone someone 5½ inches shorter, got flustered and began to force bad shots.  After the game, Artis lamented, “Wicks played like he had springs on his feet.”  The Bruins were basketball royalty and the Dolphins’ Cinderella run ended in an 80-69 loss. 

Despite the loss, 10,000 fans turned out at the Gator Bowl to welcome the team home. They say the team’s phenomenal run brought the city together. Racked by a decade of racial strife, Jacksonville was initially reluctant to support an integrated basketball team, but as time went on, the city embraced its new heroes. Winning has a way of doing that. And the team deserved its celebrity. We love the underdog and to this day, Jacksonville University (3,000 enrollment) is still the smallest school ever to make it to an NCAA Final. At the time, some said the team put Jacksonville on the map.

The loss was controversial. Critics pointed out that UCLA shot 27 more free throws than the Dolphins. Then there was the question of those five blocked shots.  It was impossible to legally block Gilmore’s shot, some argued, since he was shooting down at the basket. Some felt that the basketball establishment made sure that the Dolphins did not win. Jacksonville, they argued, challenged the status quo. Some of the players wore afros, they warmed up to the Harlem Globetrotter theme song, “Sweet Georgia Brown” and even dunked in warmups.  

Artis Gilmore went on to a long professional career that ended with his induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Rex Morgan played two years for the Boston Celtics and then became a basketball coach.  Pembrook Burrows never played in the NBA. He became a Florida State trooper and is remembered as the tallest person to ever hold that job in any state. Vaughn Wedeking, the little guy from Indiana who ran the big show, married a Dolphins cheerleader and settled down to become a successful dentist.

Scott A. Grant is a local columnist, author  and historian.  He is a regular contributor to the Recorder.  By day, he serves as president of Standfast Asset Management.

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