Artis Gilmore on his storied basketball careeer, growing up during Jim Crow and the death of his daughter.
You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.
At 7-foot-2 with size 18 feet, basketball legend Artis Gilmore has a stride that stands for itself. His footsteps are as light as air as he nods gracefully under each doorway. His presence is silent yet palpable.
Gilmore was born in 1948 in the small town of Chipley on the Florida panhandle. He grew up poor, living in a three-room house with dirt floors that he shared with his family of 11. For two years of his early adolescence, he was barefooted there and everywhere when his feet grew too large to get shoes from the local shoe store.
He said he’s uncomfortable speaking in general, but one can sense that recalling his early life before leaving Chipley to attend college is particularly painful.
Growing up in the Jim Crow era, Gilmore was all too familiar with segregation and income disparities. His family often didn’t have much to eat aside from the fish his father caught. His first love was actually football, but the segregated schools he attended required athletes to buy their own gear, which his family couldn’t afford. He was lanky and thin from hunger.
That hunger turned into a hunger to succeed, to do something different from the previous generation, to build on the quiet strength he developed as a result of his upbringing. After high school, he moved to North Carolina to play basketball at Gardner-Webb Junior College. There he met the woman who would later become his wife.
In 1969, Gilmore—or the “A-Train” as he came to be known—transferred to Jacksonville University during a period of time after the Civil Rights era when he said things “casually, slowly became forward progress.”
As a JU Dolphin, Gilmore broke the record for average rebounds per game at 22.7, which he still holds to this day, and became a two-time All-American honoree. He also led JU, a small private college with little to no name recognition at the time, to the finals of the 1970 NCAA Tournament. They took on college basketball powerhouse UCLA for the national title, losing 80–69.
With the city’s overwhelming support of the team, Gilmore came to consider Jacksonville home and resolved to come back to Jacksonville after retirement to raise his family and contribute to the community.
In 1971, Gilmore was drafted by the Kentucky Colonels in the ABA.
“This was the first opportunity to receive some income. I was elated that for the first time I would be able to do something financially for my family. After all the earlier struggles, the things that we experienced as a family, signing that first contract was life-changing,” he said.
He quickly became known as one of the hardest-working players in the league and enjoyed great success in his first season, winning the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards. Gilmore married Enola Gay after the season’s end. They began to build a family soon after.
Gilmore spent five seasons in the ABA until the league disbanded in 1976, and he was selected as the first overall draft pick of the NBA by the Chicago Bulls.
He kept his sneakers with the red swoosh when he was traded to the San Antonio Spurs in 1982, when players had less agency in choosing where to go and whether they would be traded. His shoes were so large, even for NBA standards, that he colored shoes with a black marker to play in that season.
After five years with the Spurs, he returned to the Bulls for a season and finished his 18-year American basketball career on the Boston Celtics.
Despite his accomplishments, including scoring 15,579 career points, setting the NBA career record for highest field goal percentage at .599 and playing in six NBA All-Star Games, Artis Gilmore never did become a household name. Boundlessly humble, he remained quiet off court and treated his career as a craft to master rather than a pathway to fame. His family’s pride and the relative comfort that he’d built after coming from nothing was enough for him.
He played his final professional season overseas in the Italian league, making the European All-Star team before retiring and moving his family back to Jacksonville as planned.
At this point, he and his wife had four children who they raised with great care and dedication. He allowed them the freedom to choose their own paths and not feel the pressure of what he experienced in basketball.
“I wouldn’t push them, but I would have loved for them to be able to excel and enjoy the sport. I excelled to the highest level—and it’s not like vicariously I had to see a different vision through their eyes of where I would want them to get to,” said Gilmore. “I gave them what I had. The mindset to be able to focus and develop.”
They all chose basketball anyway, but daughter Priya was the only one to take it to the collegiate level.
“Priya took my height and intelligence from my wife,” said Gilmore.
Known for her shining personality, sense of humor and great advice, Priaya started playing at Wolfson High School, where Gilmore said she had a funny style of playing. Much taller than the other young women on the team, Priya would toss the ball up as the other girls stood around.
Gilmore said, “She would just play volleyball, just toss the ball up until she was able to put it in the basket. She continued developing. She turned into a really outstanding basketball player.”
After leading the Wolfpack through some of their most successful seasons, Priya got a number of offers from schools around the country and eventually chose to attend Louisiana Tech. At 6’3”, she was a leader on the court and enjoyed several winning seasons.
She had big shoes to fill in following her father’s footsteps, and she did it with grace: Gilmore and Priya are the only father-daughter pair to have both made it to the NCAA finals.
Gilmore was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011. Soon after, Priya and her husband welcomed twins Mark and Mia—with Payton arriving three years later. Though it was a time of great joy with the burgeoning new generation, there was also grief as Gilmore’s family slowly started to pass. Since his induction, he’s lost his mother and four brothers.
Then Priya’s sons Mark and Payton were diagnosed with autism. The family was told they would require special care, Mark for the rest of his life. Undeterred, Priya looked forward to raising her children, and giving them everything she had, as her father did for her.
She always said that her kids were her heart walking outside of her body. On June 8, she kissed them goodnight and started to get ready for the following day at her new job.
Priya Gilmore-Matthews, 44, passed away unexpectedly that night.
“Parents are never supposed to say goodbye to their kids first.” Artis said.
“I don’t know how you describe it, other than a ton of bricks just falling. And as soon as you think you’re breathing, it just absorbs all of the oxygen out of your whole system. You cannot put into words what it’s like to experience the loss of a child. And for my wife Enola and myself to lose our daughter. You just can’t describe it.”
As expected, Priya’s family was fully unprepared for the sudden loss. Her daughter Mia, who her family describes as very sweet and smart, knows that her mother is with God and helps to take care of her brothers. But the boys, loving and energetic, have not yet fully grasped the impact of the loss of their mother.
Despite the characteristic strength Gilmore has demonstrated throughout his life, nothing could have prepared him for his daughter’s death. His family says it has taken some of the spark out of him, but he knows there are better days ahead.
“We’re gonna pull it together. We’re gonna move this family forward. Become stronger and better,” said Gilmore. Referring to his book Here Comes the A-Train! The Story of Basketball Legend Artis Gilmore, he recalled being described as “tough, durable and consistent.”
“I’ll take that now,” he said.
Priya Gilmore-Matthews was her children’s primary caretaker. The family has set up a GoFundMe page for the children’s schooling, medication and clothing to ensure that their future is secured.