Before this year, the last time three men’s college basketball programs made their debuts in one Final Four was in 1970, when Jacksonville, St. Bonaventure and New Mexico State joined tourney regular UCLA
The idea of three newcomers to the semifinals “was the furthest thing from my mind back then,” Artis Gilmore, the former Jacksonville University ABA and NBA star, said in a telephone interview on Friday.
Mostly, he said, he and his Jacksonville teammates were just focused on their own underdog story while attempting to win a title.
“There was so much going on during that time, especially with the racial issues,” said Gilmore, who was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011. “It was just a really tough time. You look at Kentucky, they had no Black players. It was very different. But it was an exciting time for us. Really special. Nobody anticipated Jacksonville University making it to that point.”
The tournament included 25 schools in 1970, as opposed to the 68 of today. Jacksonville, which was not in a conference and received an at-large bid, defeated Western Kentucky, Iowa and Adolph Rupp’s all-white Kentucky team to reach the Final Four . There, the 7-foot-2 Gilmore and his teammates faced St. Bonaventure, who had featured another future pro in the 6-foot-11 Bob Lanier. But Lanier, who died last May, had injured his knee in the Regional final. against Villanova and could not play.
“I really was disappointed,” said Gilmore, 73. “Everybody was talking about this guy Bob Lanier. I hadn’t seen him play. They said, ‘He’s big and strong, like you.’ I was looking forward to the matchup .”
The Dolphins dispatched the Lanier-less St. Bonaventure team, 91-83, before losing to UCLA in the championship game, 80-69. Sidney Wicks, a 6-foot-8 forward, blocked five of Gilmore’s shots, and the Bruins shot 27 more free throws than Jacksonville did.
“That aspect, I’m not going to get into except for the fact that they just had more experience than we did,” Gilmore said.
Jacksonville also was the first Florida school to advance to the Final Four. Now, two of the four teams this weekend are from the state: first-timers Florida Atlantic and Miami, joining fellow newcomer San Diego State and former champion UConn.
“That’s special, isn’t it?” said Gilmore, who is retired and living in the Jacksonville area. “Florida Atlantic is really a team kind of like Jacksonville. Underrated, unexpected and just really stepped up and has gotten the job done. “
Gilmore will be at home watching the games on television, he said, with a clear rooting interest in each of the semifinals.
“I pull for my Florida teams,” said the native of Chipley, Fla. “I’m a true Floridian.”