Before this year, the last time three men’s college basketball programs made their Final Four debuts was in 1970, when Jacksonville, St. Bonaventure and New Mexico State joined regular season UCLA.
The idea of three newcomers to the semifinals “was the furthest I could think of at the time,” former ABA and National Basketball Association star Artis Gilmour said in a phone interview Friday.
Mostly, he said, he and his Jacksonville teammates were just focused on their underdog story as they tried to win the title.
“There was a lot going on during that period, particularly with regard to racial issues,” said Gilmour, who was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011. “It was a really tough period. You look at Kentucky, they didn’t have black players.” It was very different. But it was an exciting time for us. Very special. No one expected Jacksonville to get to that point.”
The tournament featured 25 schools in 1970, as opposed to 68 today. Jacksonville, which was not in a conference and received an at-large bid, defeated Western Kentucky, Iowa and Adolph Rupp, an all-white Kentucky team to reach the Final Four. There, 7-foot-2 Gilmour and his teammates faced off against St. Bonaventure, who had debuted as another future pro in 6-foot-11 Bob Lanier. But Lanier, who died last May, injured his knee in the regional final against Villanova and was unable to play.
Gilmour, 73, said: “I was really disappointed. Everyone was talking about this Bob Lanier guy. I didn’t see him play. They said, ‘He’s as big and strong as you are. I was looking forward to the game.'”
The Dolphins fielded the St. Bonaventure team no less than Lanier, 91-83, before losing to UCLA in the championship game, 80-69. Sydney Wicks, a 6-foot-8 forward, blocked five Gilmour shots, and the Bruins hit 27 more free throws than Jacksonville did.
“That aspect, I won’t go into except for the fact that they have more experience than we do,” Gilmore said.
Jacksonville was also the first school in Florida to advance to the Final Four. Now, two of the four teams this weekend are from state: Florida Atlantic and Miami debut, joining fellow newcomer San Diego State and former champion Yukon.
“This is special, isn’t it?” said Gilmore, who is retired and lives in the Jacksonville area. “Florida Atlantic really is a team like Jacksonville. Underrated, unexpected, really stepped up and they get the job done.”
He said Gilmour would be at home watching the games on TV, with a clear interest in both semifinals.
“I work for my team in Florida,” said a resident of Chipley, Florida. “I’m a native of Florida.”
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