Gene Frenette: Artis Gilmore lost more than a teammate with passing of Rex Morgan
everal hours before Rex Morgan lost his six-year battle to throat cancer, Artis Gilmore — the 7-foot-2 Hall of Fame legend and a former Jacksonville University teammate — couldn’t bring himself to concede that his dear friend was approaching the finish line.
Gilmore, sitting in a near-empty Swisher Gym on the JU campus Thursday night, had just come from seeing Morgan at Memorial Hospital earlier that day. Morgan was unable to speak. Deep down, Gilmore knew that half-hour visit could well have been their last time together.
Yet Gilmore clung to the belief that one of the fiercest basketball competitors he had ever known might miraculously beat cancer a third time.
“I understood Rex was in a difficult place,” Gilmore said Thursday night. “But the game is not over until the clock is out, that’s the way I see it. Rex has always been a battling person. He’s competing for his life.”
Early Friday morning, after the news broke that Morgan lost his fight at age 67, Gilmore struggled to put in perspective exactly how he felt about saying goodbye to one of the few people that impacted his life on so many levels.
How could Gilmore encapsulate a 46-year relationship, one that began during the magical 1969-70 season when he and Morgan led JU to the national championship game against John Wooden’s UCLA dynasty?
This wasn’t just a former teammate he was losing. Morgan also helped Gilmore come out of his introverted shell in college, who coached Gilmore’s son, O.J. in high school, who was his partner in the insurance business, and who cherished Gilmore’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame as if Morgan himself was the recipient.
“I don’t know how I can give you an answer with clarity, I’m kind of lost with all these thoughts [on Morgan’s death],” said Gilmore. “Rex has moved on and now it’s about all of us celebrating his life and his success. It’s been a nice ride.”
What an entertaining, interesting, and often bumpy, ride it was for Morgan. From the basketball highs and lows – the NCAA title game run, being the 21st overall draft pick of the Boston Celtics and his NBA career flaming out after two years, coaching Arlington Country Day to seven state titles and his program facing unprecedented penalties that compelled them to leave the Florida High School Activities Association — to a six-year battle with cancer. No doubt, Morgan’s enduring legacy will be as the ultimate fighter.
Right or wrong, Morgan refused to back down from anything or anyone. He was a hoops junkie to the core, plying his trade in his post-playing career as a college assistant at Florida State and a minor-league professional coach with the Jacksonville Hooters/Shooters.
He was an extraordinary promoter, too. Who else but Morgan could convince world-class boxer Roy Jones to play basketball for his team on the same day that he was scheduled to fight? There were no limits on what Morgan would do to market himself or his team.
But it was during Morgan’s 18 seasons as coach at Jacksonville prep powerhouse ACD that truly brought out the fiery competitor. He annoyed opponents and pushed the envelope with regard to recruiting players like few coaches, drawing the wrath and discipline of the FHSAA.
Morgan was bound and determined to do things his way. He created a basketball factory, and with Nike’s money to fund it, Morgan brought in players from all over the country and beyond to make tiny ACD a hoops juggernaut.
“There’s no doubt our relationship was strained for a while when we played ACD,” said Providence coach Jimmy Martin, also a former JU player. “But if it wasn’t for Rex and ACD and the level they played at, our program wouldn’t be where it is today.
“We got put on the biggest stage you could in high school basketball. To Rex’s credit, he took on the role as the bad guy. Everyone came to our games to see David [Providence] slay Goliath [ACD].”
Gilmore knew Morgan agitated opponents with his flamboyant style and talent-laden teams that won in lopsided fashion, but he also understood Rex’s good intentions in ways that many people overlooked because ACD was dominant for so long.
Just as Morgan’s players saw him as an influential figure in their lives, so did Gilmore, a gentle giant who grew up in the small Panhandle town of Chipley in the 1960s, when segregation was at its apex.
Coming to JU and being on a team where white and black players got along, that was a life-changing experience.
“There was no black or white, no color, no petty jealousies, it was just everybody having fun,” Morgan told me in 2011.
It was a breath of fresh air for Gilmore, who attended all-black schools in Chipley and vividly remembers the time growing up when African-Americans drank from different water fountains and used separate public bathrooms. It put a naturally shy kid more on the defensive, not entirely trusting of the white world.
But as a member of the 1969-70 JU team, coached by the liberal-minded Joe Williams and with Morgan as its primary on-floor leader, Gilmore felt genuinely free for the first time in his life. And not just because the Dolphins, in an era with no shot clock or 3-point line, became the first and only NCAA team to average 100 points a game.
For the first time, Gilmore developed a true bond with people of a different color. And nobody was more instrumental in that than Morgan. They were nicknamed Batman and Robin for their basketball exploits, but that feeling of togetherness ended up lasting a lifetime.
“Rex was instrumental in my early years, developing me as a person,” said Gilmore. “Our relationship was a positive impact on my life. Batman was big, strong and muscular, but Robin was not just a sidekick in this situation. He was a leader.
“We would spend quite a bit of time talking about issues and things on and off the court. We had a tremendous bond that’s grown over the years.”
It strengthened most during Morgan’s long battle with cancer. Gilmore watched him persevere through 66 radiation treatments, then through the painful post-operative treatment of brachytherarpy, an intense form of radiation that hooked 10 tiny tubes to Morgan’s tongue.
A few months ago, long after the cancer returned, Gilmore accompanied Morgan, who used a wheeled walker, on a half-mile walk. He admired that his good friend and teammate was still fighting, still competing to get back in the game.
Now it’s Gilmore who must endure the pain of losing somebody who meant the world to him. For Batman, it won’t be the same without Robin.
It’s a bond that went way beyond basketball.