By CHRIS LARICK
For the Star Beacon
In Ashtabula County, 7-foot basketball players come around about as often as Halley’s Comet.
For those counting, that’s roughly 75 years.
If so, it might be 2040 before we see the likes of Ashtabula’s Jim Gilbert again. Gilbert, who will be inducted into the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame on April 7, played basketball for coach Gene Gephart and the Ashtabula Panthers from 1963 to 1965.
Gilbert was discovered (which wouldn’t appear to be that difficult) by Gephart in the halls of Ashtabula High School as a freshman. One caveat though — Gilbert had only a rudimentary knowledge of the game. So Gephart assigned assistant coach Fred Yanero to tutor Gilbert in the fundamentals during his freshman year.
“We really started from scratch,” Gephart said at the time.
“I used to play on the playgrounds and I played when I was at Station Avenue,” Gilbert told Star Beacon sports writer Tom Harris in 2001. “I was kind of awkward. I took dancing lessons so I’d be able to move around more.”
Gilbert may never have made it to the roster of “Dancing with the Stars.” But he became agile enough to become a force in the area.
“We got him ready, then we polished him,” Gephart said.
In just over two years Gilbert scored 801 points for Ashtabula, 377 as a sophomore and 420 as a junior. He would have breezed through the 1,000-point barrier except for one thing. He was too old to play as a senior, according to Ohio High School Athletic Association rules.
Gilbert owed a lot of his success to Gephart, but he credits his mother, Effie Boswell, for major contributions.
“We weren’t a rich family,” Gilbert said. “She always helped me out. She bought me basketball shoes and clothes for college. She pushed me. She said basketball was a way for me to get somewhere.”
Then there was Gephart, an inductee of the first class of the ACBF Hall of Fame.
“Coach Gephart helped me out a whole lot, not just with basketball,” Gilbert said.
Gilbert also helped himself, working at a car wash all through high school.
Gilbert played sparingly as a freshman, scoring just four points. But he exploded onto the scene in his sophomore season, scoring about 19 points a game and breaking former Panthers’ star Bob Walters’ scoring record with 35 points in a victory over Eastlake North. In just the second game of the season, he scored six points, but was a terror defensively, blocking 13 shots, still a Star Beacon area record. Not surprisingly, Gephart chose to use a zone defense with Gilbert under the basket, one of the rare times Gephart employed that tactic.
Ashtabula shared the Northeastern Conference championship (with Conneaut) that year and posted a 17-5 record overall. Of course, Gilbert wasn’t the only weapon Gephart had at his disposal. Joining Gilbert on that team were Randy Dramis, David Dewey, John Smith, Jerry Kaydo, Doug Featsent, Gib Jepson, Mike Kaydo, Eugene Jones, Jim Sheldon and Bob Webb.
Gilbert did even better as a junior, averaging 20.1 points per game and notching a 40-point game at the Mentor tournament. But, without as good a supporting cast, the Panthers slipped to 12-8. Then, as a senior, he was ineligible because of his age. So he kept his game sharp playing in the city leagues and on playgrounds.
If you build a 7-foot reputation, they will come, and Casper (Wyo.) Junior College did.
“They heard about Jim’s size,” Gephart said. “They came to Ashtabula and had Jim work out. They gave him a full scholarship except for the plane fare.
“Jim came from a poor family and had never been to a dentist. Bob Ball and Tony Chiacchiero helped raise money. We got enough for the plane fare and to have his teeth fixed.”
After one year at Casper, Gilbert moved on to Adams State. He averaged 18 points a game as a sophomore, but found out that college basketball was an animal of a different breed than high school hoops.
“The big difference in college was that most of the players were also football players,” he said. “They were a lot heavier. I had to learn to use my quickness; they’d try to push me out. I worked by myself and learned how to handle the ball.”
Gilbert said that he averaged about 60 percent on his field-goal attempts, using a hook shot and even shooting from the outside.
“I would go out and shoot from the corners,” he said. “I was double- and triple-teamed mostly.”
At Adams State Gilbert averaged 20 points and 11-plus rebounds a game, to go with an eye-popping seven blocked shots per contests his senior year.
At that time, 7-footers were rare, even in the NBA. It should come as no surprise then, that Gilbert caught the eye of professional teams, even though he weighed only 210 pounds at the time. After the 1969-1970 season he was drafted by the NBA’s San Diego Rockets and the American Basketball Association’s Washington Caps, the same year Pete Maravich, Dave Cowens, Calvin Murphy and Nate Archibald were picked. He was chosen as the first selection of the NBA’s fifth round, ahead of such names as Charlie Scott and Dan Issell.
But it was the Caps who showed Gilbert where the money was, offering him $120,000 for three years, with a substantial bonus and a new car. The contract was negotiated by former Cleveland Browns’ guard John Wooten, a representative of the United Athletes Association, a company that Wooten and Jim Brown had formed. The bonus and car were nice because Gilbert didn’t make the final cut. He felt he had deserved a berth on the team, but ...
“Back then, if you were from a small town, you didn’t make it,” he said. “It didn’t matter how good you were. Charlie Scott thought I’d made it because I had to guard him and blocked some of his shots.”
As was true then and is still true, players who don’t make American professional teams could go to other countries to play. In Gilbert’s case, that became Mexico at first. But in 1973, he found a better opportunity in France. He compared the competency level there to college basketball. Lacking local talent, French teams recruited Americans, one or two on each team.
It proved to be a successful trip. In the next 20 years, Gilbert played for Eveux, Asniens, Paris Racing Club, Doulogne-Surmer and Deauvais. But he did not become a household name. Basketball didn’t have the following in France that soccer had.
It also didn’t pay as well. In 1983 Gilbert took a job in a hospital to help pay the bills.
He wound up playing basketball in France for 20 years, retiring when he was 49.
“I only quit because I have a foot problem,” he said.
Gilbert married Luce, whom he had lived with since 1982, on July 8, 2000.
“James’ health is not so good,” Luce said recently in an email. “He still had neuropathy which affects his feet and now other organs too.”
Gilbert finally retired from his work at the hospital in Beauvois, France, last October. Luce also is retired from her work at Gillette, near Paris.
The Gilberts live in a house in Rainvillers, a small village near the town of Beauvois and about 80 kilometers (50 miles or so) from Paris.
In the past several years he became interested in old cars. He owns a 1962 Mercedes coupe.
For years Gilbert returned to Ashtabula to play in the annual Westside Shootout. Though he still returns to the United States, he now goes to South Carolina, since that’s where his sisters now live.
“I’m glad I came over,” he said of his years in France. “I never thought I’d get a chance to play. There wouldn’t have been much to do if I’d stayed around. I think I was the first guy to leave Ashtabula to play basketball. I came here because I wanted to play basketball, but I’ve always felt at home.”
Gilbert will be unable to attend his induction on April 7.
“But he is quite proud and sincerely touched to have been selected, and we thank you very much for it,” Luce said.
Larick, a retired Star Beacon sports writer, is a freelance writer from Geneva.