Maurice 'Wilky' Gilmore was posthumously inducted into the Fairfield County Sports Hall of Fame in an announcement ceremony on June 29, 2016.
Wilky Gilmore grabbing a rebound in a game when he played at New Canaan HIgh.
Gilmore with fellow New Canaanite and future Olympic gold medalist decathlete Bill Toomey, who provided some hometown flavor for Gilmore as he was already at Colorado when Gilmore arrived.
In among the trophies in the lobby of the New Canaan High School Athletic Complex hangs a framed, vintage number-12 Rams jersey. There is no plaque, no marker, no inscription identifying whose jersey it was. As a result, hundreds of students, parents and fans filter past the jersey every day, unaware of the history or the significance behind it, unaware of Maurice ‘Wilky’ Gilmore.
Yet for legions of New Canaanites, especially friends and relatives who were lucky enough to know him personally, Gilmore—selfless, charismatic, intelligent and graceful—etched a singular legacy here in town. That he did so in an era marked by civil unrest makes his accomplishments perhaps that much more impressive—though those close to Gilmore say his rare gifts of compassion and decency saw him transcend matters such as race and, in more than one way, “raise the game” of everyone around him.
Maurice Wilkens Gilmore was born in 1940, seven years before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier. The young Gilmore—the second of four children—was by all accounts a funny kid, always up for playful, harmless pranks. Even so, according to his youngest sister, he was a perfectionist—something that necessitated a visit to a child psychiatrist.
“That’s how he started to play basketball,” Marilyn Washington told NewCanaanite.com. “They told my mother that there was nothing wrong with him, just get him involved in sports. Give him an outlet.”
And what an outlet that would be.
Though Gilmore excelled at all sports, it was basketball that captured his attention and ultimately, passion.
“There would be a blizzard and we’d be home from school,” Washington—who later became a teacher at West School—said. “Wilky would be out there shoveling the driveway so he could practice basketball. That’s the way he approached the game—a perfectionist, but not an individualist. He was a team player.”
By the time Gilmore reached New Canaan High School, he was already writing his legend. At the time, freshmen did not play on the high school team. Nevertheless, Rams head coach Loren Keyes had his varsity team scrimmage the freshmen. Led by the 6’6″ Gilmore, the freshmen defeated the varsity team. The following year, 1956, was the first for Gilmore on the Rams and it was also the first of three consecutive state titles for New Canaan, who had last won the crown in 1934.
In the ’56 playoffs, Gilmore averaged 29 points per game. The following season, Gilmore scored a record 136 points in the four-game playoffs, including 24 in the finals despite being triple-teamed in the Rams’ 70-51 win over Windsor Locks. In 1958, Gilmore capped his high school career with a school record 697 points and another state title. Wilky had single-handedly put basketball on the map at New Canaan High School, inspiring younger athletes to follow in his formidable footsteps. One such athlete was Gary Liberatore, who would lead New Canaan to the 1962 state basketball title, the last such championship to date.
“There was no greater role model in the history of New Canaan High School than Wilky Gilmore,” Liberatore said. “He was like the Pied Piper in the days he was playing. I was a little kid back then, about 6th or 7th grade, and Wilky would come down to the elementary schools and talk to the kids and encourage us to study hard so that when we got to high school we’d be eligible to play. We as kids said, ‘That’s what we want to do.’ And it was because of those great teams and actually having Wilky on that team.”
“Just to let you know how dominant he was, Darien had some great teams during that run,” former NCHS baseball coach and longtime Gilmore friend Mark ‘2-5-0’ Rearick said. The state was broken up into three divisions back then, with the Rams and Blue Wave winning championships in separate classes. “In ’58 the first game we played Darien, we beat them by 30. The second game Wilky was sick and missed it and they beat us by 30. That’s the difference Wilky made in our team. A 60-point swing is just about right.”
Gilmore wasn’t just a star on the court. A renaissance man, Wilky was a top-notch student, class president for three straight years at New Canaan High. That Gilmore was one of only a few African Americans living in predominantly white New Canaan did not seem to matter. His personality, leadership and athleticism transcended any racial barriers that existed through the country in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
“Wilky was a trailblazer,” Liberatore said. “But when you’re involved in athletics, there’s no such thing as racial divide. Everybody is together. You never thought of Wilky as a minority. His family was great, the Gilmores were spectacular. Most of us kids used to caddy up at the Country Club. Wilky was a caddy, too, and he would come up there and hold court. He was just one of us.”
Washington recalled that her brother “never experienced any name-calling or anything like that.”
“Never called the ‘n’ word,” she said. “After he caddied at the golf course, it was nothing for him to come home with six other kids. I think in a way we were sheltered. Back in those days there was prejudice in the Deep South but we never felt it that much in New Canaan. We were just part of the background, part of the community.”
Gilmore was heavily recruited, and although his family wanted him to go to UConn, he set his eyes on what was then the premiere NCAA basketball league, the Big Eight. Future NBA stars Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Bridges had played Big Eight ball at Kansas, and former New Canaanite and future Olympic gold medalist decathlete Bill Toomey was already at Colorado. To the chagrin of locals who selfishly wanted to continue to see him play in college, Gilmore would join Toomey as a Buffalo. Townies would have to resort to other means to keep up with Gilmore’s career.
“His sister Cecelia worked at the local supermarket,”Rearick said. “After Wilky graduated and went to Colorado, everybody would stop and ask her ‘How is Wilky?’ The line would slow to a standstill. In her yearbook, under her picture her quote was ‘Wilky’s fine.’ ”
Gilmore’s college career was a successful one as he led Colorado to the 1962 Big Eight championship. In the NCAA tournament he led Colorado to a victory over Texas Tech, but the Buffaloes ultimately lost in the Elite Eight to eventual champion Cincinnati.
In his three years at Colorado, Gilmore scored 1,026 points and grabbed 591 rebounds. He was such a force that in the days where point-shaving was prevalent throughout college basketball, Gilmore was said to be approached by several nefarious figures. By all accounts, the upstanding Gilmore flatly refused to even discuss the topic.
“Some knuckleheads said that Wilky didn’t report that they tried to contact him,” Rearick said. “First of all, who are you going to report it to? The NCAA? The police? They’d just tell him to get lost. But they still tried to drag him through the mud a little bit because he didn’t report it.”
Gilmore emerged from the scandal untainted, and after graduating Colorado with a degree in business, he was selected in the 14th round of the 1962 NBA draft by the St. Louis Hawks. A knee injury, however, coupled with a crowded St. Louis front court prevented Gilmore from reaching the NBA.
“They had Hall of Famers Bob Petit and Cliff Hagan, and their first-round pick was Zelmo Beaty, a 6’10” center,” Rearick said. “They tried converting Wilky to a guard. Back then, a 6’6″ guard was unheard of. The only one on the face of the planet was Oscar Robertson. So Wilky was one of the last cuts on the Hawks.”
Though his professional basketball career had ended before it even started, Gilmore was more than prepared to transition to the real world. Moving back to New Canaan, he earned a CPA license and then graduated from UConn Law School and became an attorney, forming a practice with fellow lawyer Harvey Melzer.
“I went to high school in Norwalk,” Melzer told NewCanaanite.com. “When we became partners I would always tease him that I would root against him. He was just an outstanding person and he came from an outstanding family.”
Gilmore practiced law in town for several years, and although he was involved in several high profile cases such as the expansion of the YMCA, people seemed to be more interested in Wilky’s past celebrity than his current profession.
“A lot of people would want to come up and talk basketball or glad-hand with him,” Rearick said. “But when it came time to hiring a lawyer for some cases, some of his old friends wouldn’t come to him as a lawyer. He felt a little slighted by that.”
Still, Gilmore continued to be a pioneer. He was a charter member of New Canaan’s first Town Council, and even found the time to set up a youth basketball camp where he was generous with his time and knowledge of the game he loved.
“He cared about people,” Rearick said. “He cared about kids especially. A lot of people in his position could have been self-centered. He was just such a terrific guy. Everybody loved him. You couldn’t walk down the street with him without stopping every 10 feet because everybody wanted to talk to him.”
Eventually Gilmore set his sights on the West Coast, where he felt his family (he had married for a second time and adopted a son) had more opportunities. He also wanted to shift gears in his career, looking to become a sports agent. Although Gilmore passed the bar in California, he found that being away from New Canaan was not all it cracked up to be.
“There he just became another man, and specifically a black man,” Washington said. “He was out jogging one day and a policeman was driving by and stopped him, and wanted to see his identification.”
Wilky had the policeman follow him to his nearby home where he promptly presented his license and a business card that showed he was an attorney. The policeman immediately and apologetically retreated.
Gilmore’s sports agent career never took off—perhaps because he was simply too nice a guy in a world of low morals and backstabbing. That said, Washington remembers one conversation she had that showed Wilky had a sharp eye for talent.
“I never will forget when he told me that there were two young black girls that are going to be something in the tennis world,” Washington said. “Of course he was talking about Venus and Serena Williams.”
Even before moving to California, Gilmore had shown signs of declining health. He had suffered from narcolepsy, oftentimes falling asleep mid-conversation.
“We went through a tollbooth once when he fell asleep,” Liberatore recalled.
Wilky’s second marriage ended in divorce, and some disciplinary matters with his son would take a toll on his personal and professional life, loved ones recall.
“His whole focus shifted to family matters,” Washington said. “He actually took a year off from his job to stay home, just to try and be a father to his kid. Our parents had been so wonderful, he wanted to be a wonderful parent too.”
Gilmore eventually moved in with a friend. One day in late 1993, the friend came home from a trip to find Wilky slumped over in a chair. He had been dead from an apparent heart attack for several days. He was only 53. For a man who had always been surrounded by people, his passing was poignantly lonely.
“The whole town was devastated,” Liberatore recalled. “Especially anybody who knew him, which was almost everyone.”
Wilky Gilmore came home to New Canaan. His grave sits on a small hill overlooking a pond in Lakeview Cemetery, The simple headstone reads “Maurice ‘Wilky’ Gilmore, 1940-1993. Attorney, Gentleman and Friend To All.”
“When they were inscribing it, I told them ‘Attorney’ should be last, and ‘Gentleman’ should be first,” said cemetery caretaker and legendary New Canaan coach Bo Hickey, who knew Gilmore from pickup and alumni basketball games. “Because first and foremost, he was a gentleman.”
“He was one of our own,” Liberatore said. “One of the first true superstars of New Canaan.”