Grade fixing at the University of New Mexico put Craig Gilbert in the national spotlight and ended his basketball career
Reporters know better than to judge a book by its cover. It proved too tempting, however, the first time I watched Craig Gilbert play basketball.
The Dons already had a history with the magazine. Baseball Hall of Famer Eddie Mathews, Class of ’49, was a young slugger for the Milwaukee Braves when he was featured on the cover of SI’s first issue of June 9, 1954.
I returned to my hometown nearly five years after that to cover sports for the once great — and now bankrupt and buried — Santa Barbara News-Press.
And I was convinced, having watched several seasons of college basketball as a student at USC, that Gilbert was the second coming of Wilkes.
The Don from the Class of ’75 had become the star point guard of the state’s top-ranked junior college basketball team at Santa Barbara City College.
I covered almost every game that 1977-1978 season, home and away, all the way through the State Community College Tournament.
And damned if Sports Illustrated didn’t write about Gilbert just two years later. It chronicled his situation, however, in a most damning way.
He was the unwitting subject of a grade-fixing scandal during his recruitment that year by the University of New Mexico.
It resulted in federal charges of mail fraud for Lobo coaches Norm Ellenberger and Manny Goldstein … and the proverbial 15 minutes of fame for Gilbert.
The news report he watched at his UNM dormitory made it feel more like 15 minutes of shame.
“I didn’t know anything about this,” Gilbert told SI’s John Papanek soon after. “I just heard on TV that I’m done for the year.”
“I guess I’ll go home soon,” he added somberly.
Gilbert returned to the South Coast for good. He never played organized basketball again.
He died earlier this month at age 66, revered as a local legend by the family who loved him and those of us who got to know the true, tender heart of Craig Gilbert.
The tortured heart, he kept hidden inside a lifetime of soft, engaging smiles and alcohol abuse.
Gilbert was three inches shorter than the 6-foot-6 Wilkes, but they were blessed with the same willowy elegance.
“He was so fluid and graceful,” said Rich Alvari, his backcourt mate at SBCC. “No matter how important the game was, it always looked like Craig was playing in a friendly neighborhood pick-up game … so completely at ease on the court.”
Gilbert was bouncy, laterally quick, and a dead-eye shooter. He handled the basketball with the dexterous touch of a magician.
His “feel for the game of basketball,” as Alvari put it, was what separated him from most other players.
It was the same trait that helped Wilkes win two NCAA titles, four NBA championship rings, and a spot in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Craig could really pass the rock,” Alvari told Noozhawk. “He had great court vision, and he was every bit as good on the defensive end of the court.
“I personally saw him pin a shot at the top of the box on the backboard from Kevin Williams, Moorpark’s 6-9, all-league player.
“And like many great players, Craig had the ultimate confidence in himself, which allowed him to use the many advanced tools in his toolbox to take over a game when necessary.”
Field of Dreams
Gilbert was born into local sports gentry. His older cousin, Johnny, had been the star running back for Santa Barbara High’s CIF championship football team of 1960. He also became a world-class sprinter in track.
Craig Gilbert grew up on Bond Avenue on Santa Barbara’s Lower Eastside, less than a mile from the Second Baptist Church led by Wilkes’ father, the late Rev. Leander Wilkes.
The late Dwight Barber once spoke of Gilbert’s childhood exploits there in a Facebook post about the neighborhood of their youth.
“One of the first pitchers I faced in Pee Wee League was a skinny kid who threw the ball harder than any of the coaches,” he wrote. “I don’t remember if I even made contact with the ball any time I swung the bat while facing him.”
Barber claimed that a baseball scout from the Philadelphia Phillies took notice of Gilbert when he was an eighth-grader.
That first big break of his athletic career was soon shattered, however, when he broke his leg during a pickup game of football.
Gilbert began to focus on basketball when he finally recovered.
“He grew several inches during his healing,” Barber recalled. “It was during that time he began to develop a relationship with Clifford Lambert.”
Lambert, a former All-CIF star from Santa Barbara High’s Class of ’67, had just taken over as athletic director at the neighborhood Boys Club.
He was immediately impressed by the “poetry in motion” that Gilbert displayed on his traveling basketball team.
“He simply made everyone on the team better,” Lambert said. “He had the whole package … He could dribble, shoot, rebound, pass, defend, lock a player down, and take over the game if necessary.
“He was an unselfish player. And while he could be a dominating force on the basketball court, he was never one to seek publicity or openly criticize his own players.”
Dons of a Golden Era
Eddie White, one year behind Gilbert at Santa Barbara High, liked him instantly after arriving at his first basketball workout as an underclassman.
“Craig was there observing the activities,” he said. “I recall him walking over to say hello.
“He was engaging and soft-spoken … perhaps to control his slight speech impediment. He was easy to connect with regardless of our having hoops in common.”
White also found Gilbert to be a bit of “an enigma.” He’d float into practice late, or sometimes not at all. He’d skip class, as well.
He made Jack Trigueiro work hard for his coaching stipend.
White decided that “free spirit” was the best way he could describe his teammate.
White was a sophomore when he was surprised to find Gilbert join him on the junior varsity for a scrimmage against the varsity.
“I suspect it was a disciplinarian tactic by coach Trigueiro,” he said. “Once the scrimmage began and Craig proceeded to outplay — if not embarrass — the varsity players, coach Trigueiro blew his whistle to temporarily suspend the scrimmage.
“He chuckled and told Craig to ‘put on a varsity jersey.’”
White rejoined Gilbert the following year on what was one of the best varsity basketball teams in Santa Barbara High history.
White would later become one of the top players at Gonzaga University. Sophomore Steve Crandell was recruited to Stanford. James Hunter, the Dons’ All-CIF center, started as a tight end for USC’s football team before playing defensive end in the NFL.
Steve Dudley, one of Gilbert’s running mates in the backcourt, also made his mark in football as a record-setting receiver at SBCC.
Jim Manser, Donnie Moten and Terry Bolden were other talented players on the team.
Rival San Marcos was also loaded that season. The Royals’ backcourt featured Alvari and Mark Mattos, a future Weber State Hall of Famer who led the Wildcats to three NCAA Tournaments and a national ranking that rose as high as No. 12.
“Those Jack Trigueiro teams were a challenge every night out,” Alvari said. “Craig was uber-talented.
“When you combined elite talent like that group had, with a disciplined style of play led by hard-nosed coach Trigueiro, every possession was going to be a fist fight.”
The Dons won their first 21 games of the 1974-1975 season. San Marcos gave them their closest call, taking a 56-55 lead down the stretch of a thriller played before a sellout crowd at the SBCC Sports Pavilion.
Gilbert took command of the final four seconds, however, like a Maestro conductor.
He took an outlet pass from Crandell, sidestepped a San Marcos defender at midcourt, and then delivered a pinpoint pass to Manser as he dashed downcourt.
Manser laid in the game-winning basket with two seconds to spare.
“It was the best play of the year for our team,” Moten said. “It was magical!”
He took his praise of Gilbert one step further:
“Craig was undoubtedly the best player and human being I know,” he gushed. “He was the best athlete of our class, and the kindest person and friend I knew.”
San Marcos earned its revenge in the season’s final regular-season game. It handed the Dons their first defeat of the year, 48-47.
Alvari considered those two games to be possibly “the best ever in the history of that inner-city battle.”
Palos Verdes and its future NBA star, Bill Laimbeer, ended the Dons’ run in the next round.
It would not be the last time that Gilbert was stopped just short of greatness.
Victories with the Vaqueros
He didn’t play organized basketball the next two years. His spotty attendance in high school torpedoed his grade-point average, scaring off many college recruiters, which included even UNLV’s Jerry Tarkanian.
Gilbert finally resumed his basketball career at SBCC in the fall of 1977. Coach Ed DeLacy had accumulated an all-star cast of local players, which included White, Jeff Isbister and Dave Bregante from Santa Barbara; Alvari and Randy Wolf from San Marcos; Dan Pagliotti and Jeff Rowe from Dos Pueblos, and Randy Bell from Bishop Diego.
The marquee import was 6-7 All-State forward Robbie Robinson from Compton. He would start on UC Santa Barbara’s front line just a year later when DeLacy was hired as the Gauchos’ new coach.
“We had eight or nine players of that team earn scholarships to four-year schools,” Alvari pointed out. “To this day, it might be the best SBCC team ever.
“That experience, playing with former rivals turned teammates every day, was really eye-opening, especially when it came to Craig Gilbert.
“He was so gifted … And trust me, it was a lot more fun playing with him than against him.”
The Vaqueros lost only once during the regular season, in a road game at College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita.
They also crushed their first two opponents at the state tournament, running their record up to 32-1.
SBCC appeared headed for a championship showdown against fellow powerhouse Bakersfield.
The Vaqueros took a double-digit lead midway through its semifinal against the City College of San Francisco. Gilbert fouled out early in the second half, however, and CCSF took advantage to rally for an 84-81 victory.
Gilbert was further dismayed that spring to learn that he didn’t have enough units to be eligible for the next season.
He also didn’t have a coach. DeLacy had already departed for UCSB. SBCC wouldn’t hire Frank Carbajal as his replacement until late that summer.
On to Oxnard
Gilbert led the Condors to a record of 27-5 and the quarterfinals of the 1979 State Tournament.
But he was also set up for a fall when Oxnard’s director of admissions accepted a $300 bribe from Goldstein to add bogus credits from Mercer County Community College in West Windsor, New Jersey, to his transcripts.
Gilbert told FBI agents that he’d never even heard of Mercer.
“I was never out of California in my life before I came to New Mexico,” he said.
Alvari is convinced that Gilbert would have achieved his destiny in basketball had he remained at SBCC.
“Carb would have provided the tough love and structure that coach Trigueiro provided Craig in high school,” he said.
“That would have made a world of difference in Craig’s life, both short term and long term.”
Goldstein approached Gilbert after a big showdown at Los Angeles Trade-Tech, which shared that season’s Western State Conference championship with Oxnard.
“At that time, I didn’t want to go to New Mexico,” Gilbert said. “Some friends told me that it was like Vegas (the University of Nevada Las Vegas) and that it was just a matter of time before they would get caught.”
A recruiting trip to the Lobos’ “Pit” changed his mind.
“I saw the big crowd and decided I had to come,” Gilbert said.
He was just a few days away from his first game with the Lobos when FBI agents visited practice.
“They took us into a room one-by-one and asked us if we had ever been paid to play ball, did we know about any gambling — stuff like that,” Gilbert said. “They asked me if I knew I was ineligible to play because of my transcripts.
“I told them no.”
He was soon back at Ortega Park with his old friends.
“Although he tried to make light of his situation, just underneath the surface I saw a change in my friend,” Barber said.
“He still laughed, joked and argued sports and life, but the innocence and naivete — a sweetness that had always been a trademark of Craig’s being — was tarnished and dulled.”
Gilbert continued playing pick-up basketball. He also became a star in local slo-pitch softball circles. My own team faced him many times in league competition and tournaments.
We once even picked him up for a weekend tournament in Arroyo Grande when our own shortstop was unavailable. I played next to him at second base.
I don’t remember how many games we won that weekend, but I’ll never forget one specific play.
With one out and a runner at first base, I backhanded a ground ball that was rapped sharply up the middle.
The ecstasy I felt about the catch soon turned to agony when my backhanded flip to Gilbert floated high and behind him during his approach to second base.
He somehow twisted his body in midair to snag the ball, completed a full pirouette and then performed a nimble toe-dance on second base. He followed that up in one fluid motion by firing a missile to first base to complete a spectacular double play.
It was like watching Mikhail Baryshnikov play shortstop.
“Nice stop,” he said as he patted my back during our jog to the dugout.
I laughed so hard that I nearly swallowed my bubble gum.
“My stop?” I blurted out. “Where in the world did you learn to play ball like that?”
He confided to me during a break between games that baseball had been his first love.
I watched him down enough beers that weekend to drown a whale … and not miss a step on the field.
And I wondered what could have been.
Peacekeeper at the Park
Gilbert would become known as the “Mayor of Ortega Park” in the half-century that followed.
His name, which had long since disappeared from the sports pages, appeared in print again in 2017 after neighbors complained about the “group of loud and rowdy drunks” who had taken over the park.
Gilbert was cited several times for having an open container of alcohol. But he was also the one the police entrusted to “talk sense” to the rowdy drinkers.
By all accounts, he long served as the peacekeeper of the park.
Friends say he “left the shenanigans of the park” several years ago was regularly attending church.
Gilbert was admitted to the hospital with severe stomach pain more than a month ago. He died a few weeks later.
His daughter, Tiana Lopez, has set up a GoFundMe account “on behalf of my dad and my siblings” to help pay for Gilbert’s funeral expenses. As of July 30, the site had raised more than $3,700. Click here to make an online donation.
“My dad touched a lot of people throughout his life,” she said.
Many of them have contributed to the fund, including several former teammates and the family of his old coach, Jack Trigueiro.
Alvari and White would like Gilbert to be remembered more permanently. They’ve proposed that the basketball courts at Ortega Park be named after their old teammate.
The City of Santa Barbara has been working to secure funding for a $15 million renovation of the park.
“I have not lived there in decades, and I don’t know how something like this would go over with the masses,” Alvari said, “but we all know he was beloved by many.”
Greatness, after all, is just another form of beauty. And it’s all in the eye of the beholder.