He was Armon in college and Armen in the NBA. Regardless of spelling, Armen Gilliam was a basketball player. Simple as that.
A star at UNLV and former No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft, Gilliam died Tuesday night after playing pick-up hoops at a gym in Bridgeville, Penn. He collapsed on the court and rushed to a nearby hospital, but was pronounced dead soon afterward. He was 47.
“He was such a great person. Everybody loved him and he loved everybody. He was such a gentle person and such a caring guy. I am all shook up over it,” Gilliam’s UNLV coach, Jerry Tarkanian, said in a release.
That gentle persona belied Gilliam’s on-court style. The 6-9 power forward was nicknamed “The Hammer” for his strength and physical play. Credit that for his late start in basketball. He spent most of high school playing football and wrestling and didn’t get onto the court until his junior year.
After a year at Independence Junior College in Kansas, he blossomed at UNLV.
“He beat the hell out of me every day,” ex-teammate Leon Symanksi told Jeff Eisenberg. “You couldn’t move him even if you tried. He’d get down in the low post and it was like trying to move a 1,000-pound steel weight. He was that strong.”
Gilliam peaked in 1987 when he averaged 23.8 points per game, garnered second-team All-America honors and led the Rebels to a Final Four appearance where they lost to eventual champ Indiana. The team’s 37 wins tied for the most in a single season until 2008.
He’s still among UNLV’s all-time leaders in several offensive categories, including scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage. If not for the legendary run by the Larry Johnson-led squads in 1990 and 1991, Gilliam might’ve gone down as the best player in UNLV history.
“He was one of the greatest Rebels ever and one of the best players we have ever had,” Tarkanian said. “In my ratings, I had Larry Johnson No. 1 and Armon No. 2.
His NBA career didn’t quite match his college highs, though he was hardly a flop.
He averaged nearly 14 points a game over 13 seasons with six teams, highlighted by 18.3 a game with the Nets in 1995-96. But UNLV remains his peak. The school retired his jersey in 2007.
“The Runnin’ Rebel family lost a true legend,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice said. “As great a player as Armon was, he was even a better person. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gilliam family.”
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