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How the humble big man Armen Gilliam ended up at UNLV

Rebels’ seventh all-time leading scorer collapsed during pick-up basketball game Tuesday night


Associated Press

This Nov. 6, 2007, file photo shows Armen Gilliam, a former UNLV and NBA player, gesturing while speaking during his jersey retirement ceremony in Las Vegas. Next to Gilliam is his son Jeremiah. Gilliam died Tuesday, July 5, 2011, at the LA Fitness gym in Bridgeville, Pa., while he was playing basketball. He was 47.

Updated Wednesday, July 6, 2011 | 2:39 p.m.

KSNV: Remembering Armen Gilliam

Las Vegas Sun reporter Ray Brewer remembers former UNLV basketball star Armen Gilliam.

Mark Warkentien thought he had discovered a gem of a basketball recruit. That turned out to be an understatement.

Warkentien, then a UNLV basketball assistant coach, was scouting the national junior college tournament in the early 1980s when he stumbled upon a monstrous 6-foot-9 power forward who immediately caught his eye.

“I see this kid coming off the bench, and he was as big as a house,” Warkentien said. “He definitely passed the eyeball test.”

That kid was Armen Gilliam, who went from being raw in talent and inexperienced to one of the best players in UNLV history.

Gilliam, who led the Rebels to the 1987 Final Four and is seventh on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,855 points, died unexpectedly of a heart attack Tuesday. He collapsed while playing basketball at a fitness center in Bridgeville, Pa. He was 47.

Gilliam, who in 2007 had his No. 35 jersey retired by UNLV and is part of the school’s athletic Hall of Fame, was a virtual unknown until Warkentien found him playing for Independence Community College of Kansas.

“I remember asking myself how can the big boy not start?,” Warkentien said.

He flipped through the program to get more information on Gilliam and had his interest piqued when he realized the prospect was from near Pittsburgh. The Rebel program had several ties to Pittsburgh — most notably top assistant Tim Grgurich being a native — and hadn’t reached the point in its development where it was battling for top prospects.

That made Gilliam a perfect fit.

Gilliam, who earned the nicknamed “The Hammer” while at UNLV, was primarily a wrestler at Bethel Park High outside Pittsburgh and had played only one year of high school basketball. Despite his size and developing talent, he was so under the radar that he wasn’t even invited to the Dapper Dan all-star event — an annual showcase for the Pittsburgh area’s top 30 or so prospects.

A few months after scouting Gilliam, Warkentien was back on the recruiting trail at Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh, where a five-star camp was being held. He made a detour into West Virginia, where Gilliam was at the Metro Index camp for underrecruited players.

Warkentien watched Gilliam for a few days and was further convinced he was the real deal.

“We had to offer this guy a scholarship. If we let him go back to a junior college, I was convinced every school in the country would be after him,” Warkentien said.

So, UNLV offered a scholarship and persuaded Gilliam to redshirt his first year in Las Vegas to further develop.

That turned out being the best thing for his career. Under the watchful eye of Grgurich — who is considered one of the best teachers in basketball — Gilliam logged in long hours and developed into a force. After three years at UNLV, he wound up being the second pick in the 1987 NBA Draft and had a lengthy professional career.

Gilliam, the son of a minister, was equally respected for the man he was off court. He was quiet and reserved, and graduated from UNLV with a degree in communication studies.

“I’m all shook up,” legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian said in tears. “He was such a great person. He would take the shirt off his back for you.”

Current UNLV coach Dave Rice also praised Gilliam’s character. “The Runnin’ Rebel family lost a true legend,” he said. “As great a player as Armen was, he was even a better person. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Gilliam family.”

Click to enlarge photo

Armen Gilliam and Freddie Banks relax on the bench after a Rebels game.

Freddie Banks, who starred with Gilliam on the 1987 team that finished with a 37-2 record, recalled the night Gilliam had his UNLV jersey retired and how Gilliam used his moment in the spotlight to petition for Banks to have his jersey retired, too.

“That’s how humble of a guy he was,” said Banks, who scored more than 2,000 career points. “He told the press: ‘Freddie should have had his jersey up here before me. He needs to be next.’ ”

Gilliam, who in 1987 was the Big West Conference Player of the Year and an All-American, holds the UNLV record for most points in a season with 903 in 1986-87 and most field goals in a season with 359 that year. He was the second pick by the Phoenix Suns and played 13 years in the NBA, averaging 13.7 point per game.

That’s not bad for someone the Rebels nearly missed.

“This is such a sad thing,” Warkentien said. “He did things the right way. He was never in a wink of trouble. You can Google search that all day.”

Banks added, “I’m just devastated with what is going on. Armen was a real quiet guy. He never bothered anyone. I loved Armen. As people say, you never know when it is your time to go. Unfortunately, it was his time.”

Born as Armon Louis Gilliam, he later changed the spelling of his first name to Armen to better suit the pronunciation of it.

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  1. Sad day indeed.

    Rest in Peace.

  2. Sad news - one of my all time favorite Rebels. As an early UNLV fan I recall when he came to Vegas, always seemed like he was the leader/big brother of the team during the 86-87 run. Man, this hits me hard. He made a nice carrer for himself in the NBA too, a tough loss.

  3. Thanks for your desire and skill. God Bless

  4. RIP big man. RIP, you will be missed on the Tarkanian Court.

  5. WOW! I mean, WOW, this is just shocking. To his family, friends and the entire Runnin Rebels nation, my thoughts and prayers are with all of you.

  6. Very sad day indeed, my condolences to family and all close to Armon. He symbolized Running Rebel basketball and represented UNLV in every way.

    RIP #35

  7. Wow, he was so young too. Still playing basketball. One of the UNLV greats, he will be missed.

  8. What an incredible player. As much as I loved watching Banks and Paddio crane threes, if they had given the rock to the Hammer a little more he could have averaged 30ppg. He was as close to sure thing as you could get with that soft jumper in the lane. So sorry to hear the news. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.

  9. It's shocking. God Bless Armon and deepest condolences to his family.

  10. What a shock!! Armon looked so invincible. The Hammer was such a stud--he led some great Rebel teams.

    Boy, these big guys and their fragile hearts...

  11. Much love for the help that the big man gave to the Las Vegas community. You will be missed.

  12. That's terribly sad news. Armen was such a good guy and a great player at UNLV, all through hours and hours of extra practice time. I was fortunate to cover his college career for the Sun and he was one of my all-time favorites. And 13 years in the NBA is such a huge accomplishment. I saw Armen after a game when he was with the Utah Jazz and he was as humble and friendly as ever, complimenting everyone, especially Jerry Tarkanian, Tim Grgurich and Mark Warkentien. I used to kid Tark about not playing him at all when UNLV lost at Reno in the 1984-85 season opener. He was a new sophomore and we had no idea how great he would be. His game against Indiana in the 1987 Final Four was one of the best ever. We really pushed his nickname "The Hammer" at the Sun and it stuck, even though he was a gentle giant off the court. God bless you Armen. Every athlete at any level could learn from your fine example.

  13. With every sudden and tragic death of another UNLV Runnin' Rebel, it reminds me that Jerry Tarkanian is getting up there in years, and the fact that he is not in the Basketball Hall of Fame is a massive and indefensible crime! Get this man in the hall of fame, NOW!

  14. RIP Armen. Vegas will never forget you...

  15. He's a cool cat,very pleasant man,RIP.

  16. I always enjoyed watching him and following his career. Sincerest condolences to his family and friends. The Rebel family has lost a great one. I hope they honor his memory in the upcoming season somehow on their jerseys.

  17. Rest in peace big fella

  18. Wow, when guys younger than yourself has a heart attack and dies it makes re evaluate your life.

    My condolences to his family, friends and teammates.