Published Wednesday, July 6, 2011 | 9:49 a.m.
Updated Wednesday, July 6, 2011 | 2:39 p.m.
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.”
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.