Armon Gilliam’s friends would tell you that he was a kind, generous man who, though he gave much to his community, rarely spoke of it. Karen Hall, who attended the University of Nevada Las Vegas with him and later served as an assistant coach under him at Penn State Altoona simply said he was a “great guy.”
“As great a player as he was, he was just as awesome a person. He was a big man with a big heart and I was blessed to know him,” she said. “He had a pearly white, infectious smile that lit up a room, and a laugh that was contagious. The sound of it always made me laugh harder. I’m just stunned to hear he’s gone.”
Gilliam suffered a heart attack and collapsed July 5 while playing pick-up basketball, the game he loved, at LA Fitness in Bridgeville. He was pronounced dead later at the hospital. He was 47.
Gilliam’s rise to NBA stardom was the stuff of Hollywood movies. He, in fact referred to his success as “storybook.” Though a standout in high school, Gilliam received no NCAA Division one scholarships, but a year later while playing for Independence Junior College in Kansas, he was spotted by a UNLV assistant who was scouting Spoon James on the opposing team.
The assistant, Mark Warkentein, called head coach Jerry Tarkanian and said there was a “sleeper” they had to sign. They did, and four years later Gilliam was the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft going to the Phoenix Suns.
“In my ratings, I had Larry Johnson No. 1 and Armon No. 2. He was such a great person. Everybody loved him and he loved everybody,” Tarkanian said. “He was such a gentle person and such a caring guy. I am all shook up over it. I think the world of him and am just really shocked.”
Gilliam’s No. 35 UNLV jersey was retired during a halftime ceremony at the Thomas & Mack Center in November 2007. He became the eighth player in the program’s history to receive that honor.
He holds the UNLV record for most points in a season with 903 in 1986-87 and most field goals made in a season with 359 the same season. He was inducted into the UNLV Athletics Hall of Fame in ‘98.
In a statement from the university, Tarkanian called Gilliam one of the greatest players UNLV ever had.
New Pittsburgh Courier sports columnist and Champion Enterprises President and CEO Bill Neal said he has known Gilliam since 1979 when he “appeared on the hillside” at the Connie Hawkins camp. Until his senior year in high school, Neal said, Gilliam had never played basketball; he was a wrestler and football player.
“And he became one of the top 20 power forwards of all time,” he said. “But beyond the player, he was a quiet, humble guy. He wouldn’t even talk basketball unless you brought it up. There was never any pretense with him, and he was generous to a fault.”
Neal said one year at his Champion’s annual Willie Stargel banquet at the Pittsburgh Hilton, Gilliam told him that Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were upstairs because they’d just played in Mario Lemieux’ charity golf tournament, and he’d bring them down. Jordan got snagged by a television crew and then had to leave to catch a plane—but he got Barkley.
“To Armon, it was no big deal. They played together. But to me it was like, oh my God,” said Neal. “Barkley came in, took the stage and talked for 45 minutes. That was Armon, just a wonderful guy. He did a lot for us. It’s a terrible loss.”
Neal said the Champion’s July 30-31 basketball camp will now be call the Armon “The Hammer” Gilliam Hard Work Youth Basketball Camp. He will also be honored at this year’s Willie Stargell Banquet.
In addition to the Suns, Gilliam played for the Charlotte Hornets, the Philadelphia 76ers, the New Jersey Nets, the Milwaukee Bucks and the Utah Jazz. He retired from the NBA in 2000, having averaged 13.7 points per game in 929 career games.
After coaching at Penn State Altoona from 2002-2005, he played with and coached the Pittsburgh Xplosion of the ABA for one season. In recent years he had enjoyed retirement, spending time with his sons, Jeremiah, 9, and Joshua, 6, and playing the saxophone and bass. But basketball was still an outlet, though not entirely athletic.
He started a basketball camp at Ringgold High School, but all the while he stressed education to the campers. He talked about his own return to school to get a business degree and how rare an NBA career like his can be.
Gilliam also wrote several articles for the Courier about various sporting events in the Washington area. His last article was on the death of another local basketball great, Maurice Lucas.
Services for Gilliam were held July 13 at South Hills Assembly of God in Bethel Park. He was interred at Bethel Cemetery.
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