Obituary: Armon Gilliam / Bethel Park basketball player turned into No. 2 pick in NBA
May 28, 1964 - July 5, 2011
July 7, 2011 4:00 AM
Barry Sweet/Associated Press
Former UNLV star Armon Gilliam.
By Ray Fittipaldo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Armon Gilliam was a senior at Bethel Park High School, he did not receive one scholarship offer from an NCAA Division I school. Five years later, Gilliam was the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft.
Gilliam's meteoric rise from unknown to All-American at UNLV and later an NBA player was fashioned through hard work and a commitment to his craft. Gilliam's life, described as storybook by his friends, ended Tuesday night while playing the game he loved.
Gilliam collapsed while playing a game of pickup basketball at the L.A. Fitness in Bridgeville. He was taken to a hospital and pronounced dead at 9:28 p.m. The cause of death is unknown pending an autopsy by the Allegheny County coroner's office. He was 47.
"I'm still shook up," former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian said Wednesday afternoon. "He was such a great person."
It was Tarkanian who signed Gilliam out of Independence Junior College in Kansas, where he played after his senior season at Bethel Park. The coaching legend described the recruitment of Gilliam as pure luck.
Tarkanian sent assistant coach Mark Warkentein to scout the national junior college tournament because he wanted to sign Spoon James, who was playing for San Jacinto Junior College.
"He called me from the tournament and said, 'I think we have Spoon, but there's another guy here who is a real sleeper,' " Tarkanian recalled. "We signed Armon, and he came to UNLV."
Nicknamed "The Hammer," Gilliam turned into one of the all-time great players at UNLV. An All-America selection in 1987, Gilliam is seventh on UNLV's career scoring list with 1,855 points. 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 '87, Gilliam led UNLV to the Final Four. The Runnin' Rebels lost to eventual national champion Indiana in a national semifinal, but Gilliam scored 32 points in the 97-93 loss.
"Armon was the catalyst on that team," Tarkanian said. "He outworked everyone. That's how he made himself into an NBA player. When he first got here, he had to redshirt because he didn't graduate from junior college. There was this place here called the Sporting House. I was getting reports from there that he was there until midnight working on his game."
Danny Tarkanian was a senior at UNLV when the 6-foot-9 Gilliam was a freshman. He said it did not take long for Gilliam to make his presence felt.
"The first game his freshman year my dad didn't play him at all," Danny Tarkanian said. "We lost by one point to Nevada Reno. He started every game thereafter. My dad didn't realize his greatness at the time, but he went on to be one of the greatest players ever at UNLV."
Gilliam played 13 seasons in the NBA for six teams -- the Phoenix Suns, Charlotte Hornets, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz. For his career, he averaged 13.7 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. He shot 48.9 percent from the field in 929 NBA games.
But Gilliam never dreamed of an NBA career while he was growing up. He played football and wrestled in elementary and middle school in Bethel Park. It was not until his junior year in high school that he made the varsity basketball team.
"When I reflect on it, he had an unbelievable story," said Rick Bell, a former teammate at Bethel Park. "We played together on the junior varsity team. He didn't even play organized basketball until high school. For him to go from that to the second overall pick in the NBA draft. ... movies are made about stuff like that."
After retiring from the NBA in 2000, Gilliam was named head coach at Penn State Altoona in 2002. He came out of retirement in 2005-06 and played for the now-defunct Pittsburgh Xplosion of the American Basketball Association.
Since then, Gilliam settled back into life as a father in Bethel Park. He regularly took his two boys, Jeremiah, 9, and Joshua, 6, to children's programs at Bethel Park Library. He also ran a basketball camp at Ringgold High School the past few years.
In addition to teaching basketball to the young campers, Gilliam stressed education. He went back to school and earned his business degree after playing in the NBA.
"He took a lot of pride in the camp," said Judge Jeffrey Deller, a friend of Gilliam's.
"There was a lot of one-on-one instruction. He took a lot of time to work with the younger kids. He talked to them about basketball, but the message was education. That's the kind of role model he was."
Deller encouraged Gilliam to go to law school in recent years, but Gilliam did not pursue it because he wanted to spend time with Jeremiah and Joshua. Deller said it was his goal to someday run for political office.
"He was humble," Deller said. "I knew him for a year before he told me he played in the NBA. He didn't walk around like a big shot.
"He was a renaissance man. He played the bass guitar, the saxophone. We'd sit around and talk about him running for office. He was holding off on doing those things to be with his boys. He always said how blessed he was to be around his boys as they grew up."
David J. Henney Funeral Home in South Park is handling the arrangements.