Former Sixer Armen Gilliam remembered as 'good guy'

After stellar college career, Armen Gilliam played 13 years in NBA.
After stellar college career, Armen Gilliam played 13 years in NBA. (Daily News file photo)
Posted: July 07, 2011

Armen "The Hammer" Gilliam, probably known as much for his funky "Gumby" hairstyle as for a bruising style of basketball that made him the second overall pick in the 1987 NBA draft and a 76er for more than two seasons, died Tuesday night at a fitness center in suburban Pittsburgh.

He was 47.

Gilliam spent two-plus seasons with the Sixers from 1990 to 1993, averaging 14.7 points and 7.1 rebounds in 211 regular-season games.

In eight playoff games in 1991, Gilliam averaged 16.9 points and 6.5 rebounds as the Sixers lost to the Chicago Bulls in five games of the Eastern Conference semifinals after advancing with a sweep of the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round. That team included Charles Barkley, Hersey Hawkins, Ron Anderson and Rick Mahorn; it would be the last Sixers playoff team for eight seasons.

Gilliam is believed to have died of a heart attack suffered while playing pickup basketball, although the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office said the cause of death has not yet been determined pending an autopsy.

"He was a really, really good guy," said Jim Lynam, Gilliam's coach for the first two seasons with the team and general manager for the last. "I was a fan. He was a really good player who wasn't a very good athlete, so to speak. He was a little ahead of his time. He was a strapping guy. He could use his left hand as well as his right hand to score around the basket, and he could score the ball."

Gilliam was acquired by the Sixers along with Dave Hoppen from the Charlotte Hornets in January 1991 for Mike Gminski. He immediately endeared himself to his teammates with his easygoing, affable personality.

He started the remaining 50 games, averaging 15 points and 7.3 rebounds.

"We are deeply saddened to learn about the loss of Armen Gilliam," Sixers president Rod Thorn said. "He was a hard-working, physical player during his distinguished 13 years in the NBA and we are proud of the contributions he made to the Sixers from 1990 to 1993.

"On behalf of the entire Sixers organization, we send our deepest condolences to the Gilliam family during this very difficult time."

Gilliam, who changed the original spelling of his first name (Armon) years ago, was taken with the second pick by the Phoenix Suns in 1987 after a stellar career at UNLV. He led the Rebels to a 37-2 record and a Final Four appearance his senior season. He is seventh on the UNLV scoring list with 1,855 points and scored a school-record 903 points during the 1986-87 season.

"He was one of the greatest Rebels ever and one of the best players we have ever had," said Jerry Tarkanian, who coached at UNLV from 1973 to 1992. "In my ratings, I had Larry Johnson No. 1 and Armen No. 2.

"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. I think the world of him and am just really shocked."

Besides playing for the Sixers, Hornets and Suns in the NBA, Gilliam also spent time with the New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz, finishing his career in 2000. In 13 NBA seasons with seven teams, he averaged 13.7 points and 6.9 rebounds and made the playoffs five times.

Gilliam coached and played for the Pittsburgh Xplosion, of the American Basketball Association, in 2005 and 2006. He also coached Penn State-Altoona from 2002 to '05.

"I don't remember the particulars as to why we wanted to acquire him, but it's pretty obvious that he was a good scorer and rebounder and every team can use guys like that," said Lynam. "It's such a shame."

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