Monson: Ex-Jazz forward Armen Gilliam died young, lived well
Armen Gilliam felt good about a couple of things in his life:
1. His brand of basketball was as rugged as a mallet to the head.
2. His connection with the heavens was real to him.
He was God's, then.
And he was "The Hammer."
The former Jazz power forward collapsed and died on Tuesday night, doing what he loved to do playing basketball. It happened during a pickup game at a local gym near his hometown of Pittsburgh.
Gilliam didn't spend a whole lot of time with the Jazz, arriving as a free agent on Jan. 7, 2000, and departing when his contract ran out at the end of that postseason. He played in 50 regular-season games, averaging 6.7 points and 4.2 rebounds, and 10 playoff games.
He came to the Jazz that season, having turned down other offers, at the end of his 13-year NBA career, because he wanted a shot at a championship, and he believed, of all the teams for which he played over that span, the Jazz gave him the best chance of finally ringing the bell.
A friend of his told me back then that Gilliam was "excited to be in Utah. He wanted to go there to win a title. It's a perfect match."
She also said: "Armen is real. He is what he is a devout Christian who treats people with respect, who doesn't smoke, drink or swear. The Jazz look for people who work hard and work together, not people with big egos. That's Armen."
Gilliam, indeed, stood out as a unique mix of loud brutality on the court and quiet sensitivity off it. He was into diverse interests, from listening to the music of Duke Ellington and Count Bassie to playing the piano, the guitar and the saxophone to riding horses to playing chess. The Jazz acquired the veteran 6-foot-9, 250-pound forward to allow an aging Karl Malone to take a breather now and again and to add some punch "a physical presence," as Kevin O'Connor said to their bench.
Trying to squeeze everything they could out of the eroding Malone-Stockton era, the Jazz had a lot in common with Gilliam, namely, they wanted to find a vehicle and the gas for a last drive at that elusive title. It didn't happen, as the team was eventually eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by Portland.
But, despite his short tenure here, Gilliam was memorable for that peculiar mix. His attitude was altruistic, his demeanor dignified. The son of a pastor and a librarian, he grew up in Pittsburgh being "young" and "wild." As the rings formed around the trunk, though, Gilliam said he "settled down and became more focused on studies and sports."
He played football in high school and seemed ready to go on as a highly recruited defensive end to play at a major college program. But, as a junior, he developed a passion for basketball, so much so that he turned away from big-time schools that wanted him for football and went to a junior college in Kansas to play hoops. He ended up at UNLV, where years later his number was retired as one of the all-time Rebel greats. His nickname "The Hammer" is on the banner honoring him at the school.
One of his teammates who regularly went up against him in practice at Vegas called Gilliam "a real sweet guy" who "beat the hell out of me every day."
He was the No. 2 overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft by Phoenix. He also played in Charlotte, Philadelphia, New Jersey and Milwaukee. When his contract ended in Utah, he retired. He later coached at tiny Penn State-Altoona, and coached and played for the Pittsburgh Xplosion of the American Basketball Association.
Throughout his pro career, Gilliam rode the vicissitudes of teams and teammates not always fired on giving their all for a positive result. He played with Derrick Coleman, Vin Baker, Glenn Robinson and Chris Morris. That's what resonated with him when he got to the Jazz.
"These guys are committed to winning," he said. "There aren't a lot of egos and issues here. It's all about winning. And, for me, that's really refreshing."
Selfishness wasn't Gilliam's thing. When he left the NBA, he said he wanted to get involved in youth programs through which strong values could be taught. He later stressed education at his basketball camps. He thought about running for political office but postponed it to spend time with his young sons, Jeremiah and Joshua.
"Spirituality is the foundation of my life," he said back then. "That is my focus. The older I get, the more I believe in it, the more committed I get, the more I walk in it. I consider myself a committed Christian at this point."
When The Hammer died, he was 47 years old.
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Gordon Monson Show" weekdays from 2-6 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 AM The Zone. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Armen Gilliam career stats
Season GP FG% Pts Reb
1987-88 55 .475 14.8 7.9
1988-89 74 .503 15.9 7.3
1989-90 76 .515 16.7 7.9
1990-91 75 .487 16.6 8.0
1991-92 81 .511 16.9 8.1
1992-93 80 .464 12.4 5.9
1993-94 82 .510 11.8 6.1
1994-95 82 .503 14.8 7.5
1995-96 78 .474 18.3 9.1
1996-97 80 .471 8.6 6.2
1997-98 82 .484 11.2 5.4
1998-99 34 .453 8.3 3.7
1999-00 50 .436 6.7 4.2
Total 929 .489 13.7 6.9