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Ex-UNLV and NBA star Armen Gilliam died doing what he loved

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Armon Gilliam

When former UNLV star and NBA veteran Armen Gilliam came out of retirement in 2005 to become player-coach of the ABA's now-defunct Pittsburgh Xplosion at age 41, he certainly didn't do it for the lucrative paycheck.

"If I wanted to make money, I'd go overseas," Gilliam told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette at the time. "I do this for the love of the game."

It's tragic but fitting then that Gilliam died Tuesday night doing what he enjoyed most. The 47-year-old Pennsylvania resident was playing in a pickup basketball game at the LA Fitness in Bridgeville when he collapsed on the court as a result of an apparent heart attack. He was rushed to nearby St. Clair Hospital, where he was pronounced dead shortly afterward.

Gilliam's death shocked his former UNLV teammates and coaches, especially since he was seldom hurt throughout his 13-year pro career and he kept himself in excellent shape afterward by playing basketball and tennis almost daily. In fact, the 6-foot-9 big man routinely beat men younger than him down the floor during UNLV's annual legends game and unleashed a memorable dunk during last season's event.

"Everybody loved Armen and he loved everybody," former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian said through a UNLV spokesman. "I think the world of him. I am just shocked."

A football player and a wrestler throughout much of his high school career in Bethel Park, Pa., Gilliam only began dabbling in basketball during his junior year of high school. He played two seasons in high school and another year at Independence Junior College in Kansas before blossoming into an All-American at UNLV. {YSP:MORE}

Even though he spent his college years in Sin City, Gilliam earned a reputation as UNLV's most straight-laced player of his era. He devoted so much energy into sculpting his chiseled 250-pound body that he neither smoked nor drank, and he'd carry a pull-up bar with him on road trips so he could work out in his hotel room.

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Former UNLV big man Leon Symanski describes Gilliam as "a real sweet guy" off the court, but he acknowledges his ex-Rebels teammate lived up to his nickname of "The Hammer" during practices.

"He beat the hell out of me every day," Symanksi said. "You couldn't move him even if you tried. He'd get down in the low post and it was like trying to move a 1,000-pound steel weight. He was that strong."

In 1987, Gilliam parlayed his strength and physicality into a brilliant senior season, scoring 23.8 points per game and leading the Runnin' Rebels to an NCAA record 37 wins and a berth in the Final Four. The Phoenix Suns rewarded Gilliam for his brilliant senior season, making him the No. 2 overall pick in the 1987 draft, ahead of future stars Scottie Pippen (No. 5), Kevin Johnson (No. 7) and Reggie Miller (No. 11).

Gilliam never achieved the level of stardom those three did, but he was a consistently productive player until he retired from the NBA in 2000. He scored more than 12,000 points and grabbed more than 6,000 rebounds in his NBA career.

Upon his retirement, Gilliam still couldn't stay away from the game so he endured an unsuccessful stint coaching Penn State-Altoona before his season in the fledgling ABA.

Pittsburgh Xplosion general manager Freddie Lewis didn't know Gilliam very well when he became player-coach in 2005, but Lewis quickly became impressed with how Gilliam carried himself. It would have been for an ex-NBA veteran to act as though he were too good for a soon-to-be-defunct team, but Gilliam attended autograph signings and community service events and served as a mentor to the younger players.

"If you were to rate his personality on a scale from 1 to 10, he'd be a 12," Lewis said by phone. "He always wanted to do something to help people."

Late in his life, Gilliam changed the spelling of his first name from Armon to Armen because he was tired of it being mispronounced. Regardless of the spelling, his name will always be synonymous with one of the great eras in UNLV basketball history.

It's difficult for Symanski to cope with losing Gilliam, but he takes some solace in the fact his friend died doing something he cherished.

"If he has to die under tragic circumstances, then, yeah, it's a little more comforting if you want to put it that way," Symanski said. "He was where he loved doing what he loved to do."

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