While UNLV might not be a traditional sports powerhouse, the Runnin’ Rebels briefly dominated the NCAA basketball landscape. With Jerry Tarkanian on the sidelines, the program reached four Final Fours and won one national title; they also produced stars like Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony, and Armen Gilliam.
Armen Gilliam’s impressive college basketball career
When you think big-name basketball players, Armen Gilliam probably doesn’t immediately spring to mind. During his time on the court, however, the big man proved to be a solid contributor wherever he played.
Gilliam didn’t begin his college career at UNLV, though; he first suited up for Independence Junior College. While the big man was still a bit raw, his talent was undeniable. “I see this kid coming off the bench [at the junior college tournament], and he was as big as a house,” Mark Warkentien, a former Runnin’ Rebels assistant, told the Las Vegas Sun. “He definitely passed the eyeball test.”
Gilliam moved onto UNLV and became part of a dominant Runnin’ Rebels squad. While they couldn’t win a championship during his time on campus—that title came in 1990—the big man developed into a force of nature. As a senior, he 23.2 points and 9.3 rebounds per game; that was enough to make him the second-overall pick of the 1987 NBA draft.
Becoming a professional player and a college coach
Coming out of college, Armen Gilliam seemed poised for NBA stardom. While he didn’t become a dominant player, he did do pretty well for himself in the professional ranks.
The Phoenix Suns drafted Gilliam, and he spent the first two seasons of his career in the desert. He was dealt to the Hornets in 1989, starting the forward on a merry-go-round of movement that would last his entire career. During his 13 years in the pros, the power forward suited up for the Suns, Hornets, Sixers, Nets, Bucks, and Jazz. Despite that constant movement, he always posted solid stats, averaging 13.7 points and 6.9 points over the course of his career.
Even in retirement, though, Gilliam didn’t leave basketball behind. He tried his hand at coaching, taking charge at Penn State McKeesport and Penn State Altoona; the big man also suited up as a player-coach for the ABA’s Pittsburgh Xplosion.
Armen Gilliam tragically died doing what he loved
For all of Armen Gilliam’s physical prowess and skill on the court, the big man was still a human being. Unfortunately, that mortality became apparent in his tragic death.
“The former Jazz power forward collapsed and died on Tuesday [July 5, 2001], doing what he loved to do — playing basketball,” Gordon Monson explained in the Salt Lake Tribune. “It happened during a pickup game at a local gym near his hometown of Pittsburgh.” According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Gilliam was a regular at his local L.A. Fitness and played ball there virtually every day.
While his death was tragic enough in isolation, it was even more shocking to see a former NBA player suddenly die on the court. At that moment, his physical strength and basketball talent proved to be insignificant.
“He was one of the greatest Rebels ever and one of the best players we have ever had,” Jerry Tarkanian said in a statement, according to ESPN. “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.”