Armen Gilliam wasn’t like most professional athletes I’ve covered. In the early 90’s you would often find him before games reading a book. He could talk politics, business and occasionally basketball, although I always felt the latter bored him to some degree. Armen didn’t want to be thought of as just a basketball player or, worse yet, a dumb jock. He certainly wasn’t dumb and he was more than just a well compensated NBA player. He was a thoughtful, sweet person.
Armen Gilliam Rumors
In a Nets locker room filled with zany personalities, he was the voice of reason. When Rick Mahorn and Jayson Williams would take turns teasing Armen for his wardrobe or his Gumby haircut, Gilliam would smile and ignore them. When Derrick Coleman uttered his now infamous “Well whoop-dee-damn-do” line after Kenny Anderson blew off practice and headed for a strip club, Armen would roll his eyes at his young, immature teammates.
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.
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 it — to their bench.
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.”
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.”