Peers Pay Tribute to Armen Gilliam

Posted: July 6, 2011

Power forward Armen Gilliam, who was selected by the Suns with the No. 2 overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft, passed away Tuesday night while playing basketball in suburban Pittsburgh.

Gilliam, who was born in Pittsburgh and later led UNLV to a Final Four appearance, averaged 14.7 points and 7.2 rebounds a game during his 2 ½ season in Phoenix.

Along with Neal Walk, who was also drafted with the No. 2 pick in 1969, Gilliam was the Suns’ highest draft selection in franchise history. Gilliam, who was nicknamed “The Hammer” for his physical play, was named to the 1987-88 NBA All-Rookie Team as a Sun and averaged 13.2 points and 6.2 rebounds during his 13 seasons in the NBA.

Media reports determined that Gilliam suffered a heart attack and was pronounced dead after being rushed to the hospital Tuesday night. was able to track down members of the Suns organization that knew Gilliam when he played in Phoenix. Read below to hear what they said about “The Hammer.”


“What a combination of quickness and strength he was. He came in with us in 1987 and I remember when (Hakeem) Olajuwon came in at the center position and I was thought, ‘Man, I used to be quicker than at least the big guys.’

"But Olajuwon was the first combination of size, quickness and strength for a center and Armen was just one of those type of guys that was just springy and quick, fast, strong and could score. I remember playing one-on-one against him at the JCC in the summer and I thought to myself, ‘Man, this guy is powerful and quick.’

"I had to use some of my wily experience and both hands against him. He said, ‘Man, you can shoot with either hand?’ And I said, ‘You better learn that in the NBA too.’ But he had both hands too.

"He was a talent, one of the highest draft picks we ever had and I knew that he was going to help us. You had to figure out how to play against a guy like that and use all of the tools that you had because he had all of them too.”


“First of all, it’s sad to see such a young man die before his time. My recollection of Armen Gilliam was that he was a highly-touted power forward coming out of UNLV that had a good post-up game and a nice soft touch.

"He had good character, in terms of his personal life, so he was selected with the No. 2 pick in the draft. We had a need at the time in that position.

"Although some would say that he never accomplished what he might have been able to accomplish in terms of potential, Armen gave you what he had. It was as simple as that.

"Maybe he didn’t live up to other people’s expectations, but he was comfortable with his game and what he was able to do in the way of his contribution.

"His time with us was a good time and again, it’s always sad to see a young person go before you would expect. There was more than one side to Armen Gilliam than what you saw on the court, and that’s what made him a special person. That’s what made him unique.”


“I remember when we drafted Armen out of UNLV. We didn’t play much together because after his rookie season I went to Denver to play with the Nuggets.

"But I just remember him as someone who was has very quiet, very religious, and a good guy to be around. He was a talented basketball player and I enjoyed playing with him.”


“I played with Armen for a couple years in Phoenix and then played a couple years with him in Philadelphia after I got traded out there. As a player, you always knew what you were getting with Armen.

"He was consistent. He gave you the 16 points and eight rebounds every night. He was a great team player. He wasn’t a selfish guy and he was a great teammate to have in that respect.

"He was a guy that was so strong you would bump into him and kind of bounce off of him. He seemed to be that quiet person where you didn’t see a lot of emotion from him, but when he hit you knew it because he was such a strong guy.

"When he came into the league, I knew guys had a different perception of him because he came from UNLV. There was a lot of flash and show there, but that wasn’t him.

"He was probably the calming effect on those UNLV teams that were flamboyant, whereas he was the rock-steady guy that probably kept everyone in tune a little bit. That was his personality. He was quiet, but he was just doing his job and he did it well."


"He had an unbelievable career at UNLV. Their win-loss record there was fantastic so he came out as a highly-regarded player. Although a lot of great players came out in the draft that year. David Robinson was No. 1 and Armen Gilliam was selected No. 2. Reggie Miller and Scottie Pippen were in that draft too.

"But he was the ultimate of what you would expect from a power forward. He had the size. But the great thing about him as far as the fans and the players were concerned was that he was a real easygoing type of guy and was very popular with the players and fans.

"After being drafted No. 2 he went right into the starting lineup that year. He and Larry Nance started the season as the two forwards for the Suns. Of course, that was the year of the big trade with Cleveland. But even in his second year, he continued to be a starter.

"One of the parts of his career that I always remember was while he was an easygoing guy that got along with everybody, he also had a competitive side too. His second year we were in Miami late in the season and Miami had a stocky, pudgy guard named Pearl Washington and he and Armen got into it on the floor. Both of them were ejected from the game.

"Armen was really upset that he got ejected because he felt that Washington had been badgering him and doing things to him all night long. So as the security people took Armen to the Suns dressing room and Washington to the Miami dressing room, Armen took off after Washington and Washington ran into the Miami locker room. But Armen went in right after him.

"So he had a competitive nature, as well, but was certainly a guy that the Suns thought a great deal of when he was here. He had the body of a tremendous athlete and was the epitome of what you would expect from a power forward.

"He was traded in his third year to Charlotte because the Suns – after their trade with Cleveland the year before – changed the way they were playing and (Suns Head Coach) Cotton Fitzsimmons felt like they needed a little more quickness. So that’s what really happened to Armen.

"I know he’s in the UNLV Hall of Fame and they retired his number. He was just an all-around great guy. He loved music, played the piano and we used to talk about our favorite piano players from time to time. He was very well-read and he could discuss any subject with you and enjoyed doing it. Although, as I recall, his discussions weren’t of a controversial nature."


“He went by the name ‘The Hammer’ because he was a hard-nosed player. He was a physical talent and a rebounder. He was a hard-worker, someone who just came to work, worked hard and played hard.

"Off the court, he was a pretty quiet guy, played the piano, just like (Suns broadcaster) Al McCoy. I haven’t seen him in years, but I still remember No. 35.

"He more or less kept to himself, but he was an ass-kicker and he came to work every day. Plus, he was a good guy and he always good to me. But to pass away at 47, that’s devastating.”


“I played with Armen for two seasons. I came in during in his rookie year and he ended up getting traded to Charlotte for Kurt Rambis my third season here.

"He could just score the ball on the court. He had a nice jump shot and a nice jump hook. He wasn’t extremely quick, but he was very effective at creating space and getting his jumper and little hook off. He was an effective scorer.

"As a person, he was very low-key and always laid-back. He was very talented too. He would go and play the piano. He was a very smart kid.

"He could probably sit and talk to you about any subject that you’d want to talk about, whether it was sports, politics or other current events.

"That was the one thing that struck me about Armen, is that he was a very intelligent kid, but kind of quiet and unassuming until he hit the court.”