Velvet Hammer

Remembering Rebel great Armon Gilliam

Armon Gilliam, one of the greatest players in UNLV basketball history, died from an apparent heart attack during a pickup basketball game outside Pittsburgh on July 5. Fans will remember him as an indomitable power forward who led the Rebels to a 37-2 record and the NCAA Final Four in 1987. But many Las Vegans have fond recollections of Gilliam off the court as well. Here are some of ours:

Sean DeFrank: Delivering pizzas on a Saturday afternoon in spring 1987, I was driving north on Maryland Parkway toward Tropicana when I noticed a large man jogging along the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. As a devoted Rebel fan, I immediately recognized the giant as Gilliam. Excitedly, I rolled down my window and shouted “HAM-MER!” as I drove by. I saw a grin appear on Gilliam’s face. He gave me a fist pump, which brought me a smile, too.

Greg Blake Miller: When I was a kid, I used to head down to the old North Gym at UNLV’s McDermott Hall to shoot baskets on summer days. I am almost cruelly left-handed, and one of the great endeavors of my childhood sporting career was to perfect my right-handed drive to the hoop. One day, just as frustration was morphing into something resembling a migraine, I felt a very large Presence behind me. I turned around, and there was Armon Gilliam. “You’re taking off from the wrong foot,” he said. It took my mind a second to come down from that lofty Armon-Gilliam-just-gave-me-advice place. Then I watched with delight as he showed me how it’s done: Dribble drive right—take off from the left foot for the layup. He invited me to give it a go and worked with me until I had it down pat. I’ve never forgotten.

Phil Hagen: In early autumn 1987, Armon and I had one thing in common and one that we clearly didn’t. We were both rookies—me on the sports desk of the Arizona Daily Sun; he on the frontcourt of the Phoenix Suns. Since his team did their preseason training in Flagstaff back then, I got to interview him. The clash, fortunately, had nothing to do with me having a deadline that night and his not having one. In fact, after practice at the gym, when he said he had to get back to the hotel and couldn’t talk now, a more calloused veteran would have left it at that. But Armon made me a deal: If I gave him a ride there, then we could talk. So he squeezed into the passenger seat of my wife’s 1982 Chevy little piece of shit, and off we went. That’s when I brought up my difference with him: His Rebels beat my Iowa Hawkeyes in the Elite Eight the previous year. My guys were up by 18; I could taste the Final Four. I’d even run out to buy a celebratory six-pack at halftime. But Armon and company won by 3. It still stung, and I let him know. He just laughed at me—mostly, it seemed, for having gotten my hopes up. A quarter-century later, I haven’t forgotten his quiet confidence and those never-fear eyes. And, now, I guess it’s only appropriate to finally forgive him for that heartbreaking loss.