Humble Hammer: Great player, greater person

His voice cracked and it became difficult to speak. Jerry Tarkanian was sobbing over the telephone Wednesday, because there isn’t a worse pain imaginable than outliving one of your children.

That’s what Armon Gilliam was to Tarkanian. One of his own.

That’s how much one of the greatest basketball players in UNLV history meant to its greatest coach.

"He was such a phenomenal kid," Tarkanian said. "My whole family is shook by this. … I have always told you we had great kids back then. It’s true. Great kids. Well, Armon was one of the best.

"I remember an NBA owner once telling me, ‘You know, Armon isn’t the best player in the NBA. He’s the best person.’ "

How do you want to die? What do you want those last minutes to mean? Is death merely death even if a person passes doing what they love most?

Gilliam is gone too soon at age 47, but I have to believe his final thoughts were good ones. Maybe he had just posted up some helpless defender, rising over him with that oh-so-quick turnaround jumper, arm pointed to the heavens and wrist snapping home another basket.

It’s a nice vision.

Sports tradition is built on success, and success is created by players, and UNLV lost one its most influential when Gilliam collapsed playing pickup basketball at a health club outside Pittsburgh. "The Hammer" was gone. Just like that.

It makes sense that he would go on the court. Gilliam, who later changed the spelling of his first name to Armen to better suit the pronunciation of it, wasn’t recruited highly at all, and when he landed at UNLV from junior college, he spent a year getting his academics in order.

Around that time, a health club opened in the area with a basketball court. The owner would often tell Tarkanian about one of his players staying until midnight, shooting thousands of shots, sweating through countless jerseys, working night after night to get better. Players play. Gilliam was one.

Think of him as the star to a really good sequel, meaning in the lofty neighborhood of "Lord of the Rings: Return of the King." UNLV basketball made its first national splash in 1977 with the "Hardway Eight," and the school’s first trip to the Final Four. That’s when the story began.

But the most important seeds for the school’s national championship weren’t planted until 1986-87, when Gilliam led the team in scoring and the Rebels again advanced to a national semifinal.

Three seasons later, UNLV stood atop the college basketball world, its placement made possible in large part by the foundation Gilliam helped lay.

In a countdown of the program’s all-time best 100 players compiled by the Review-Journal last year, Gilliam ranked fourth. UNLV went 98-11 in his three seasons. This, a kid nobody wanted until Tarkanian showed interest. By then, the rest didn’t stand a chance.

"Armon became eligible as a sophomore, and we lost the first game at Reno and I didn’t play him," Tarkanian said. "And my son Danny got mad at me and said I made a mistake. He was right. I had started Richard Robinson at center. Richard had long arms. I was fascinated with long arms. I don’t know why.

"Armon was stronger. By the second game, he was in there. He started from then on in his time at UNLV. The kid was a workaholic."

How do you want to die?

With your No. 35 jersey hanging from the rafters at the Thomas & Mack Center? With your name strewn throughout the record books? With a memory of being the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA Draft? With spending 13 seasons in the league? With not one person being able to mention your name and not talk about the wonderful person you were?

It’s some legacy, all right. Some life wrapped into 47 short years. Some kind of memories for so many fans.

"Man, what a bad day for Rebel sports," said Chris Pepper, whose family has had season tickets for decades. "Back in the days of the Thomas & Mack always being packed. ‘The Hammer’ … man. What a trip — 47 is way too young, I’ll tell you that. I remember watching him as a kid drop shots with no time left on the clock to beat teams. The roof would come down. He was one of the all-time greats."

How do you want to die?

Having left such an impact on thousands?

Playing the game you love?

Armon Gilliam: Gone too soon, remembered so clearly.

"Everyone," Tarkanian said, "loved him."

He couldn’t speak anymore. His voiced cracked and faded.

One of his own was gone.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday on "Monsters of the Midday," Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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