Armen Gilliam didn't win many games during his three-year stint as the Penn State Altoona men's basketball coach, but he left a lasting impression on at least one of his star players.
"First and foremost, Armen was a good guy,'' former PSU Altoona player Tyler Franklin said. "I think while at Penn State Altoona people had mixed feelings about him, but he had a good heart and was good people.''
Gilliam, the former NBA star who was the first full-time head men's basketball coach at Penn State Altoona, died at 9:28 p.m. Tuesday after collapsing at the LA Fitness gym in Bridgeville, a suburb of Pittsburgh, while he was playing basketball, according to the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office. The office said the cause of death has not been determined pending an autopsy that was likely to be completed late Wednesday.
Mirror file photo
Ex-Penn State Altoona men’s basketball coach Armen Gilliam died Tuesday.
Gilliam was 47 and living in his native Pittsburgh after retiring from a two-year coaching/playing career with the Pittsburgh Xplosion of the American Basketball Association in 2005 and 2006.
"I live in Pittsburgh, and I bumped into him a few times while I have been down here,'' Franklin said. "He was always asking how I was doing, and if I needed him I had his number. My thoughts and prayers go out to him and his family.''
Gilliam was trumpeted as a major coaching hire by Penn State Altoona in 2002 after he beat out more than 100 applicants for the position, including Ken Macklin, who had coached the team the previous nine years. He started the 2002-03 season with just three players left over from Macklin's team and finished his first year with a 2-25 record, enduring criticism from a website that called for his firing.
With Franklin joining the team for his second season, Penn State Altoona went 7-18 and followed that with a 9-17 mark during the 2004-05 campaign.
"Armen was the only guy who took a chance on me coming out of high school,'' Franklin said. "After averaging 14 points per game and helping take [Altoona Area High School] to the [PIAA] western finals, I didn't have even one offer to go to school to play ball. He told me I would play right away. I got [Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference] rookie of the year that year and became the school's all-time leading scorer years later. I give him a lot of credit for that.''
Gilliam's contract was not renewed following the 2004-05 season, and the school hired Alan Seretti to succeed him. Gilliam finished with an 18-60 record.
"The thing players didn't like was he was upfront and direct as opposed to using constructive criticism about players' mistakes and inabilities,'' Franklin said. "The year before I got there we went 2-25, but the two years I was there we improved each year. For what he had to work with when I was there, I thought he did pretty well.''
A message left on Penn State Altoona athletic director Fredina Ingold's phone was not returned Wednesday, but she did release a statement to the media.
"I was saddened to hear of the passing of Coach Gilliam,'' she wrote. "Coach Gilliam's stature in the basketball world brought a great deal of attention to our athletics program. On behalf of Penn State Altoona, I extend my deepest condolences to his family and friends during this difficult time.''
Gilliam played at Bethel Park High School in the early 1980s before starring for three years with Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV Runnin' Rebels. Nicknamed "The Hammer,'' the 6-foot-9 Gilliam was the leading scorer on the 1987 UNLV team that advanced to the Final Four after having helped the U.S. win a gold medal in the 1986 World Championships.
Gilliam then was selected as the No. 2 overall pick in the 1987 NBA Draft by the Phoenix Suns. He played 13 years in the league with the Suns, Charlotte Hornets, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, Milwaukee Bucks and Utah Jazz and averaged 13.7 points and 6.9 rebounds.
His No. 35 UNLV jersey was retired in November 2007.
"In my ratings, I had Larry Johnson No. 1 and Armen No. 2,'' Tarkanian said in a statement released Wednesday. "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.''
Born as Armon Louis Gilliam, he later changed the spelling of his first name to Armen to better suit the pronunciation of it.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.