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Mike Downey

The Hammer Can Deliver a Pounding

March 28, 1987|Mike Downey

NEW ORLEANS — Armon (Hammer) Gilliam, a man of steel from Pittsburgh, is the leading scorer and rebounder for the No. 1 college basketball team in the land, Nevada Las Vegas. He can carry the team in a game, and probably could carry the team to a game. The kid is built like a brick casino.

Indiana is going to have a hard time handling the Hammer in today's NCAA tournament Final Four game at the Superdome. Gilliam is so big, so strong, he could throw a chair with Bobby Knight still in it. If the Hoosiers intend to stop him, they might need to use their coach's chair on the court--with a whip.

No wonder the 6-foot 9-inch, 230-pound forward figures to go in the first round of June's NBA draft. He can score, he can board, he's a force and he's an enforcer.

"He might be the best power forward in the country," UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian said here Friday. "I sure think he is."

Hard to believe that six years ago, Gilliam could not play basketball at all. At 16, he was a wrestler and a football player, as well as the soft-spoken son of a preacher man. Then, between his sophomore and junior years at Bethel Park High School, just outside Pittsburgh, Armon grew five inches.

"He went out for basketball just to stay in shape for football," recalled his minister father, James Gilliam. "He used to monkey around with basketball, but that was about it."

It took him a long time to get the hang of it. His high school coach, Red Ryan, said that Gilliam just wanted to stand 20 feet from the hoop and shoot, because that was the part that looked like fun. Eventually he put Armon on the junior varsity squad, but even there he was too clumsy to be a starter.

"Armon loves to tell me about how he was something like the No. 8 man on the jayvee squad--behind seven white guys," Tarkanian said, with a laugh.

By the time Gilliam was through with high school, he was a lot better, but no big-time coaches were pounding on his door. He did pay a visit to Clemson--to discuss a football scholarship. But he ended up spending a year playing basketball at Independence Junior College in Kansas, where he averaged 17 points and 11 rebounds for a team that went 33-5. Scouts from a couple of major universities, UNLV and Maryland, took notice.

Assistant coach Mark Warkentien led the advance party. Said Tarkanian: "Mark came up to me one day and said, 'I just saw a great kid with a great body.' " Tark knew Mark wasn't talking about a girl.

"Other than that, the only thing I knew about Armon Gilliam was that he was from Pittsburgh," Tarkanian said.

Gilliam chose Nevada Las Vegas because he preferred the climate to Maryland's. When he got there, one of the best of the Runnin' Rebels, Frank (Spoon) James, took a look at the new guy's rippling biceps and stuck him with the nickname Hammer.

Although he knew it had something to do with the way he kept hammering away under the basket, Gilliam said, "He knew I was from a steel town, too. I think that was a factor."

These versions tend to dismiss the popular theory that Armon the Hammer got his nickname from a baking powder.

Tarkanian thought the kid had a chance to become a decent player. He never imagined that by his senior year, Gilliam would averaging a team-high 23.2 points and 9.3 rebounds a game, would also lead the team in blocked shots and be third--even as a 6-foot 9-inch, 230-pound forward--in steals. Or that he would the toughest Rebel since Johnny Yuma.

Testimonials:

UNLV guard Mark Wade: "Armon Gilliam is like the heart that pumps the blood. If we need a key rebound, he gets it. If we need a key basket, he gets that, too."

Indiana guard Darryl Thomas: "He's one of those guys who really comes after you. He's incredibly tough to stop once he gets the ball."

Al McGuire: "He's a bear. If he gets the ball, get out of his way or he'll kill you."

Deficiencies:

Not terribly fast, not a great leaper, not much of a shooter beyond 10 feet. These, though, are hardly serious liabilities for power forwards.

As for passing, there is no truth to the rumor that Armon Gilliam has never thrown a pass. OK, it is true that in three seasons at UNLV, he has a total of 51 assists. Wrote Bruce Keidan of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: "He seems to regard passing as a form of cowardice."

It is not an insult. Gilliam doesn't usually pass because he doesn't usually need to pass. He either successfully muscles his way to the basket or shoots a little baseline jumper that drops as gently as a badminton birdie into a net. For a bear, he has an amazingly soft touch. This is a tough man we have here, but not a hard case. After Arizona Coach Lute Olson ran a U.S. international team that played in Europe, he was surprised to receive a thank-you note from Gilliam for permitting him to play and for helping him with his game. "What a sweet kid," Olson said.

The 16-day World tournament in Madrid, concluded with a championship game against the Soviet Union--sort of Hammer vs. Sickle. The game opened Gilliam's eyes about a lot of things. "It was an honor for me to represent our country," he said. "It was like Communism vs. Democracy, so I wanted to win because of nationalism. But after it was over and they congratulated us, it wasn't like that at all. I realized they were just like us--just there to play basketball."

As for playing basketball for Tarkanian: "I've learned a lot from him. He gives you the freedom to play your own game, but he also works with you where you need help. There was a lot wrong with my game when I got to UNLV," Gilliam said.

He paused a second, as though reluctant to say what he was thinking.

Go ahead, Hammer. Hit the nail on the head.

"There's not so much wrong with it now," he said.

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