Armen Gilliam had character on a team full of characters

Mike Wise
Columnist July 8, 2011

In the spring of 1995, the New Jersey Nets hit a new bottom. Neither a string of losses nor their point guard skipping morning practice to attend Scores, a Manhattan strip club, put them there. (When Kenny Anderson’s whereabouts were confirmed, the New York Post’s back page read, “He Scoots, He Scores.”)

No, you knew the season was over when, in the middle of the locker room before a game, the trash talking was done by the reporters — sadly, about their Scrabble prowess.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

Anderson and Derrick Coleman, whose numerous misdeeds were fodder for us that year, buckled with laughter. Chris Morris cackled and laughed, too. One player did not.

“I want in,” Armen Gilliam said. “Your hyperbole and language skills mean nothing to me.”

Ooooohhh. It’s on. It is so on.

And it was. The Hammer arrived at my Hackensack, N.J., apartment promptly that night with, if I recall correctly, his own Scrabble board. He left three hours later, having called out Dan Garcia from the Newark Star-Ledger for numerous misspellings and word inventions and having soundly beaten the rest of us. He won one round with a 24-point word, ambidextrous — apropos because Armen Gilliam had the best left hand of any right-handed player I’ve ever covered.

“Everything about him broke the mold and killed that gotta-get-mine stereotype of the modern NBA player,” said Paul Silas, now coach of the Bobcats and then a Nets assistant to Butch Beard, by telephone from Charlotte. “He was somethin’ different, all right.”

During the 1994-95 season, the one year I covered the Nets, “different” was in no short supply. The team finished last in the Atlantic Division, but was as outrageous off the court as it was putrid on it.

Against that backdrop stood one sane, stable veteran. Gilliam was thoughtful. He knew good food and fashion. He read complete novels during cross-country flights. When P.J. Brown got on a plane next to Gilliam as a rookie, Silas recalled, he couldn’t help but notice the financial portfolio Gilliam brought with him to look over.

“That’s who I want to be,” Brown remembered thinking.

I always thought he could have written a handbook for the NBA rookie symposium entitled, “What the Young Fellas Need to Know.”

But now, inexplicably, he’s gone.

Armen Gilliam died of an apparent heart attack at 47 while playing basketball at a Pittsburgh area sports club Tuesday? That’s the greatest head-shaker of them all.

“Blew me away,” Silas said. “I just really couldn’t believe it. He stayed in shape. Watched what he ate. Makes no sense. None at all.”

Part of the shock stems from Gilliam’s place on that roster, that of the mature sage among young knuckleheads, old comedians and dysfunction everywhere. The most gifted of screenwriters could not make up that team.

Morris showed up to play one night with words written on his sneakers. The right foot said “Please.” The left foot said “Trade Me.”

When told Anderson didn’t show up for practice that day, Coleman responded, “Whoopeedamndoo!” During a scoreboard malfunction that season, he sat on the press table, disgusted. Within earshot, a writer jokingly pointed out, “D.C., they’re not getting you the ball enough.”

“Damn straight,” Coleman said, throwing up his arms in anger. He proceeded to take the team’s next 10 shots and shoot them out of the game.

When shy and unproductive rookie Yinka Dare walked in the locker room, Anderson often greeted him with, “What up, Stinka?”

And there was Jayson Williams, cutting up everyone, pointing out their foibles. “Hey Yinka, what’s the C on Christian Laettner’s jersey stand for?” Williams once asked Dare of Laettner, who was then the Timberwolves’ captain.

“I don’t know — Caucasian?” Dare inquired. Suddenly, Benoit Benjamin spoke up, apparently ready to tell Dare the “C” stood for “captain.” “Yinka, you so stupid. Caucasian start with a K.”

Gilliam was a prankster of renown, too. He could name Bill Clinton’s cabinet and would often ask teammates to tell him who Warren Christoper was and how many points he averaged.

He had the entire locker room falling over on the road one night. Gilliam asked Morris before a game in Houston, “Mo, what is the capital of Houston?” Morris, actually living in Houston, answered immediately, “Austin.”

Kenny Anderson kept scratching his head and finally said, “So, what’s the capital of Houston, then?”

As awful as they were on the court and insubordinate some of them were off of it, there was something Bad-News-Bears endearing about that team. They hated that Pat Riley was mingling with Manhattan potentates across the river at Elaine’s after Knicks games and players were clubbing on the Upper West Side somewhere. After most Nets losses, the players and coaches met up at Houlihan’s in Secaucus until the loaded potato skins were gone.

“Fun team. As bad as we were, I really liked some of those guys and stay in touch with some of them today,” Silas said. “Boy, did they have some bad luck afterward.”

Silas once dealt with the death of Bobby Phills in a drag-racing accident with a teammate during his coaching career. He also coached Robert “Tractor” Traylor, who died of an apparent heart attack at 34 in May.

But nothing confounds him like the misfortune that befell that Nets team.

Dare, a 7-foot-1 Nigerian who played at George Washington, died of a heart attack at 31 in 2004. In 2010, Williams pled guilty to assault in the death of a limousine driver who was shot by Williams at his home. Dwayne Schintzius, a reserve center, had leukemia diagnosed two years ago. Coleman, with maybe the best set of mitts I’ve seen on a big man, never lived up to his potential and retired early because of a heart ailment. Many others, including Coleman, Anderson, Morris and Rick Mahorn, lost all their money.

“I think about that team and all the guys that are broke now,” Silas said. “There are six guys that made good money and don’t have anything left. Unbelievable.”

Silas was happy to talk to Schintzius recently and find out he was declared cancer-free last July after a bone marrow transplant from his brother.

But then came the news about Gilliam, the one guy, along with Brown, on the roster who always had real perspective, whom you knew things would work out for in the end.

“My funniest memory was him and Derrick getting into it one day in practice, guys catching elbows, the whole thing,” Silas said. “Derrick turned around and said, ‘Let’s fight,’ and put up his dukes. Armen just looked at him.

“He said, ‘Oh, man, I’m not dealing with this foolishness.’ Derrick was stunned. There wasn’t nothin’ he could do. Everybody cracked up. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen.”

Always above the fray, Armen Gilliam, an original, is gone. More than his game, his dignity and his double-word scores, I’ll miss the person.

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