Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Exit The Soft Hammer

You know you are getting old when guys that you paid money to see as an adult shrug off this mortal coil. So it was this afternoon with Armen Gilliam, the "centerpiece" of the disaster Sixers that happened after the Charles Barkley trade to Phoenix, breathed his last.

For some, particularly in Las Vegas, Gilliam was a great player. In college, he was probably UNLV's second best player behind only Larry Johnson. But in the pros, he was the living definition of empty calories from the power forward, the kind of guy who would get you 18 and 9 while giving up 25 and 10, without any shred of passing or defense. The Association sniffed him out soon enough, and despite the ability to score the ball and collect a reasonable amount of rebounds while looking like an NBA player, he wound up bouncing through a half dozen teams. The most surprising thing to me, in reading his obit, wasn't that he was dead today in a middle-aged gym, or that he died playing pickup ball in Pittsburgh. It was that he was the #2 pick in his draft, behind only David Robinson. You'd think that a journeyman would have come with a higher pedigree.

There's also this. Chuck might say something nice about him now in his passing, especially since Chuck is a lot softer now then he used to be... but when they actually played against each other, Barkley openly loathed this man. He seemed to take particular delight in racking up numbers against the Soft Hammer, as if he needed additional motivation to tear the Sixers a new one each and every time they were on the same court. It was as if every single thing about Gilliam, from his outdated fade haircut to his loping never desperate stride, offended Charles... and as if his very ire could convince the Sixers faithful to reject this man as much as he did.

What was it like to watch him play? Like being sold a bill of statistical goods. When he came to town, it was easy to see his shooting percentage, his counting stats, and to think that the era of watchable ball would continue, that the dreadful splash of Wonder Woman uniform style and mismatched talent (Jeff Hornacek, point guard -- no, seriously) could work. Sure, they couldn't defend the center or point guard, the franchise had the odor of rotting cheese, and you had to hope that people like Doug Moe, Tim Perry, Shawn Bradley and Jerry Stackhouse were somehow going to coalesce into anything more than a confedertion of number hoarders. But hey, Gilliam was The Hammer! Perhaps the only guy to ever have that nickname that didn't like to dunk. That unsatisfying, really. I once dreamed of getting courtside under the hoop, just so that I could roll a can of dog food at him during a free throw. No sir; didn't like him. Didn't like him one bit.

Gilliam somehow played eight playoff games for the Sixers, and left as a free agent. He dies today at 47, a footnote to a forgettable era, the poster child for a dark and all-too-repeated age of Sixers basketball: the meagre successor to the star that was traded away.

Anyway, since he's dead and all, let's look at his shining moment in a Sixers uniform. It should be noted that he wound up being -1 thirty seconds later.

Rest... a little more, Armen. And take your haircut with you.

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