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High Flyer: Gilliam Remembered As Fine Athlete, Person
WINSTON SALEM, NC.—Herman Gilliam grew up in an era when African-American athletes usually had to leave Winston-Salem in order to pursue their dreams.
That’s what Gilliam did after graduating from Atkins High School in 1965.
But there’s little question that Gilliam ranks as one of the greatest basketball players to come out of the city.
He had an outstanding college career at Purdue, then played eight seasons in the NBA, including one with the Portland Trail Blazers in their NBA championship season of 1977.
Gilliam died of a heart attack last Saturday at the age of 58. He will be laid to rest today at Piedmont Memorial Gardens after an 11 a.m. service at St. Paul United Methodist Church.
“He was a big influence on this city and I wish all the kids would have got to know him,” Ben Piggott, the director of the Sims Recreation Center and a long-time Atkins fan, said yesterday. “It’s a shame that he’s gone. He left a legacy, and he left that legacy on the playgrounds because he was so talented.
“He was a down-to-earth person, and his exploits were unbelievable. I can tell you he was a role model for all of us.”
Gilliam was inducted into the Winston-Salem Sportsmen Club’s Hall of Fame in 1989. He’s also a member of the Purdue athletic Hall of Fame.
He is one of five known Winston-Salem natives who have gone on to play in the NBA, along with Happy Hairston, Brian Howard, Kevin Thompson and Josh Howard.
“Herm was a very talented player and a great friend,” said Earl Monroe, a former NBA great and Winston-Salem State star. “It’s hard to believe that he died because he was always in good shape, and I think he passed away after he came in from jogging.”
Gilliam had been living in Portland, Ore., for the past 15 years, most recently working in the Dept. of Human Resources for the city. He was an executive with United Parcel Service before that.
He was a three-year starter at Atkins, and as a senior was named the honorary captain of the all-city, all-county team. He was also named to the all-state team.
“He could do everything on a basketball court,” George Green, his coach at Atkins, told the Winston-Salem Sportsmen Club at Gilliam’s induction in 1989. “If ever anyone deserved to be a high school All-American, Herm sure did.”
Because of segregation in the mid-1960s, Gilliam was not recruited by ACC schools. He turned down an offer to play with Monroe at Winston-Salem State under Coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines, choosing instead to go to Purdue.
He played on outstanding Purdue teams that included Rick Mount and Bill Keller, and was voted the team’s MVP twice. In 1969, he led the Boilermakers to the Big Ten title and a trip to the Final Four, where they lost to UCLA in the championship game after beating North Carolina in the semifinals.
“Herm was way ahead of his time as a player,” Keller told Goldandblack.com earlier this week. “He was an athlete in a time when basketball was all about fundamentals. He could do things that few guys could do. Herm could fly, and that was pretty amazing for a guy that was just 6-feet-2. He really was our best player. That’s no slight on Rick or anyone else, but his athletic ability and his quickness made him very, very special.”
Gilliam was a first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Royals in 1969, the eighth player chosen overall. He spent one season in Cincinnati, then one in Buffalo, four in Atlanta, one in Seattle and one in Portland.
For his eight-year career, he averaged 10.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 578 games. He had his best years in Atlanta, averaging 14 points, 5.3 rebounds and 6.3 assists in 1972-73, and 14.1 points, 4.3 rebounds and 5.7 assists in 1973-74.
His final season may have been his most fulfilling, as he won his only NBA championship ring with the Trail Blazers. Gilliam came off the bench and averaged 9.3 points for a team that included Bill Walton, Maurice Lucas, Wally Walker and Dave Twardzik.
“Herm was an offensive player, no question about it,” Twardzik said. “When he got it going, there was no stopping him. I really liked Herm. You always knew where you stood with Herm. There was nothing phony about him.”
Twardzik said he last saw Gilliam at a Blazers reunion/golf tournament two summers ago.
“Herm had a motor home that he loved to drive around in,” Twardzik said. “The memory I have of him is seeing him that day sitting behind the wheel with a big smile on his face, just enjoying life. It’s a real shame to hear that he’s gone.”