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Braves New World: Herm Gilliam

(Budd Bailey and Greg D. Tranter have written a book called "Buffalo Braves From A to Z," published by St. Johann Press. Early in the writing process, they wrote good-sized biographies of all 71 men who played a regular-season game for the Braves during their time in Buffalo from 1970 to 1978. Publishers weren't so enthusiastic about all of that material, so most (59) of the biographies were shortened to about 500 words. However, the authors hated to waste all of that material ... so they are presenting it here. It will appear three times a week. A bibliography is available upon request.)

Herm Gilliam, although shunned by the Atlantic Coast Conference because of the color of his skin, turned a stellar high school basketball career into a rewarding stay at Purdue University and an eight-year NBA career that ended with a championship. At all of those steps, Herm brought his relentless defensive play and his “no-fear” shooting ability.

Herman Lee “Herm” Gilliam, Jr. was born on April 5, 1947, in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Doris Gunn and Rev. Herman Gilliam. Herm was their only child and grew up in a religious household as United Methodists. He actively practiced his faith throughout his life. As a young boy, Herm loved various sports and participated in as many as he could. He attended Atkins High School in Winston-Salem. Herm is one of five Winston-Salem natives to play in the NBA. The other four are Happy Hairston, Brian Howard, Kevin Thompson and Josh Howard.

An excellent student, Gilliam was a star for the Atkin High School Camels as a three-year starter. In his senior year he was selected to the All-City and All-County teams and was named the honorary captain. He was also selected for the North Carolina All-State team. Herm is considered one of the greatest basketball players to come out of Winston-Salem. His coach at Atkins, George Green, said about Herm, “He could everything on a basketball court. If ever anyone deserved to be a high school All-American, Herm sure did.”

Gilliam was not pursued by any ACC colleges in 1965 because of segregation across the South. He was recruited by coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines at Winston-Salem State to play alongside Earl “the Pearl” Monroe. But Herm spurned that opportunity to attend Big Ten basketball power Purdue in East Lafayette, Indiana.

Gilliam joined the Boilermakers varsity after starring on the Purdue freshman team. The 6-foot-3, 190-pounder played small forward and led the team in scoring as a sophomore in 1966-67. He averaged 16.4 points per game and was second on the Boilermakers in rebounding at 9.7. Under head coach George King and with fellow sophomore Billy Keller and senior Henry Ebershoff, Purdue finished 15-9 and finished fifth in the Big Ten. Gilliam was named team MVP and was also an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection.

The Boilermakers had a similar finish in Gilliam’s junior year as the squad ended the season with an identical 15-9 record, but they finished third in the Big Ten. Purdue’s 9-5 conference record missed tying for the Big Ten title by only one game. Superstar Rick Mount joined Purdue and led the squad in scoring with a 28.5 scoring average as a sophomore. Keller and Gilliam contributed mightily to the team as well with 16.0 and 15.7 points per game averages respectively. Co-captain Gilliam also led the team in rebounding, averaging 9.1 per game. Herm missed two games and was limited in several others with a painful ankle injury. Gilliam was again named team MVP, sharing the honor with Keller. He also was selected to the All-Big Ten second team.

One of the highlights of the season was the opening of the brand new Purdue Arena. According to the Purdue University website, it was a “circular concrete and steel structure with a domed roof. The building was hailed ‘as the first of its kind among collegiate sports facilities.’” It was renamed the Mackey Arena in 1972 and it still holds that name today.

The opening game in the new facility was played on December 2, 1967. It was the debut of Rick Mount as Purdue hosted defending national champion UCLA. Prior to the game, 10 former Boilermaker All-Americans were honored including John Wooden. In front of a packed house of 14,000, Wooden’s UCLA squad - led by Lew Alcindor (later Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) and reserve Bill Sweek, who hit the go-ahead basket with only two seconds remaining - defeated Purdue, 73-71. Gilliam played an outstanding game, contributing 21 in the heartbreaking loss.

The Boilermakers came on at the end of the season, defeating Big Ten co-champions Iowa and Ohio State in back-to-back games in February. In the 93-72 defeat of the Buckeyes, Gilliam played one of the best all-around games of his career, pouring in 26 points and snagging 10 rebounds. As the Indianapolis Star reported, “Herm Gilliam threw in 26, while playing a brilliant floor game. Gilliam, who hit 10 baskets in only 12 attempts, was a dervish all day as he led Purdue to a 40-34 rebound advantage.”

Purdue basketball fans had high hopes for the Boilermakers in 1968-69 and the team did not disappoint. Though the Boilermakers lost their opener to No. 1 ranked UCLA at Pauley Pavilion, 94-82, they compiled a 13-1 record in the Big Ten to run away with the conference title. They finished the regular season with a 20-4 record and entered the NCAA tournament with a No. 9 national ranking. Gilliam, co-captain for a second straight year, was second in points at 15.8 and led the team in rebounding pulling down 8.5 boards per game.

Gilliam injured his ankle against Michigan State on February 25, forcing him to miss the final three games of the regular season and the team’s first NCAA tournament game. Herm returned in time to help the Boilermakers defeat Marquette, 75-73 in OT, in the regional final, and the victory qualified Purdue for the Final Four. Gilliam, listed as doubtful before the game, came off the bench and sparked the Boilermakers. He contributed two steals, two assists, two baskets and three free throws to spur the Boilermakers from behind.

In the national semifinal, Gilliam played a critical role in the Boilermakers’ 92-65 rout of No. 4 North Carolina even though he wasn’t 100 percent. Herm played an all-around game in contributing eight rebounds, seven assists and six points in the surprisingly easy win. And his hawking defense held Tar Heel superstar Charlie Scott (the first African American scholarship athlete in UNC history) to only 16 points on 6 of 19 shooting. The Boilermakers then played the UCLA Bruins for the third time in the past two years, this time for the National Championship, on March 22 at Freedom Hall in Louisville. The Bruins, with Alcindor scoring 37 points in his final college game, defeated Purdue, 92-72. Still limited with a sprained ankle Gilliam was only able to score seven points, but he did have 11 rebounds. “A healthy Gilliam would have made things tougher,” Wooden said after the game.

Purdue finished one of the best seasons in school history with a runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament, a No. 6 final ranking in the Associated Press poll and a 23-5 overall record. At the conclusion of his senior season Gilliam was named first team All-Big Ten. He played in the East-West All-star game on March 29. The East won, 104-80, and the still hobbled Gilliam scored six points in limited playing time. He also played three games in representing the Midwest in the first annual Aloha Classic All-Star tournament in Hawaii.

“Herm was way ahead of his time as a player,” teammate Keller said years later about Gilliam. “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 to Rick or anyone else, but his athletic ability and his quickness made him very, very special.” When Gilliam left Purdue, his 1,118 career points were fifth most in school history. Herm also was awarded The Ward Lambert Scholarship Trophy for scholastic excellence.

Now it was on to professional basketball for Herm. On April 7, he was selected in the first round with pick number eight by the Cincinnati Royals. He was also selected by the Kentucky Colonels in the ABA draft in the second round. He was projected to play guard in the pros as he was deemed too small to play forward as he had in college. The UPI described Gilliam when he was drafted, “Besides being a fine offensive player, Gilliam is considered an excellent defensive player and usually is assigned to cover the opposing team’s best offensive player.” He signed with the Royals on May 13, 1969. He received a contract worth over $100,000 per the Indianapolis Star. After signing the contract Gilliam said he “was influenced by the presence of Bob Cousy and Oscar Robertson.”

Gilliam made his NBA debut on October 15 in a 94-89 loss to the New York Knicks. He got his baptism under fire as he spent the night defending New York guards Walt Frazier and Dick Barnett and was lauded by Knicks coach Red Holzman after the game for his defense. He scored six points and grabbed three rebounds, but fouled out in the fourth quarter.

Herm had a season-high 24 points on February 10 in a 117-115 Cincinnati win over Detroit. He followed that up with 18 points the next night when the Royals defeated the Pistons again, this time by 124-113. Following the game, Gilliam was off to serve a six-month military commitment, so his rookie NBA season was over. “It was a shame when Herm went into the service because he was really coming around,” teammate Johnny Green said. Gilliam finished his first year with a 7.5 points per game average while playing 20.4 minutes per game in 57 contests. The Royals failed to make the playoffs with a 36-46 record.

The Royals left Gilliam exposed in the NBA Expansion draft as the league added three teams for the 1970-71 season including Buffalo, Cleveland and Portland. He was selected by the Braves. Gilliam joined a backcourt that included second-year players Dick Garrett and Mike Davis and veterans Emmette Bryant, Freddie Crawford and Paul Long. Gilliam started next to Garrett on opening night. The tandem helped cause 26 Cleveland turnovers in the Braves’ 107-92 victory, causing Cavaliers coach Bill Fitch to comment, “Buffalo could have the fastest guards in the league.” Gilliam scored eight points with four assists in his Braves debut.

Herm had a season-high 29 points in a 111-106 win over the Cavaliers on February 13, 1971. He also poured in 28 points in a loss to the Cavs on December 19, and six other 20-point games. He was one of the team’s most consistent players. Gilliam was second on the Braves in games played, only missing two, while averaging 26 minutes, 11.2 points and 3.6 assists per game. The Braves finished with a 22-60 record.

It was Gilliam’s only season in Buffalo. On July 26, he and Don May were shipped to Atlanta in exchange for Walt Hazzard and Jerry Chambers. He joined a backcourt in Atlanta of All-Stars in Pete Maravich and Lou Hudson. But Herm found a niche as a reserve. He played in all 82 games and averaged 28.5 minutes while contributing 10.2 points per night. He had a career high in free throw percentage, an 83.8 percent clip. He scored a season-high 30 points against Cleveland on March 19, 1972. The Hawks stumbled to a 36-46 finish but qualified for the playoffs. Gilliam played in all six playoff games as the Hawks were beaten by the Celtics, 4-2. Herm averaged 11 points with a high of 16.

In 1972-73 the Hawks improved to finish 46-36 and it was Gilliam’s best overall season of his career. He averaged 14 points per game along with 6.3 assists (eighth-best in the NBA) and 5.3 rebounds while also leading the team in steals. It was the only season of his career he scored over 1,000 points, finishing with 1,065. The Hawks again met the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs and were eliminated, four games to two. Gilliam had his career playoff high with 25 points in the Hawks’ 118-105 win in Game Three.

Herm played two more seasons in Atlanta, but the club missed the playoffs in each of those seasons. During the 1973-74 season his 2.9 steals per game were 6th best in the league and his 14.1 scoring average was his career best, but he was limited to 62 games. A highlight was the night he had a career-high 35 points against Portland on October 26, 1973. A year later, Gilliam finished his four-year stay in the heart of Georgia, averaging over 30 minutes per game and 12.5 points per contest.

Atlanta was faced with a rebuilding task and dealt Gilliam to the Seattle Supersonics on October 22, 1975, for a 1976 third-round draft choice. Herm had an injury-plagued season in 1975-76 with the Supersonics, hurting his statistics as he still appeared in 81 games. During the offseason the Sonics sold his rights to the Portland Trailblazers, which turned out to be fortuitous for Gilliam. Herm played behind Lionel Hollins and Dave Twardzik, but was the first guard off the bench. He averaged 20.8 minutes per game while contributing 9.3 points. The Blazers under head coach Jack Ramsey finished with the third-best record in the Western Conference at 49-33 led by center Bill Walton and power forward Maurice Lucas.

The Blazers won the first two playoff series that set-up a showdown with the Western Conference’s best team, the Los Angeles Lakers. The Trailblazers surprised the Lakers in Game One on LA’s home court. Game Two was critical for the Lakers. It has become known as “Herm’s Game.” The Lakers led after three quarters, 77-70. Then as David Halberstam described in his book The Breaks of the Game, “Herm Gilliam started the fourth quarter for Portland and played brilliantly, scoring, stealing the ball, scoring again, hitting difficult off-balance shots, making one particular shot, a falling away jump shot off the wrong foot with Ramsey, it was said, on the bench shouting as he took the shot, ‘No, no, no… Yes!’ Portland, largely through his efforts had gone on to win.” The Blazers won, 99-97, and then went home to Portland and won the next two games to sweep the series.

Portland defeated the Philadelphia 76ers, four games to two, in the Finals. Gilliam played in five of the six games and contributed 14 points in Game One and 12 in Game Four. The Trailblazers and Herm Gilliam were champions of the NBA. That would be a nice climax to Gilliam’s pro basketball career. He was waived by Portland on October 17, 1977, and his NBA career was over. He ended his eight-year NBA career with a 10.8 points per game average to go along with 3.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists in 578 games.

Several years later teammate Dave Twardzik said about Gilliam, “Herm was an offensive player, no question about it. 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.”

In October 1978 Herm briefly worked as the editor and publisher of Inside Basketball magazine. He then worked 15 years with the United Parcel Service, finishing his career there in an executive management position. He followed that with 15 years working in the Department of Human Resources for the city of Portland. He also volunteered his time helping local charities, Helping Hands and Bridge Builders.

Gilliam died of a heart attack at age 58 on April 16, 2005 in Salem, Oregon. He was survived by his mother Doris Gunn Gilliam and his sons Dr. Jai Herman Gilliam and Riki Jamil Gilliam.

Following his death, Ben Piggott, the director of Sims Recreation Center in Winston-Salem and a long time Atkins High School fan, said, “He was a big influence on this city and I wish all the kids could have got to know him. It’s a shame he is 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 in the Winston-Salem Sportsmen Club’s Hall of Fame in 1989 and in 2006 he was posthumously elected to the Purdue Athletic Hall of Fame.

(Follow Budd on via @WDX2BB.)

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