Denton: Armstrong Would Be Honored to Be Part of Magic's 25th Anniversary Season

By John Denton
Oct. 23, 2013

DALLAS – Informed that the Orlando Magic plan to bring back several of their legends as part of their 25th anniversary celebration, Darrell Armstrong playfully came up with a request that might make fans think he’s once again had too many sugar-filled coffees or chocolate drops.

``If they bring me back, I want them to do it at the old Amway Arena,’’ Armstrong cackled, knowing full well that facility long ago had been demolished. ``That was my building. There’s never been a place as loud as that one.’’

Armstrong, of course, had a lot to do with most of the ear-splitting noise that used to fill Orlando’s first basketball facility when he played for the Magic from 1994-2003. Whether it was his floor-burn-inducing dives on the floor, him throwing his 180-pound body into men twice his size or chasing down players from behind for jaw-dropping blocked shots, Armstrong became an all-time fan favorite in Orlando because of the fearlessness that he played with.

Armstrong’s name is etched all over the Magic’s record books – he ranks in the franchise’s Top 10 in 12 major categories – but his legacy in Orlando persists because of the way he scrapped to get to the NBA and then fought every day to stay there. He would push teammates through practice with an infectious energy and then pester opponents in games to the point of breaking their will with his relentless grit.

Of all of Armstrong’s accomplishments in Orlando, this is the one he’s the most proud of: Every single one of the nine Magic teams he played on had a winning record. More than just a winner, Armstrong simply refused to let his teams lose.

``When you are this small, you’ve got to do special things to stay in the league and make plays. That’s why I dove on the floor and dove into the stands. I tore up my body sometimes, but at the end of the day, the people who go to work every day can appreciate something like that,’’ Armstrong said. ``I think that’s why they appreciated me and that’s why I still get that applause and people telling me that they miss me and that I’m their favorite player. Those things are special to me. There have been so many great players come through Orlando, and for the fans to continue to give me love, it’s something really special.’’

The Magic will honor Tracy McGrady, a four-time all-star and two-time scoring champion while in black and blue pinstripes from 2000-04, on Nov. 1 before the regular-season opener against the New Orleans Pelicans. As part of the celebration of 25 years of Magic basketball, the organization plans to honor several of its former players, coaches and front office staff during Friday night home games throughout the season.

Armstrong was never an all-star, although he did become the first player in NBA history to win the Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year awards in the same season in 1998-99. But it was Armstrong’s smile and coffee-fuelled energy that long-time Magic fans still rave about today some 10 years after he’s been gone from the Magic.

``Darrell wasn’t the most skilled player in the league, but nobody played harder,’’ long-time season-ticket-holder Franz Hanning said earlier this summer. ``(Armstrong) put it out there every night. His energy and enthusiasm were infectious – not just to his teammates, but to the crowd.’’

Now an assistant coach with the Dallas Mavericks, Armstrong still receives cheers from Magic fans when he’s shown on the Amway Center replay board during visits back to Orlando. In years past he’s taken young players on tours of the Amway Center to show them pictures that hang honoring the former point guard’s playing days. He was never drafted and had to scratch and claw his way through some of basketball’s backwaters, but Armstrong found a way to carve out his niche and leave a legacy in Orlando.

``A lot of these young guys probably never got a chance to see me play. Some of the guys now they see how the fans in Orlando still react to me and see some of the pictures on the wall and I tell them that that’s how you leave a legacy in a place,’’ Armstrong said. ``I tell them, the way to leave their print on the game is playing hard, taking care of their bodies and being professional. My college coach, Jeff Caple, always told me to play hard and that’s what I always tried to do every time I stepped on that floor.’’

Current Magic coach Jacque Vaughn played against Armstrong throughout his NBA career and teamed up with the fiery point guard for one season in Orlando. He said Armstrong left a big impression on him with his unbreakable will and he’s not one bit surprised that Armstrong has had success as a coach with the Mavericks. Armstrong was a part of the Mavs coaching staff when the franchise won the NBA title in 2011.

``D.A. was unbelievable as a teammate. We had some fun practices, picking each other up 94 feet and going at each other every day,’’ Vaughn said. ``He was just a great teammate, a great guy in the locker room and he was always full of energy. He really got everyone excited about playing – minus all of that coffee he drank, the chocolate he ate at halftime and the six packs of sugar. He was genuinely a great guy.

``I’m not surprised at all that he went into coaching because he was always a guy who had great communication skills with every player,’’ Vaughn continued. ``Whether it was our best player at that time, Tracy (McGrady), he could communicate with him. And he could communicate with the rookie that year, which was Jeryl Sasser. He had a great way of getting to guys and pushing them. Whether it was shooting games after practice or joking around on the plane, he was just so much fun to be around.’’

Even though he was vastly undersized, Armstrong had a great consistency to his game. He had a four-year stretch where he led the Magic in games played, assists, steals and free throw percentage. He is second all-time in franchise history in steals (830), third in assists (2,555) and fifth in games (502) and minutes (14,243) played.

But the most consistent parts of his game were his indefatigable will and fiery energy. Armstrong led the league in floor burns and scowls left on opponents’ faces when he kept hounding them from the opening tip to the final horn. Playing in the NBA was a matter of survival for him, and the player nicknamed ``Flash’’ knew only one speed.

``My thing and where I laid my hat was coming out every night and competing as hard as I could. I played hard – as hard as I could,’’ said Armstrong, Orlando’s leading scorer during the famed ``Heart and Hustle’’ season at 16.2 points per game.

``People paying money want to enjoy seeing you play hard,’’ he continued. ``My goal was that when that fourth quarter came, I would turn up my energy, excitement and tenacity to give the fans on their feet. I used to love to hear (PA announcer) Paul (Porter) say, ``Stand and cheer … for your … Orlando Magic!’ That would always rub my shoulders and get me going. The energy and the excitement from the fans always got me going the same way I might have gotten them excited. It’s always good to hear the fans give it back to you.’’

Armstrong said he will always be grateful to the Magic for giving him his break in the NBA when former GM John Gabriel signed him out of the minor leagues in 1994. Armstrong said the Magic have proven themselves to be one of the NBA’s best franchises through the years and he’s confident that the team will be back competing for a championship in the not-so-distant future.

``Orlando is a great organization. They’ve been through rebuilding once or twice and they always find a way to bounce back, and they’ll do it again,’’ he said. ``When you put a good product out there in Orlando, those fans will respond to it. A young coach like Jacque Vaughn will find a way to get this thing back on its feet and hopefully the fans will stick by them and support them.’’





Follow John Denton on Twitter here