ORLANDO – Arguably the greatest underdog story in the 31-year history of the Orlando Magic and fittingly the captain of the franchise’s most underdog team, beloved point guard Darrell Armstrong added another chapter to his unlikely legend on Friday when he was inducted into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame.
Armstrong, now 51, is the ninth member inducted into the Magic’s Hall of Fame, and assuredly its most improbable entrant considering that not long before his Magic career started in 1995, he was working the ``graveyard shift’’ in a North Carolina textile mill and later bouncing around basketball’s backwaters in the USBL, GBA and CBA.
Armstrong, who was once thought to be a too-short, shoot-first, pass-second point guard, overcame the enormous odds in front of him to reach the Magic’s highest honor where he will now stand among basketball behemoths Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, Tracy McGrady and Nick Anderson, late owner Rich DeVos, franchise co-founders Pat Williams and Jimmy Hewitt and ``Voice of the Magic’’ play-by-play man David Steele.
``This means the world,’’ said Armstrong, who was overcome with emotion and tears throughout his approximately 15-minute induction speech. ``I’m not going to sit here and tell you I wasn’t waiting on this call. I was waiting on this call, but I knew there would be people before me. From Nick Anderson, to Shaq who took (the Magic) to a championship (round), to Penny, who took them to a championship (round), to T-Mac and myself – that’s amazing to me, especially being that I was undrafted, and all of those guys were drafted. I’ve just always been proud and honored to represent the Orlando Magic.’’
Magic CEO Alex Martins alerted Armstrong in December that would be the next inductee into the franchise’s Hall of Fame, and he said that the former point guard got especially emotional during the call. Martins made one thing abundantly clear to Armstrong – both on the December call and again during Friday’s induction ceremony: Armstrong is more than just an underdog success story and a fan favorite; he is deserving of his Hall of Fame status.
``Most fans see him as the ``Heart and Hustle’’ guy or their fan favorite, but I think some have forgotten that he’s one of the greatest players in Magic history,’’ Martins said. ``Second in steals to this date, third in assists and top-10 in virtually every statistical category. Yeah, he was a fan favorite and yeah, he was known for his hustle, but he’s also known as one of the best players in Magic history.’’
Though he finished his career playing for New Orleans, Dallas, Indiana and New Jersey and has worked for the Mavericks for the past 10 seasons as an assistant/player development coach, Armstrong is best known for his many accomplishments with the Magic from 1994-03 and he is still one of the most revered players in franchise history. Quite possibly, his greatest feat was leading and captaining a 1999-00 Magic squad full of cast-offs and rejects to an unlikely 41-41 finish that earned then-rookie head coach Doc Rivers NBA Coach of the Year honors. That squad, led by Armstrong’s career-best 16.2-point production a game, was affectionately nicknamed, ``Heart and Hustle’’ – two of the defining traits of Armstrong’s career in the NBA.
``I’ve done this for a long time now, and that team has to be one or two of my favorite teams ever,’’ said Rivers, a former NBA point guard, who formed a close bond with the fiery Armstrong on that ``Heart and Hustle’’ 1999-00 team. ``I think what made that team so good was how close we were, especially with guys like Darrell and Bo (Outlaw). I can’t tell you how many of those guys that I still talk to weekly. It was an unbelievable group.’’
Armstrong said when he talks to fans or gets contacted by them via social media, one of the first topics is the ``Heart and Hustle’’ squad. The fact that that team still resonates 20 years later speaks to the appreciation for how the Magic played every night, Armstrong said.
``That ``Heart and Hustle’’ (moniker) – I don’t know who started it – but that always identified who I was and that’s how I tried to play,’’ Armstrong said. ``It’s just about leaving your soul out on that floor and doing whatever it took to win.’’
Just 6-foot tall and 170 pounds, Armstrong commanded the respect and attention of foes sometimes a foot and 100 or more pounds heavier than him. He did so by playing with a relentless and fearless energy that pestered foes and endeared him to many Magic fans who still consider him to be the favorite player among a franchise that has featured Hall of Famers in O’Neal and McGrady.
To this day, Armstrong is the only player in NBA history to win the Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year awards in the same season, doing so in 1999. In his nine seasons with the Magic, Armstrong ranks second in franchise history in steals (830), third in assists (2,555), fifth in games played (502), sixth in 3-pointers made (654) and 10thin points scored (5,898).
``The way he came in … humble, with a great work ethic and how he laid it out on the line, you could tell after just a few practices that this guy belongs here,’’ said Anderson, who attended Friday’s induction ceremony. ``Nobody gave him anything. He earned everything that he got. He did it the hard way and a different way, but he earned it. We used to sit and talk about the road that he travelled, but stories like his need to be talked about more often. We talk about the first picks and the first-round picks, but that (Armstrong) story there, that’s something that needs to be talked about all the time. If kids today had a work ethic like Darrell Armstrong had, they’d be amazing with the talent that’s out here today.’’
That Armstrong accomplished all of that is something of a miracle considering that he didn’t start playing organized basketball until his senior year of high school in tiny Gastonia, N.C. He then went to Fayetteville (N.C.) State University as a walk-on kicker to the football team before ultimately playing basketball for three seasons for head coach Jeff Capel II.
Undrafted in 1991, Armstrong bounced between the Global Basketball League, United States Basketball League, the Continental Basketball Association and in various leagues in Cyprus and Spain. When the GBL unexpectedly folded during a season, Armstrong returned to his native Gastonia to work in the local textile mill to help make ends meet financially. Never did he give up his basketball dream, Armstrong said.
``It was tough, I’m not going to lie to you, because I worked the graveyard shift from 11 at night until 7 in the morning,’’ Armstrong recalled. ``It was crazy back there because I didn’t have a job once the Global Basketball Association folded. I looked up and I was working at a yarn factory. Once the USBL came back around, I ended up playing again and it took off from there. From there, I never missed a job and I continued to grow as a player and build my status up.’’
Ultimately, Armstrong’s unbreakable will and raw basketball talents were brought to the NBA by former GM John Gabriel, the architect of the ‘95 Magic squad that made it to the NBA Finals. Gabriel first saw Armstrong play in person at a USBL game in Daytona Beach, even though he was there to scout a player on the other team. After Armstrong poured in 45 and 31 points on consecutive nights, Gabriel offered him an NBA contract to join the Magic late in that 1995 NBA season.
``I don’t know how they haven’t done a motion picture about his life. They did Rudy, but this might be better in some respects,’’ Martins said. ``The last game he played in Cyprus, if I recall, the building was burning down (following the release of a flare by a fan). So, there are those kinds of stories along the way. He’s not one of the greatest underdog stories in just Magic history. I think he’s one of the greatest underdog stories in league history because, like he said, he was picked up off an Intramural Basketball floor and asked to play for his college team. It really is an underdog story and he is very deserving of everything that he’s achieved and he’s very deserving of being in the Magic Hall of Fame.’’
That Armstrong is entering the Magic Hall of Fame after averaging just 11.7 points, 5.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.65 says plenty about the immeasurable contributions that the gritty guard brought to the team through the years.
Former teammates still revel in stories of the 6-foot Armstrong cupping the ball between his right hand and forearm, soaring through the air and dunking with ferocity just a few games after joining the Magic in April of 1995. Fellow point guards Brian Shaw and Hardaway used to plead with him to stop hounding them so hard in practice because the second-year guard was basically treating every practice like a game to showcase himself.
One play that ultimately defined Armstrong’s never-say-die career came on March 15, 1999 with the Magic trailing Philadelphia 73-72 with 3.3 seconds to play. In a flash, Armstrong stepped in front of Eric Snow and stole George Lynch’s inbounds pass. From there, Armstrong streaked the length of the court and beat the buzzer with a layup that gave Orlando an improbable victory. That night, Armstrong finished with 14 points, six assists, four steals and a memory that fans still hold dear.
In March of 2002, Armstrong showed off his affable personality and ability to connect with fans with a gesture that was repeatedly lauded by several national sports shows. Frustrated with how Armstrong had hounded him all game, then-Denver point guard Tim Hardaway was ejected from a game at the former Amway Arena. On his way to the locker room, Hardaway picked up a courtside TV monitor and hurled it across the parquet floor. Not to be outdone, Armstrong scooped up the busted television set, plugged it back in and playfully shook hands with the stunned fan sitting courtside. Armstrong, a two-time winner of the Rich and Helen DeVos Community Enrichment award, even took the wild series of events a step further when he and Hardaway autographed the tiny television and had it auctioned off for charity.
For years while playing in Orlando, Armstrong used to keep a football helmet in his locker to remind himself of his humble beginnings. Football, he said, taught him the toughness that he played with every night for the Magic. Heart, hustle and an unstoppable will ultimately helped him leave a legacy and become a Magic Hall of Famer.
``I’m honored, I’m proud and I’ve been waiting for this day – I’m not going to sit here and lie to you,’’ Armstrong said while wiping away tears. ``I’ve been waiting for this day because I always left my heart and soul out on that floor with these Magic fans.’’
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