Jack Armstrong emerges from the back door of his Lewiston home. In each hand he holds a chilled pint glass filled with amber ale. He sets them on the patio table.
“You gotta sip it,” he warns in the thick Brooklyn accent that, just 500 yards away, is instantly recognizable to an entire nation of sports fans. “Don’t drink it.”
Armstrong, 52, points to the cream-colored label on the beer bottle. It reads “Trappistes Rochefort,” a Belgian ale with a sweetness like cola. Armstrong discovered it at the bar of the Brickyard Pub & BBQ that’s a few blocks away from his house. “Look here,” Armstrong says. “Eleven percent alcohol. That’s why it’s so good.”
Yeah, better sip it. Sip it and settle in. The next couple of months are Armstrong’s only opportunity to relax for any extended period, whether by watching sports on the flat-screen TV mounted on his porch, or looking across his backyard, with its expertly manicured gardens, stamped concrete pathways and steps leading to a boat in the Niagara Gorge below. From the patio, visible over the edge of his infinity pool and across the gorge, is Canada.
There, Armstrong isn’t the same guy. At least he doesn’t appear to be. He’s still got that warm personality, he still wants you to have a cold beer and chat for a while. But in Canada, during basketball season, Armstong’s narrow eyes gain a glint. His smile cuts wider. His lanky, long-limbed, light-skinned Irishman silhouette – the one that led the Niagara University basketball bench from 1989 until his 1998 firing – gets a little more animated.
And that voice? Those New Yawk tones that eschew R’s in the land of ehs? You never quite know what it’s going to say. Or sing. But you do know this: When Armstrong leaves Lewiston – where he’s known as the former coach, a husband, the father of three boys, and a guy who’s great for a chat – and crosses the border into Canada, he becomes a national celebrity.
This fall, when his summer vacation expires and NBA training camp begins, Armstrong will begin his 18th year as the broadcast analyst for the Toronto Raptors.
Lest you think that’s not a big deal (“Basketball in hockey country?” you may ask), know this: In 2015, the Raptors ranked fifth in the NBA in attendance. Canadians love hoops, and they love Armstrong – and the relationship didn’t necessarily begin in that order. Long before the Raptors became a reliable playoff team, Armstrong was getting stopped on the street for autographs (or nowadays, selfies). His one-liners, born on the streets of Brooklyn and imbued into the Canadian sports lexicon, have become fodder for fan call-outs, YouTube clips, and even a Raptors fans’ drinking game.
“Not a day goes by when I’m walking around the city that somebody doesn’t mention Jack,” says Matt Devlin, Armstrong’s play-by-play partner. “He’s a beloved figure.”
Yep. Armstrong is the Don Cherry of hoops in Canada.
A sense of familiarity
It’s a Monday evening in March. Armstrong, wearing a navy suit and tie with a white-and-blue checked shirt and white pocket square, is at Toronto’s Air Canada Centre. The Raptors are playing the Houston Rockets.
Though his house is only a 90-minute drive away, Armstrong is in the midst of a 17-day stretch during which he won’t be in Lewiston for more than a single overnight stay. Days like this one are why: Armstrong woke up in a downtown Toronto hotel (he emceed a charity dinner the evening before); read the newspaper; called his wife, Dena, and his 88-year-old mother, Mary, who lives in Queens; went for a run; had a lunch meeting at the Toronto restaurant Real Sports; then walked next door to the arena for a TSN photo shoot.
After that Armstrong had pregame meetings, prepared game notes, did interviews on radio and TV, and, in between all of those tasks, stopped for several rounds of autographs and photos.
“He’s a big deal around here,” says a Raptors broadcast staffer clad in jeans and a black button-down as Armstrong poses with Devlin and a group of fans behind the net, shooting another promo. As the broadcasting pair is walking back to their center-court position, a young woman of about 20 with long brown hair, a leather jacket, jeans and a white shirt calls out to Armstrong from her courtside seat.
“My dad says hello!” she says.
“Yeah, yeah!” Armstrong answers, posing for a picture with her. It’s not apparent whether he knows her dad. Armstrong is the type of guy who greets everyone with an intonation of recognition; talking to him for the first time feels like you’ve known him a long time.
“When you talk about Jack, everybody says, ‘I’d like to go to the bar and have a beer with him,’ ” Devlin said. “He just has that ability to come through the airwaves with people as if they’ve known him for years.”
In Toronto, they have. That includes not only Armstrong’s nearly two decades as a broadcast personality, but the nine years he spent before that as the head basketball coach of the Niagara University Purple Eagles.
“That has street cred,” Armstrong said, noting that Western New York’s former “Little Three” Division I college basketball teams (Niagara, St. Bonaventure University and Canisius College) are still remembered by fans older than 50 in Canada. “To them, it’s a big deal: ‘So you were the coach at Niagara? Wow?’ ”
A better deal
Though Armstrong was highly regarded during his coaching tenure for his community work and 100-percent player graduation rate, his win-loss record of 100-154 didn’t exactly wow. Which is why he was fired in 1998 with a year remaining on his contract.
With that flex year, Armstrong started dabbling in broadcasting. At the suggestion of then-Adelphia Cable head John Rigas, he worked with the now-defunct Empire Sports Network. He also joined the Toronto Raptors’ broadcast crew in the team’s fourth year of existence. Armstrong figured on broadcasting for one season – Toronto was a reasonable commute from Lewiston – and then getting back into coaching.
But he quickly realized that broadcasting was a better deal. It made him a better husband, a better dad, a better listener. “I have more of my natural personality back,” Armstrong said. “I’ve always been a fun-loving, celebrate-life, gregarious person. But when you’re coaching, even when you’re winning, you’re miserable, because there’s problems.”
When her husband was coaching, Dena Armstrong would ask him, “Where am I this week? Am I number five on the list? Number six?” A recruit to call, a game to break down, a speech to give; coaching was life with a never-ending to-do list. The first third of Armstrong’s career was dominated by pressure and distraction.
As a broadcaster, he’s still intensely busy. This 17-day stretch away from home is proof of that. But Armstrong’s success is no longer gauged by points on a scoreboard. “The game ends and it ain’t my problem,” Armstrong said. “If they lost by 1 tonight or won by 1 tonight, it doesn’t make a difference. I’m not as attached to it yet I’m involved with it immensely.”
The pressure to win is gone. Now, all Armstrong has to do is inform and entertain. Nowadays, with the Raptors’ winning record and ticket-selling success, Armstrong focuses on mostly the former. On this Monday in March, as the Raptors battle the Rockets, Armstrong is weaving pointers into Devlin’s play by play, dropping coachlike one-liners such as “You’ve got to be strong with the rock and move the rock quickly” (talking about ball handling) and “The problem with boxing out is nobody does it” (talking about a bad foul call).
When Houston breaks out with an early 12-6 lead, Devlin pokes fun at his partner. “The Rockets are doing a good job creating the personality of the game,” he says. “They have come out playing like your former Niagara teams. You had the Purple Eagles playing like that.”
Armstrong cracks his eye-twinkling Irish grin. “Yeah, I wish.”
That playful give-and-take is tame compared to what Armstrong (often with Devlin) used to do. Back when the Raptors were a losing team and a tougher sell in hockey country, Armstrong would freely sing and dance on air. (Fans still talk about his rendition with Devlin of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer.”) He has a couple of still-used signature phrases: For a great play, Armstrong emits a front-loaded, “HELLO!” (Growing up in Brooklyn, that’s exactly what Armstrong and his friends would call out to a pretty girl walking by.) When the Raptors block a shot, Armstrong squawks, “Get that garbage outta here!” – a cleaned-up version of the phrase Jack and pals used to use on the asphalt of Brooklyn.
Those signature calls, along with Armstrong’s singing, have become so legendary in Canada that they’re even part of a Raptors drinking game published on a fan blog. If Armstrong does “something quirky,” you take a sip of beer. A “Get that garbage outta here!” or song is worth a gulp. As for “HELLO!”? That’s a sign to finish your beer.
“I’ve done whatever it takes to help people have a good time when they watch it so they say, ‘You know what? The game stinks, but these guys are knuckleheads so I’ll listen in for a few more minutes,’ ”Armstrong said. “Now that we’re good, I can really back off and have some fun occasionally. But the game sells itself now. The team sells itself. The sport sells itself.”
Basketball in Toronto – and in all of Canada, since the Raptors are the country’s only team and their broadcasts are national – is a success. Jack Armstrong in Toronto – and in Canada – is a success. But even with the fan adoration and the ability to be around the game he loves without the constant pressures of being a coach, there’s still a challenge to living Jack Armstrong’s life: Raising his kids as he was raised.
Inspired by mom
Back on his porch, beer in hand on a bright day months after that Raptors-Rockets game, Armstrong is talking fatherhood. He and Dena couldn’t have kids of their own, so they adopted three African-American boys. Kevin, the oldest at 18, is soon to be a sophomore at Loyola Chicago. Brian, also 18 and born five months apart from Kevin, is an incoming freshman at Vanderbilt University, while Tim, 16, is a junior at Canisius High School.
Aside from occasional touches of racism his sons have felt (“I don’t think there’s an African-American boy or girl who doesn’t go through some degree of discrimination,” Armstrong said), his sons have had a fairly easy upbringing. They live in a nice home in a nice community; their family has money, and although he won’t make connections unless they ask, their dad is a celebrity who knows a lot of people.
That’s not how Armstrong grew up. His parents were Irish immigrants; his dad, William, died in 1970, when Jack was just 7. His mother, Mary, raised four boys (Jack was the youngest) by working as a lunch lady in Brooklyn. (One of the kids in her cafeteria was Stephon Marbury, who became a star for the New York Knicks and once approached Armstrong to say, “Coach, your mom was the coolest lunch lady!”)
“She was our inspiration, our rock, who kind of showed us the right path in life,” Armstrong said. “She is amazing.”
Both Jack and Dena want to do the same for their sons. He thinks about this a lot. But his challenge isn’t showing them the right path. Right here in Lewiston, with Canada on the horizon, a supportive community around them and a dad who successfully reinvented his career in a sport he loves, that path is right in front of them. It’s so clear that the Armstrong boys – young men in the midst of shaping their futures – may not even know it’s there.
“I wish I could drop them off in the middle of the East Side and say, ‘Here, fend for yourself for two weeks. You have no idea how good you’ve got it,’ ” Armstrong said. “I think I have an appreciation of that. I think they’ll grow in their appreciation of that as they get older.”
Armstrong lifts the beer to his lips. Only a few sips remain.
“But it’s hard, I’m not going to kid you,” he said. “It’s hard.”
Unlike Jack, Dena Armstrong didn’t grow up poor. She came from an entrepreneurial clan: Her family owns Sevenson Environmental Services Inc. in Niagara Falls. Dena, a former soccer and assistant basketball coach at Niagara (where she met Jack), is vice president and treasurer of the company, which does dredging, demolition and environmental cleanup. Two of the Armstrong boys, Kevin and Tim, work for Sevenson over the summer, wearing boots and T-shirts, sweeping and cleaning trucks.
“Crappy work,” says their dad, his beer nearly gone. (The middle Armstrong son, Brian, works in a pizzeria and has an internship with the Erie County Republican Party.)
“As best we can, we try to keep them as grounded as possible,” Armstrong said. “From where I grew up to where I am now – ”
He stops himself. His kids have been to what he calls “home” – Brooklyn – and he’s talked to them about the scraping-for-pennies, single-parent city life.
“But the thing I learned a long time ago is kids only know what they know,” Armstrong said. “As much as you tell them that, I think they need to see it.”
Right about then, it’s nearly 5 o’clock. In the last hour, his sons have come home from work, peeling off their dirt-caked denim as they walk into their parents’ neatly kept, seemingly perfect home. When they look out their back window, across their stamped concrete patio and the gorge where their boat bobs in the water, they’ll see the country where their dad is a star.
It’s in moments like those that Armstrong hopes his sons will see the balance: grappling, gritty work can lead to glitzy, shiny success.
“I feel like I’m blessed,” Armstrong said. “I’m very fortunate, but it’s not without a lot of hard work, ups and downs, and a few different careers. But work ethic and carrying yourself the right way gets you somewhere.”
Like right here.