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With trophy in Lewiston, Jack Armstrong brings NBA championship home

Jack Armstrong wasn’t sure if he could easily bring the NBA’s championship trophy over the border from Canada into the United States. He knew it wasn’t illegal, but the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy is 2 feet tall, shaped like a basketball falling into a net, and plated in gold.

It’s not inconspicuous.

But Armstrong had to get the trophy here. He and his wife, Dena, were hosting a party at their home in Lewiston, and that trophy was the star.

The Toronto Raptors won their first NBA championship in June after defeating the Golden State Warriors in six games. For Armstrong, the Raptors’ broadcast analyst, this was as good as winning a championship himself. To celebrate, Armstrong invited dozens of friends to a party Tuesday night at his Lewiston home, which is located on a bluff overlooking the Niagara River, with Canada visible from his back patio.

“Jack & Dena Armstrong invite you to join them for an evening with the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy,” read the invitation, which was designed with Raptors’ black, red and gold. The O’Brien trophy is basketball’s equivalent of hockey’s Stanley Cup, although unlike in the NHL, the NBA winners don’t have to give it back. Each year, Tiffany & Co. manufactures a new trophy and the champions get to keep it.

Since June, Raptors players, coaches and front office personnel have had the opportunity to take the trophy for a day. Armstrong requested Oct. 29, one day after a Raptors home game. On Monday night, shortly after Toronto’s win over the Orlando Magic, Armstrong made a stop before leaving the arena: He picked up the trophy, which travels in a protective carrying case, and put it in his trunk. As he and his grown son, Kevin, who had accompanied him to the game, made the 80-mile drive back to Lewiston, Armstrong had already decided how he would handle the trophy at the border. On the advice of a friend who works for homeland security, he would tell the officer in the inspection booth that he had the trophy.

“He’ll probably want to take a picture with it,” Armstrong recalled his friend telling him when he called for advice.

On the American side of the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge, which is just minutes from Armstrong’s home, he followed that plan. Armstrong told the officer that he worked for the Raptors, and had the O’Brien trophy.

“You’re kidding,” Armstrong recalled the officer saying.

Armstrong assured him it was true. The trophy was in the trunk.

“Can I take a picture with it?” the officer asked, according to Armstrong, who got out of the car with Kevin and opened the trunk.

“The guy was so excited that he had his picture taken with the Larry O’Brien trophy,” Armstrong said. “It was really funny.”

That officer wasn’t the only one. The next night, some 200 people packed into the Armstrongs' home. They included old friends like Nancy Riccio, a Niagara University coach in the late ’80s when Jack and Dena, who were both then Niagara coaches, too, first met. They included newer acquaintances, like current Niagara University Athletic Director Simon Gray, and interim head men’s basketball coach Greg Paulus, who took over last week after the sudden resignation of Patrick Beilein. There were neighbors, media friends and a youth sports team that, as they posed for photos with Armstrong and the trophy, broke into a chant of “Let’s Go Raptors! Let’s Go Raptors!”

Jack Armstrong's party cake at the big event on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The trophy clearly wasn’t the only star. Armstrong’s celebrity was shining, too. In Canada, that’s normal. Armstrong has been an ambassador for basketball up north since 1998, when he joined the then-nascent and struggling Raptors after getting fired as Niagara’s men’s basketball coach. Armstrong helped turn Raptors broadcasts into an entertainment spectacle, amping his already-energetic personality to a 12 out of 10, sometimes even singing during the games, and developing signature lines like “Get that garbage outta here!” for blocked shots and “Helloo!” for great plays.

As the Raptors started winning in recent years, Armstrong has calmed his approach – slightly, not wholly – but his fame trajectory was already set. North of the border, Armstrong is a bona fide celebrity. He’s a popular speaker, a regular on radio and television year-round. After the Raptors won the championship, he received multiple book offers. 

“Honestly I was so exhausted from the whole thing, I just didn’t have the time or the energy,” said Armstrong, who penned a foreword for the book “We the Champs,” a bestseller in Canada written by Alex Wong and Sean Woodley. “At some point in time, I’ll write a book. But I feel like I’m too young” – he is 56 – “and there are too many more experiences to go through before I get to doing something like that. But it’s flattering when someone reaches out to you.”

Armstrong has won three consecutive golden Canadian Screen Awards trophies – the most recent came last spring – that sit on a mantle in his living room. “Take one off  — wait till you see how heavy it is,” Dena Armstrong told a visitor Tuesday night. “He’s won three in a row, where no basketball broadcaster was even nominated before him. That’s the equal of an Emmy in the United States. Isn’t that funny? Nobody here knows that.”

Dena is right. Her husband is famous in Western New York, too, but more for his status as a former Division I coach who has stayed visible as a speaker and commentator. People know he broadcasts for the Raptors, but because those games aren’t broadcast here, they rarely see or hear his work, or feel his popularity.

But bringing a championship trophy to town may change that, even if just for the people who jammed themselves into Armstrong’s home. They posed with the trophy, centering their smiling faces above the golden basketball that tops it, and often slipping on the replica championship ring that Armstrong set next to it. (Armstrong’s real ring, which is encrusted with 650 diamonds and spells the word “NORTH,” arrives in a month.)

Some of them – Armstrong included – likely daydreamed what it would like for the Buffalo Sabres to win a Stanley Cup, or the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl. “I hope someday that we see a Stanley Cup and a Vince Lombardi Trophy right here,” he said.

For now, Armstrong has this championship to savor, and this trophy to celebrate at home. But just for a night.

“We have a game tomorrow,” Armstrong said. “I have to bring it back.”

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