Interview Conversation with Basketball’s Jack Armstrong
By Jeremy Finkelstein
Toronto Raptors memorable Championship Win
On October 22nd, the Toronto Raptors began their 25th campaign in style with a memorable ring ceremony, the raising of the Championship Banner, and a thorough beat down of the visiting New Orleans Pelicans. The moment capped a quarter century of hope and heartache for the country’s long-suffering fan base, and secured Canada’s team as one of the elite franchises in sport.
There have been many ups and downs along the way: the Sky Dome days, the Vince Carter era, Chris Bosch, the all-star duo of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, and the arrival and departure of Kawhi Leonard, to name a few. But while players, coaches and general managers have come and gone, Jack Armstrong has remained a constant. Since arriving on the scene in 2000, “the Coach” has become an integral part of Canada’s sports landscape with catchy phrases like ‘Hellooo’ and ‘Get that garbage outta here.’ More importantly, as a lifelong insider, he’s brought clarity, perspective and critical analysis drawn from a career that’s seen him as both player and coach, most notably the head coach of Niagara University, a position he held for a decade.
Now, as a 20-year broadcast vet, Jack has had time to reflect on the greatest season in Canadian basketball history. He’s earned his ring, taken the Larry O’Brien Trophy to his hometown of Lewiston, NY, and, like the rest of us, he’s now ready to see what the Toronto Raptors will do for an encore. We sat down with TSN’s Basketball Insider for some hot takes on the season that was, the city’s rabid fan base, and just how far he thinks this year’s Raptors squad can go.
Interview with Basketball Legend Jack Armstrong
The Collection: After 22 years with the team, how did it feel to watch that banner raised to the rafters?
Jack Armstrong: It’s been a remarkable run, I’m so happy for our fans. They’re so loyal and passionate. When I first got to Toronto many years ago, there were people that would say basketball won’t work in Canada, it doesn’t have the ability to take off. There were a lot of skeptics. But I always felt like it was a sleeping giant, that there was tremendous potential. And look now…the Raptors survived, unfortunately the Vancouver Grizzlies didn’t, and it’s the fastest growing sport in Canada. When you look at the changing cultural dynamics of not only the GTA, but of Canada, I think our sport and our team reflects that. I go to all 30 arenas in the NBA, and by far, the Raptors fan base is the most culturally diverse. I think it’s a great celebration of the beautiful cultural mosaic that is the GTA and that is Canada.
TC: What first drew you to basketball?
Jack Armstrong: I grew up in Brooklyn, and the two sports that people are passionate about there are basketball and baseball. From the time that I was six years old, I started playing. I had a true love affair with basketball. Here I am at 56, and I always tell kids, I can’t thank that orange ball enough. I had a love affair with that orange ball, and it’s given me some of the greatest moments of my life. Lifelong friendships, incredible life lessons, I met my wife…I was the basketball coach at Niagara (University) and she was the women’s soccer coach. The opportunity to travel the world, all the different experiences. It all started off as a little kid dribbling a ball and a dream. I grew up playing, had a coaching career, and now a second career as a broadcaster. I tell kids all the time, “to you that could be a paintbrush, it could be the piano, it could be dance, it could be law, it could be medicine. Whatever it is, find that thing that you love and do it.”
TC: You’ve spent lots of time at the college level. Are there any significant differences between the college game and the NBA?
Jack Armstrong: Every level you go up, the quality of talent changes significantly. The college game, more than ever, is starting to mirror the pro game in terms of pace of play and the emphasis on the 3-point shot. But I would say that the biggest difference is that there are haves and have nots, in terms of the talent level. I coached at Mid-Division 1, so when we played a higher level, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Kansas, Indiana, you could clearly see the difference. In the NBA, all these guys were the all-time greatest player at their school or the MVP of their league. Each one can play at a really high level. When you have a game between Syracuse and Cornell, there is a dramatic gap. But I love both games for their own distinct things. The beauty of the college game…you go on a Saturday afternoon, you’ve got the band, the cheerleaders, the tradition of a rivalry, the pure enthusiasm. These guys are amateurs. They’re playing for love of the game and school pride and all those other things. When guys reflect back, it’s the best time of their life.
TC: As an analyst, what are you looking for when determining how competitive a team can be?
Jack Armstrong: I look at how together they are defensively. I look for a team that plays really hard, that guards, and then on the offensive end, that plays as a team. If you defend and if you share the ball, respect each other, and play as a team, you give yourself a fighting chance. This isn’t golf, this isn’t tennis. You really need to rely on the other guys you play with.
TC: What’s your early assessment of this year’s Raptors?
Jack Armstrong: I like what’s here. I call it the residue of winning. They know what it looks like. They know what it feels like. They’ve been to the playoffs six straight years, capping it with a championship. The roster’s different this year. I get that. But there are enough returning players that understand what it takes and the sacrifices you have to make. These guys understand how hard you have to play, per play, per night. That gets you over the hump a lot of nights. I think the one concern right now is that the depth isn’t what it’s been in the past.
TC: How good a coach is Nick Nurse and what do you like about his approach?
Jack Armstrong: I love his creativity, I love his adaptability, I think he’s outstanding in-game. When he was hired, he had this reputation as an offensive guru, but sometimes we put labels on people which is not the right thing. He’s a really good basketball coach…he has the ability to coach all phases, and that’s what a head coach is supposed to be able to do. And he’s a guy that was absolutely prepared for the opportunity that was presented to him. The guy paid his dues, overseas, in the G League, as an NBA assistant, the guy has put the time in. They used to say this about Don Shula: he could take his and beat yours, he could take yours and beat his. And I think Nick has that ability. He can size up his team, he can size up your team, and figure out how to play to his strengths and hide his weaknesses. And, if you threw him on the other bench, he would quickly process what’s going on and come up with a plan to counteract those same things. What’s vision? Vision is seeing the end product before you start the journey, and he has good vision. That’s from years of paying the price and paying his dues.
TC: Did you like the Pascal Siakam signing?
Jack Armstrong: Yes. I think he’s someone that keeps emerging and keeps improving. He has some areas for growth, but what I’ve seen so far is a young man that’s ready to take the next step. And I think with a homegrown player – drafted, developed – there comes a point when you’ve got to decide…am I all in on this player or not? And I think the organization made a very strong statement that they have tremendous belief in him. And rightfully so. He’s earned that. The guy’s a self-made man. He didn’t come from a big basketball school; he went to New Mexico State. There are a lot of other guys picked higher, that come from bigger schools, that haven’t developed anywhere close to him. And here’s the last thing…he’s proven himself in a winning environment. He had to earn his minutes on a winning team.
TC: Another guy who’s taken an unusual path is Fred VanVleet. How important is he to the future?
Jack Armstrong: I’m a huge Fred VanVleet fan. He’s got a tremendous make-up. He’s an incredibly bright guy. I joke with him that he’s a future head coach, if he wants. He has that tremendous competitive backbone and spirit and toughness. And he’s just a winner. You want the guy on your side. He’s fearless. He can really shoot. He has a complete, high level understanding of what the Raptors system is and of what’s supposed to be done. He’s just a joy to watch, he leaves it all out there. This guy led his team to the Final Four when he was at Wichita State…his team was ranked number one for a while, and yet people always doubted him. He was a tremendous collegiate player, and I think sometimes people try to judge the book by its cover, and how wrong so many people were. And thankfully, how right Masai Ujiri, Bobby Webster and their scouting staff were.
TC: Lowry has morphed into a perennial all-star. Do you see him as a hall-of-famer?
Jack Armstrong: Oh, that’s for greater minds than mine to decide. I will say this, though. He will be the first one to have his number retired at the Scotiabank Arena. He has defined winning. This is the greatest run in franchise history, and if you were to close your eyes and say who’s the one, it’s Kyle Lowry. In terms of hall of fame, his career isn’t done, so a lot will depend on how things wrap up. But a guy that’s made the All-Star game five years in a row, been to the playoffs many times, and has led his team to an NBA championship, no question his name will be on the ballot.
TC: When you consider the development of Siakam and VanVleet, the maturation of Lowry, and the management of Kawhi Leonard, Toronto has a real track record where players keep exceeding expectations. Are others around the league noticing?
JA: That’s a great point. This is one of the model franchises, and not only in the NBA. When you look at professional sports, it’s hard to maintain winning. You’re not getting high picks, you have to pay the players that are producing, so you start running out of cap space. What these guys have done in terms of the development, the drafting, the trades, you can’t compliment the vision [enough], the leadership of Masai and Bobby, their entire staff, the coaching. And all 82 games are on national television. It’s a national team. You are a national hero when you play for the Raptors. It’s a big deal. And they have done an amazing job of getting through a lot of the stigmas that used to exist. Now, everyone recognizes that Toronto is one of the elite franchises in pro sports, beyond the fact that they’ve won an NBA title. It’s just how they do things. First class ownership, they take care of their players, they treat their players right, they care about health and wellness. There’s no question that the word is out on the street that this is a good place to go play.
TC: What are your thoughts on ‘load management?’
JA: I think Kawhi’s situation a year ago was unique because he only played nine games the year before. The Raptors took a very educated risk and they managed it beautifully. But there is a significant difference between resting a guy and load management. Load management is based on a guy with a pre-existing condition, where rest is a fatigue thing. To me, they are two different things. I feel bad for fans when you have this idea of rest. I understand that occasionally you have to do it because the schedule is long…but as much as we possibly can, as a league, for all 30 teams, it’s really important that for our fans who pay their hard-earned money to come to a game, we make sure that we put our best foot forward every night, and that guys play if they can. And I think as a league with partners…the 9-year, $24 billion TV deal with Turner and ESPN/ABC…those people want return on their investment, so when games are telecast, they want players playing.
TC: Is Toronto the best basketball city in the NBA?
JA: It’s one of them. It would be unfair to a lot of other cities…a lot of it comes down to the passion of the fans at the games. Go to a game in Portland, it’s really cool. Golden State over the years, even when they weren’t very good, their fan base was great…Salt Lake City, the fans at Boston, the fans at Philadelphia. But there’s no question, when you talk about the Raptors fan base, it’s one of the toughest buildings to play in because the fans are really into it. And, I’ll say this, the Raptors are one of the best in the league, in terms of fans travelling. You saw it at the NBA finals, thousands of people supporting the Raptors on the road. We’ll play a game in New York, Chicago, LA, DC, Boston, border towns like Detroit and Portland, and it’s crazy the number of people that come to watch the Raptors. It’s almost like Kentucky basketball or Alabama football, there’s no team in the league that has that kind of following. When the Lakers are going, there are people who show up that are Lebron fans, but I don’t know if they’re necessarily Laker fans, they’re fans of the stars. And, when you see a Raptors fan, as much as it’s about the Raptors, they also usually have a Canadian flag. It’s almost like the Olympics. There’s a lot of national pride. It’s really cool.
TC: How far can the Raptors go in the NBA this year?
JA: If they’re healthy, if the second team develops, they can be a top four Eastern Conference team and make a lot of noise in the playoffs. So, what’s a top four playoff team? Usually a 50-plus-win team, and a team that can be in the mix to represent their conference in the finals. It’s all going to come down to health and the development of the second unit. If their top guys are healthy and their second unit develops, then I feel comfortable that they can play with any team in the Eastern Conference.
Photo by Ron Turrene