Basketball former nu coach jack armstrong talks a good game sports niagara-gazette.com electricity notes for class 10

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Jack Armstrong drove up the New York State Thruway in the summer of 1988 with apprehension. Brooklyn-born and Bronx-bred, the 25-year-old Armstrong thought Western New York meant Staten Island. He was leaving The City of basketball, to become an assistant coach at a small Vincentian university in a football town obsessed with hockey. The guy he got the job over, a pesky point guard from the Rochester region, Jeff Van Gundy, went to work for the New York Knicks the next season, and was a head coach in the NBA by 1995.

“I had incredible anxieties,” Armstrong recalled recently, while driving to the same destination. “You’re this hot-shot New Yorker, now you’ve got to go out in the real world and test your mettle, your self-confidence, your true abilities. It felt like I was leaving the country.”

Twenty-one years later, Armstrong leaves the country just about every day, making the two-hour trek to Toronto to provide color commentary and studio analysis for Raptors basketball broadcasts, and, as of last summer, co-host an afternoon radio show on The Fan 590.

Armstrong “loved every second” of his coaching career. He spent five years as an assistant, the last of which came at Niagara University, before becoming the youngest head coach in Division I when he took command of the Purple Eagles in 1989.

His wife, the former Dena Elia, who was leading Niagara’s women’s soccer program when the late athletic trainer Ray Kist introduced the two young coaches, used to joke with Armstrong about where she ranked on his list of priorities during basketball season — sixth, seventh or eighth.

“I was looking for a play-by-play guy and an analyst to bring some character, some entertainment, some passion and enthusiasm,” said Nelson Millman, the station’s vice president, general manager and program director. “I knew the team wasn’t going to be great, so we needed the broadcast to be great.”

Armstrong has also spent the past 11 years broadcasting college basketball games for a variety of outlets, including ESPN, MSG, and Fox. He spent two seasons doing WNBA games with Gus Johnson, the excitable MSG and CBS play-by-play man, and Matt Devlin, who is now Armstrong’s broadcast partner for Raptors games.

“I don’t have the same highs as when I was coaching, but I don’t have many lows. I’m able to connect with the game and still be around coaches, athletic directors, referees, executives, media and it’s almost like a celebration of the game of basketball.”

Frequent travle is the one drawback to Armstrong’s new career. Since he doesn’t have to spend weeks on the road recruiting, it’s not that much more of a burden than during his coaching days. But the Raptors play 41 road games, in 28 cities — more than twice as many as a college team would.

When Swirsky left Toronto to become the new voice of the Chicago Bulls, 590 had a hole in it’s afternoon lineup. Millman came up with the idea of pairing Armstrong with Doug MacLean, the strongly-opinionated former Columbus Blue Jackets coach and general manager.

“… I feel like I’m much more engaged than when I was coaching. I’m more attentive and queued in on a day-to-day basis. I don’t bring the wins and losses home. I don’t bring the recruiting issues home. If I were coaching, I could be four miles away in the Gallagher Center, and it would be like I was a million miles away, I was so engrossed in it.”

Armstrong still attends several Niagara functions, including home basketball games. He has a close relationship with current coach Joe Mihalich, whom he encouraged to take the job. He gets a warm welcome inside the Gallagher Center, where most people still call him “coach,” something he appreciates.

“Somebody must have been looking out for me,” he said. “I’m the luckiest guy to not only have worked at Niagara, but to have lived in this area for the last 20 years. It’s a great community. It’s got people with soul. I grew up in Brooklyn, and I really like authentic people. Western New York has authentic people.”