Fans settled into their seats at Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn on Jan. 30 to watch the struggling Brooklyn Nets host the NBA’s Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors.
It seemed like an ordinary night for most in attendance, but for one man who had a courtside view, walking into the arena that night had a special meaning.
That man was Raptors’ television analyst Jack Armstrong, a Brooklyn native whose life has been shaped by the game of basketball.
Since the Nets moved to Brooklyn three seasons ago, Armstrong says he feels great pride every time he travels with the Raptors back to his home borough. His journey began in Brooklyn 52 years ago, and he’s enjoyed every step along the way.
Armstrong, the youngest of four children to Irish immigrant parents, is a product of St. Brendan’s, Midwood, parish and Catholic Youth Organization (CYO) basketball and baseball programs.
“Growing up in Brooklyn, the camaraderie and the feeling of community, tremendous competition, the brotherhood of what sports brings, the friendships that you make and the tremendous life lessons that you learn…I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything,” he said. “I’m proud of it. I brag about it.”
Armstrong’s father died of a heart attack at age 48, leaving his mother to care for the 7-year-old Jack and his three older brothers. Working the lunch counter at P.S. 238, Midwood, she was able to put all four children through Catholic grammar school and high school.
“She’s my hero,” Armstrong said of his mother. “I wouldn’t have what I have and my three brothers wouldn’t have what they have if it wasn’t for the sacrifices she made for us.”
On the basketball court, Armstrong got a taste early on of how competitive the game of basketball was in the borough of Kings. One of his opponents was St. Thomas Aquinas, Flatlands, product Chris Mullin, now a Naismith hall of famer.
“Early in life, I figured out that he (Mullin) was really good, and I wasn’t,” Armstrong said. “I figured out I loved sports, but I wasn’t a high-level athlete.”
So to constantly be around the game, Armstrong broke into coaching. While a student at Nazareth R.H.S., East Flatbush, he coached the seventh and eighth-grade CYO basketball teams at St. Brendan’s. Once he enrolled in Fordham University, the Bronx, he went back to be the head coach of Nazareth’s freshman team and assistant on the varsity team.
The rise through the coaching ranks continued, as he joined Fordham’s staff while he was still a student. He coached players only a few years younger than he, so he was able to connect with his team on a personal level.
After earning his undergraduate degree in history, Armstrong began shopping around for an assistant college coaching job. However, Fordham’s head coach Tom Penders valued Armstrong so much that he used the final basketball scholarship to keep Jack on his staff. Armstrong earned his master’s degree in communications and was able to further grow as a coach.
The next stop on his journey was as an assistant coach for Niagara University, where he beat out Jeff Van Gundy, who would later go on to coach the New York Knicks. After just one year, Armstrong was promoted to head coach at Niagara, making him the youngest Division I coach at the time at just 26 years old.
For the next nine years, Armstrong compiled a 100-154 record for the Purple Eagles. However, he said his greatest victory was that every single player that came through his program earned his degree, which he credits to the strong Vincentian ideals of Niagara.
“I’m a huge believer in Catholic education…in the discipline, the structure, the love, the nurturing, the care,” he said.
“At every step along the way from coaching at Nazareth to Fordham to Niagara, I can’t tell you how many life lessons were instilled in me in all those places. I’ve always been a believer that if you’re going to spoil your kids one way, the best way to spoil them is with a Catholic education, because the return on investment is tenfold.”
After a 14-year coaching career, Armstrong was hired as a color analyst working games for the Raptors’ radio station. That position evolved into a role on television, where he is now one of Canada’s most recognizable basketball personalities working for TSN and NBA TV Canada – and not just because of his Brooklyn accent!
The transition from coaching to broadcasting was a smooth one for Armstrong, since he already possessed the vast basketball knowledge base going back to his early days as a CYO coach at St. Brendan’s. He said the main constant has been the time spent in preparation – watching film, talking to players and coaches and keeping up with the news around the league each day.
With the Raptors celebrating their 20th season, Armstrong has been with the team for 17 of those and has seen the franchise grow from an expansion team to a squad that is poised for a deep post-season run. Each night, his basketball pedigree combines with his sense of humor in delivering an entertaining experience for the fans.
“This is the greatest scam going,” Armstrong said. “People actually think I know what I’m talking about it. It’s fun. I try to have fun.”
And most importantly, he knows how blessed he is that he’s able to have all this fun covering the game of basketball – a sport he’s loved since his days growing up in Brooklyn.
“That ball has given me two different careers,” Armstrong said. “I’ve had a career as a coach and a career as a broadcaster because of that little orange ball. I can’t thank that ball enough, because I’ve never worked a day in my life.”
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.