ORLANDO – Maybe there are more iconic institutions than Darrell Armstrong in his adopted home of central Florida.
Shaquille O’Neal is one of the most popular athletes in history, who still has a mansion in the Orlando area.
Wesley Snipes was born there and made it to the pinnacle in Hollywood.
Mickey Mouse drives the local economy.
But when it comes to beloved Orlando treasures, Armstrong takes a back seat to nobody. That’s what happens when you are the floor general for the only local professional sports team that loses its two best players yet finds a way to soldier on, maintaining prosperity with a style that became known as “heart and hustle.”
That’s what Armstrong did in the late 1990s and early 2000s in nine seasons with the Orlando Magic.
And it’s why he will be inducted into the franchise’s hall of fame on Friday before the Mavericks play there. The Magic don’t retire numbers, they have a hall of fame and Armstrong will be the ninth member, and fifth player – joining Shaq, Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson and Tracy McGrady.
“That would be an unbelievable starting five,” Armstrong said with a big grin. “We could win a championship with that team. What an honor for me to be talked in the same breath as those guys.”
Nobody would bet against that group, especially Armstrong, not if they know their basketball history. Armstrong was undrafted and, for three years after his college career at Fayetteville State near his hometown of Gastonia, N.C., unwanted by the NBA.
When he finally got a chance with the Magic, he was the last man on the bench in 1995 when they reached the NBA finals, losing to Houston. From that humble beginning, he would grow into a local legend.
“It’s an honor to be recognized for all the things I did in Orlando, and I’m especially proud as a player who wasn’t drafted,” Armstrong said. “I am also thankful to the fans. Magic fans always had my back and supported me. It’s a great honor and I share this with them.
“My college coach, Jeff Capel, always told me if you play hard, good things will happen. That’s something I always tried to do. A lot of magic happened down there.”
Armstrong, who has been an assistant coach with the Mavericks since 2009, was both the Most Improved Player and the Sixth Man Award winner in 1998-99. It’s the only time a player has won both honors in the same season.
“Darrell’s a legend in Orlando,” coach Rick Carlisle said. When you hear people talk about Orlando Magic players – and this is interesting because I was watching one of their games and their announcers were talking about Darrell being inducted and what he has meant to the franchise – and they were saying that there is probably no more beloved player than Darrell Armstrong, because of what he stood for as a competitor, as a winner, as a guy that was an ultimate teammate.
“So I know this will be a very special moment for him. And he’s a very important guy to us, too.”
Armstrong started with the Magic very unceremoniously. He played just three games in 1994-95, then 13 the following season.
Those two years were wildly successful for the organization. O’Neal, Hardaway and Anderson lost in the NBA finals in ’95 and were conference finalists the following season.
Then, the unthinkable happened. Or maybe it was the inevitable that happened. Shaq left. He wanted to be part of a bigger market. So he bolted to the Lakers.
The team instantly took on a different personality. And Armstrong would be central to the transformation. It became even more pronounced after the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season, when Hardaway was traded to Phoenix.
In 1996-97, the year after Shaq left, Armstrong became a fringe rotation player, logging 15 minutes per game and gaining a reputation as a hard-nosed point guard who would put team above himself no matter the circumstance.
That resonated with Orlando.
At a period of time when big men were dominating the league, losing Shaquille O’Neal for nothing in return should have been a death sentence. At the time, he was in the same conversation with Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing.
And then, to lose Hardaway, it seemed that rebuilding was the only answer. But Armstrong had other ideas.
“It was like a mass exodus,” Mavericks president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson said. “To watch the monsters walk out that door and he’s the point guard, the coach on the floor and the heat falls on that position. He did that city justice for years and years, made playoffs. He’s got very, very special DNA.
“DA is an absolute piece of NBA gold. You think about where he came from, humble beginnings and the NBA career he had – it was smarts, good old-fashioned All-American work ethic, hustle. And he’s taken that same DNA into coaching and we’re blessed and lucky to have him as a Maverick.”
With the cast reduced to Armstrong, Bo Outlaw, Pat Garrity and a rising young center named Ben Wallace, the Magic’s “heart and hustle” team became a popular group because they played as hard as any team. They did not make the playoffs in that 1999-2000 season, the first under Doc Rivers as coach. But they finished 41-41, despite an eight-game losing streak and two five-game skids early in the season.
They won 10 of their last 15 games and missed the playoffs by one game. But that team remains one that lives in the hearts of the locals.
Armstrong embodied exactly what that team came to be known for. He was the emotional glue and got by on grit, hustle, resourcefulness and pure heart. And he had more talent than anybody gave him credit for. He also had the good fortune of playing for a couple of coaches who had a great appreciation for guys like Armstrong – Chuck Daly and Doc Rivers.
“Chuck always had my back,” Armstrong said. “He used to say to the media that my heart was bigger than my whole body. He was incredible. When I tore my rotator cuff and I couldn’t finish the season, I came back and signed my big deal, then win sixth man and most improved, Chuck always rewarded hard play.
“And Doc was the same way. When Doc took over, that’s when we had the heart-and-hustle team. And he put the keys in my hand.”
Said Magic CEO Alex Martins: “During his nine seasons with the Orlando Magic, Darrell Armstrong gave everything he had to the organization, both on the court and in our community. Fans always look back fondly at our ‘heart and hustle’ era, and Darrell was the leader of that group that left it all on the court 20 years ago. We are thrilled to induct him into the Orlando Magic Hall of Fame.”
As a member of the Magic, Armstrong averaged 11.7 points, 5.1 assists, 3.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game – relatively modest numbers for a player who is so revered. While there is no way to document this, he surely led the league in charges taken – an art he still instructs Maverick players on to this day.
“A lot of guys in this league don’t want to take charges,” Armstrong said. “Thank God I learned how to take a charge. It’s an art. I learned from my high school coach. When the guy touches you, fall back and yell. It really taught me how to take a charge. It was an art, just knowing how to do it.”
Armstrong would go on to play for New Orleans, Dallas, Indiana and New Jersey before retiring as a player. His 114 games played in Dallas included 62 in 2005-06 as part of the team that made the NBA finals before losing to Miami.
But he made his legacy with the Magic, where he was a true underdog story. He was never drafted despite a standout career at Fayetteville State. He not only was a terrific point guard, he was also a kicker on the football team for a season. He made one game-winning field goal in the closing seconds of a game and remains an avid football fan, particularly of his favorite team, the Washington Redskins.
He still recalls fondly his days as a kicker in college.
“My fifth year, last year, coach (Jeff) Capel told me the field-goal kicker quit and they needed somebody to kick asked me if I wanted to kick for them,” Armstrong said, referring to Jeff Capel, who was basketball coach at Fayetteville State at the time. “I said, ‘I don’t know, it’s hot out there and I haven’t kicked in a while.’
“But I ended up doing it. And my first one was a 47-yarder against Terry Bowden at Samford at the time. And the next year, he went to Auburn and went 11-0 but couldn’t go to the (bowls) because of probation.”
He had a special-teams coach that believed Armstrong was good enough to kick in the NFL, but he knew basketball would be his calling. It was played in the air conditioned comfort indoors, usually.
Armstrong said he’ll have about 30 or 40 friends and family in Orlando for the occasion Friday, which starts with a 4 p.m. ceremony and also will include a celebration during the game. He said he’s certain he will have to draw a line and turn some people away from his entourage, but he knows they’ll understand.
“It’s a heart and hustle night,” Armstrong said. “It’s an honor for me, from where I came from, a 13th man on a 13-man team my first year, and only year playing in high school. And now I’m here getting into the hall of fame with four outstanding guys. You can’t ask for any more than that.”