Iowa Men's Basketball

B.J. Armstrong came "home" to Iowa City this weekend

Former Hawkeye basketball star still means a lot to Iowa fans

B.J. Armstrong in the Kinnick Stadium press box Saturday
B.J. Armstrong in the Kinnick Stadium press box Saturday

IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa’s Homecoming weekend was just that for B.J. Armstrong.

“I’ve always considered this home,” Armstrong said Saturday morning from the Kinnick Stadium press box. “People have always welcomed me with open arms, so it’s great to be among family and friends.

“As much change as you have here, some things remain the same. It has the same feel, the same warmth that I remember 30, 35 years ago.”

For older Hawkeye fans, seeing Armstrong’s smile Friday night as he was the grand marshal in the Homecoming parade was a piece of home for them. You trip back in time to the late 1980s, when things were better for Hawkeyes men’s basketball than they’ve ever been since. There was Armstrong, a basketball man from Detroit with a baby face, the point guard who helped lead Iowa to a 97-37 record from 1985-86 to 1988-89 including a 46-26 Big Ten mark.

Six of those victories came in NCAA tournaments. Included were three in Iowa’s deepest NCAA run of the last 38 years, when they reached the Elite Eight in 1987 before an 84-81 loss to UNLV in Seattle’s Kingdome that still haunts Hawkeyeland. A 58-42 halftime lead dissolved.

“I just saw (Iowa teammate) Kevin Gamble recently,” Armstrong said, “and we were still romanticizing about that year and what we could have done to win that game. Every time I see those guys from UNLV they always give me a hard time.

“I had a chance yesterday to have lunch with Coach (Tom) Davis and we were still talking about that game, what we could have done.”

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But the good times that 1986-87 team produced were so good. A 30-5 record. Some truly epic comebacks. The first and only No. 1 national ranking in program history. A racehorse style with game-long full-court pressure in Davis’ first season here that was new and vexing to the rest of the Big Ten.

When the Hawkeyes hung 101 points on Bob Knight’s Indiana team that season, it confirmed this was a different animal. It was because of style, yes. But it was primarily about the talent that meshed with the style so beautifully.

Seven players from that team played at least a little in the NBA, and Armstrong had a 747-game career that included having a significant role with three of the Chicago Bulls’ world-championship teams.

Playing here, he said, “was great for me. Really helped me get ready for the NBA. Because I was used to the tempo and the style of how we played and how we extended the game to a 94-foot game. All the players, we loved playing in that style.”

No one who observed Armstrong as a player or person doubted he’d do well at whatever he pursued. His playing career pivoted into something quite different. After stints with the Bulls’ front office and ESPN, he became a player agent.

He has been with the high-powered Wasserman Media Group since 2007, is an executive vice president and managing executive of basketball operations there, and has represented many pro basketball players including former NBA Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose.

So this is a person who has scaled heights, then scaled more. He played in an NBA All-Star Game a quarter-century ago, he was a prominent player in the NBA Finals. Yet, on Friday night in Iowa City, the 52-year-old had butterflies.

“I was nervous,” Armstrong said about the parade. “I didn’t know really what to expect. I just can’t believe the turnout that they had for the Homecoming parade. I thought it was a joke at first when they asked me to do it. I was like ‘You need important people to do that, right?’

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“But it was fun. And I had a lot of fun with it. … It was really fun to drive through campus in a Corvette and not get a ticket.”

He grinned his grin as he said that, and for a moment 52 was 19 and 2019 was 1987.

Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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