Iowa Men's Basketball

B.J. Armstrong more famous Sunday than when he started for Michael Jordan's Bulls

Armstrong, for those who didn't know, has a basketball resume to be admired

Then-Iowa sophomore guard B.J. Armstrong (#10) drives in a Hawkeyes game against Delaware at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Dec
Then-Iowa sophomore guard B.J. Armstrong (#10) drives in a Hawkeyes game against Delaware at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Dec. 5, 1986. (The Gazette)

B.J. Armstrong, 52 and over two decades removed from his last game as a basketball player, was trending on Twitter Sunday night.

Such is life when you’re part of “The Last Dance” and you did something in your career to rile up Michael Jordan. More about that later in this piece.

I got a sense Armstrong was not a typical college basketball player when I saw him waiting for transportation while in a Seoul shopping district in August 1986.

That was the place to go for the members of the Iowa men’s basketball team when they spent the first week of their 17-day Asia trip in South Korea. Nearly all the Hawkeye players skipped the chance to go to the Demilitarized Zone at the North Korea/South Korea border. Brad Lohaus did go, and expressed disgust his teammates hadn’t joined him. He was right. It was unforgettable.

Those players made repeated trips to Itaewon, though, loading up on clothes. I did, too. I was in the traveling party of about 40, covering it for The Gazette. I didn’t know anything about the shopping area until I got to Seoul, and bought a bunch of $3 Polo shirts. So did many Hawkeye players. Good deals, you know. Although, I don’t remember anyone ever telling me the shirts looked great.

Armstrong, then a month from turning 19 years old and looking more like 14, came to Seoul with a plan. The team had been told in Iowa City about the shopping that awaited them in Seoul, and he was prepared. He wasn’t weighted down with cheap shirts. He waited for a shuttle back to the team’s hotel while sporting new luggage and, if I remember correctly, a new tailored suit or two. All of which were at bargain prices compared to what he would have paid for them back home.

The players on that team — which went 30-5 in 1986-87 and is the last Iowa men’s squad to reach an NCAA Elite Eight — were pretty tight, but there cliques. Armstrong wasn’t in one. He got along very well with everybody, but also seemed just a bit distanced, a bit more serious. Trouble befell some of his classmates on the team before their college careers were done. Armstrong? Just the suggestion of him stepping over the line was preposterous.

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He hadn’t shown a lot in his freshman season under George Raveling, but when Raveling left for USC and Davis came aboard, Iowa’s new coaches quickly saw they had something in the slender guard. He was their No. 1 point guard when the season began.

Just about everyone who has followed Iowa over the last 30 or 35 years have pronounced Andre Woolridge Iowa’s best point guard in that time, case closed. Woolridge was terrific from 1994-95 through 1996-97, no question. He averaged 20.2 points his senior season, and his career 5.9-assist average is Iowa’s best.

Had Armstrong not been surrounded by an assortment of other future NBA players, though, the perception of him at Iowa might have been even more glowing. He would have scored more, for sure. But here’s the thing: He averaged 17.4 points as a junior and 18.6 points as a senior, and that was playing with the Hawkeyes’ all-time leading scorer, Roy Marble.

He is fifth on Iowa’s all-time lists in points and assists, sixth in steals. He scored 35 points twice in his Iowa career. The first time was against Florida State in the 1988 NCAA Tournament and the second was against Rutgers in the 1989 NCAA tourney. Tells you a lot, doesn’t it?

Iowa was 77-25 in Armstrong’s three seasons as a starter. He averaged about five assists per game over his last two seasons. Pretty good player.

Woolridge — and I’ll say it again, he was wonderful — never played in the NBA. Armstrong was the 18th player taken in the 1989 NBA draft and played 747 games in the league.

So let’s flash ahead to the present. There on “The Last Dance” was Armstrong hitting a dagger jumper for the Charlotte Hornets in Chicago as the Hornets beat Jordan’s Bulls to even that 1998 NBA Eastern Conference semifinal at a game apiece. Armstrong celebrated the basket with furious vigor, and Jordan used his former teammate’s reaction as motivation to put the hammer down on Armstrong and the Hornets. The Bulls won the next three games on their way to a sixth NBA title.

Two things to realize, though: Armstrong was a vital player on Chicago’s first three championship teams and earned Jordan’s respect. Also, he was near the tail-end of his career in 1998, didn’t start a game that season, and averaged just four points per game. That basket and that win were Armstrong coming back to Chicago and reminding Jordan and Scottie Pippen and Phil Jackson and Chicago that he had no fear of the big moment himself.

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Armstrong averaged 8.8, 9.9 and 12.3 points for those first three title teams. In 1993-94, the season Jordan was completely out of basketball, Armstrong averaged 14.8 points for a Bulls team that went 55-27.

Jordan seethed when Armstrong made that jumper and then displayed histrionics on the court. As poised as Armstrong almost always was, he would have had to be a robot to have kept his emotions bottled in that moment.

Jordan never was nonchalant after making a clutch shot to seal a playoff win. He didn’t really resent Armstrong for doing so. He just used it to motivate himself. As “The Last Dance” illustrates, he’d look for motivation like that and occasionally invent it if it didn’t actually exist.

Ironically, Armstrong briefly worked in the Bulls’ front office and then became an agent for NBA players, former Bulls NBA Most Valuable Player Derrick Rose. Jordan ended up being the principal owner of the Hornets.

For all Armstrong has accomplished, a primary comment about him in all those tweets that got him trending Sunday was how young he looks, how he must be on an anti-aging serum.

He always looked young. When he was at Iowa and afterward, though, maturity beyond his years was one of his calling cards.

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