June 25, 2011
BY ALEX PODLOGAR
FSU SPORTS INFORMATION
Name a sport at Fayetteville State, and Ray McDougal has probably had a hand in it somehow over the decades.
Known mostly for the stacks of CIAA golf championships he has accrued, McDougal has also been, for short periods in the past, the Broncos head football and head basketball coach. But it was his fusion from director of intramurals to head basketball coach in 1988 that enabled him to get a close-up view of a prodigious, albeit raw, talent.
"He could just get up," marvels McDougal today. "And I knew him from when he played intramurals. He was the first one I looked up."
Quickly, the young man moved up the depth chart in practice, prompting McDougal to have a frank discussion with his assistant coach Bobby Henderson, now the successful bowling coach at FSU.
"It came down to that last spot of the starting five, and I thought we should start him," McDougal reflects. "I like to think I was a pretty good judge of talent."
Well, to a point anyway.
"To be honest, I didn't think he was tall enough to make it at the next level," muses McDougal. "But he never looked back."
Darrell Armstrong felt it deep in his gut. Never far from the surface, Armstrong could finally feel the sinking crud of failure melt away from the inside. His uniform no longer consisted of a tank and shorts, but of a nattily tailored expensive suit. His view from the bench as a Dallas Mavericks assistant coach may have been similar to that from his waning days in the league, but the rush to center court at AmericanAirlines Arena was altogether new.
There, as the Miami Heat fans filed out and owner Mark Cuban made like Jim Valvano looking for someone to hug, Armstrong found himself celebrating his long-awaited first NBA Championship with men who were not that long ago fellow teammates. He could rejoice with Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Terry and Cuban, knowing that together they had finally exorcised the demon that was the 2006 NBA Finals loss to the Heat.
"It was just pure joy," Armstrong can say now, reflecting back as he takes a break from the youth basketball camp that benefits his foundation, The Darrell Armstrong Foundation for Premature Babies, in Orlando, Fla. "We could rejoice the fact that we got the 2006 failure off of me and Dirk and Jet Terry - the whole organization. We knew we had that championship, and we knew we gave it away. It was just pure elation, of taking care of business and getting the job done."
As a reserve guard for the Mavericks after years spent on a winding road to NBA success, Armstrong had found it hard to shake what could have been after Dallas squandered a 2-0 series lead to Shaquille O'Neal, Pat Riley and a young Dwyane Wade.
It was a crushing blow, and then only two years later, Armstrong knew his playing days had to end. He retired.
But the Mavericks called only days later. Armstrong turned in his hightops for a clipboard. He was back in the game.
A NEW GAME
He was a football player first and foremost, and a basketball player in the blacktop sense only. But when Ashbrook High in Gastonia, N.C., fell to mighty Greensboro Page in the state football championship his senior season, Armstrong felt something empty inside of him. He needed a game.
And so for the first time, he went out for basketball. Just 6 feet tall but wiry strong, Armstrong was a good enough athlete. He could run for days. He could defend. He could talk.
And he could dunk.
But he couldn't shoot. And his being a senior gave him little seniority ahead of guys who had already been in Joe Shepherd's basketball program.
But Shepherd didn't turn Armstrong away.
"I liked Darrell's energy level, his athletic ability and I knew he'd help in practice," recalls Shepherd. "But I couldn't promise him any playing time.
"I remember I went down the hall and took him out of class one day, and I told him right there, `I don't know if I'm going to keep you or not, but if I do, you're the 13th guy on a 13-man team."
Armstrong was sold.
"The 13th man on a 13-man team?" recalls Armstrong. "That's all I needed to hear."
Armstrong didn't play much out of the gate. Then a holiday tournament rolled around. Tired legs from back-to-back games led to the regulars reaching, and the foul trouble began to mount up. Shepherd looked to the end of his bench and found an eager Armstrong.
"I can remember going in and just getting after it," Armstrong says. "I had a few steals and I had a dunk. From there, I saw more and more time."
The NBA, though, was never on his mind. Why would it be?
"He was one of our best players, and we ended up using him as our sixth man," says Shepherd, who now serves as a coach at South Point High School in Belmont, N.C. "He won out Most Improved Player award, but he only started one game, and that was on senior night."
Problem was, Armstrong wasn't on the minds of any Division-1 football coaches, either. Or Division-II ones, for that matter.
Still, Darrell Armstrong enrolled at Fayetteville State. He had a school. He didn't have a game.
But he had some old Converse Chuck Taylor shoes.
Armstrong will tell you he was first a football player. But at 6-0, 160 pounds, he didn't necessarily look like one. Especially in those old Chuck Taylors.
Fayetteville State coach Robert Pulliam took one look at the shoes and shook his head.
"He told me only sissies wear those shoes," laughs Armstrong now.
Armstrong teed the football up. He took his stance. Three steps later, everything changed.
"Coach's mouth dropped open real wide when I kicked the ball," quips Armstrong.
He had his game again. Darrell Armstrong was a Fayetteville State Bronco. In the 1990 and 1991 seasons, he kicked field goals of 47 yards, setting a Fayetteville State record that stood for 18 years until current Broncos kicker Austin Turner broke it with a 49-yarder in 2009.
But Chuck Taylors, back in the day, were primarily basketball shoes.
THE NEXT STEP
His career winding down, Armstrong still knew a lot of people in the league. Influential people. And they all had the same advice: keep your materials together and be ready for your shot when it comes.
"As a point guard, you're basically a head coach on the floor," says Armstrong. "You have to see everything, make sure everything and everybody are in the right spots. That was my job. I wasn't only a scorer, but I controlled the whole game."
That experience -- 17 years in professional basketball, 14 seasons in the NBA, big awards on his mantle: the 1999 NBA Sixth Man of the Year and its Most Improved Player - prepared Armstrong for his next move. He had averaged 8.2 points per game and 4.0 assists in his NBA career, rising to fame with the Orlando Magic, where he led the team to nine consecutive seasons without a losing record. Armstrong averaged a career-high 16.2 ppg in 1999-2000 and followed that with 15.9 ppg and a career-high 7.0 assists a game a year later.
Armstrong played for five NBA teams, including the Mavericks from 2004-2006. Released by the Indiana Pacers a year later though, and after 50 games with the New Jersey Nets in 2007-08, a 39-year-old Armstrong knew it was time to make his next move - to the bench.
"A lot of coaches told me they believed I could be a good coach in this league," says Armstrong.
Then-Dallas coach Avery Johnson, whom Armstrong played for with the Mavs, was one of them. And when Armstrong hung 'em up, Johnson had a place for him. Rick Carlisle, the current Dallas head coach, who coached the Pacers when Armstrong played there in 2007, agreed with that assessment when he came to the Mavericks a year later.
The rest is recent history. NBA Championship history.
A REASON TO BELIEVE
Ray McDougal, who had become the Broncos' new interim basketball coach, had given up his intramural duties to take over the reins of the football program for a second time in the late 1980's. And so he had in-depth knowledge of Armstrong on both the gridiron and the hardwood.
But something had been missing for Armstrong. His confidence shaken by poor grades - "I just partied too much that first year at Fayetteville State," he explains - Armstrong knew during his freshman season he wouldn't be able to go out for basketball.
But McDougal knew what Armstrong could do on the hardwood. He implored the skinny kid from Gastonia to come out for the team for the 1988-89 season.
"I would do things sometimes," Armstrong says, "just to see if I could do it, and that would bring my confidence up."
A year after starting for McDougal on a team that included seven walk-ons, in came new coach Jeff Capel, who would prove to be a monumental influence on Armstrong.
"Coach Capel really worked on me," says Armstrong. "He did everything for me physically, taught me how to really shoot. But what he did for me mentally was huge for my confidence. He was the first coach who really believed I could get to the next level."
Armstrong got there, but it took a few stops. He knocked around basketball's minor leagues in the USBL, CBA and GBA for three years, with trips home and jobs working third shift at the mill mixing in between longshot hoop dreams. Eventually, though, he made it overseas to Greece and Spain, and Armstrong was soon making a career in basketball for himself, playing so well that another foreign team was willing to pay him $100,000 more than the offer that came from an NBA team.
The money didn't matter. Armstrong opted for the NBA.
"Like I said," says McDougal, "he never looked back."
Armstrong can take the time to look back now. It's been several days since the Mavericks celebrated in Miami. There have been parties in South Beach, back in Dallas, a huge parade, and more parties. Four days into his youth basketball camp, Armstrong could finally make an appearance.
His foundation is raising money to fund a child development center in Orlando, where Armstrong is still beloved for a reputation as one of the game's hardest workers and tenacious defenders and scorers. A decade ago, the organization raised enough money to purchase an ambulance to be used exclusively to transport premature infants. Two of Armstrong's children were born prematurely.
This is where he finds much of his passion. Armstrong speaks to kids at the camp, offers the easy smile and genuinely comes off as just another guy.
"I hear it all the time," he jokes. "I hear somebody say, `There's Darrell Armstrong.' And then a kid says, `Who's that?'"
That, one could point out now, is an NBA Champion. A real player, a teammate of Dirk's, a coach of Jason Kidd.
"Some might say that's just a D-II level, a small black college," Armstrong says of Fayetteville State. "But one thing that's always been with me -- and Coach Capel said it to me and I've always remembered it - if you play hard, good things will happen. That's what I've always done. I always practiced hard. I always competed.
"I you can play, they'll find you. That's what Coach Capel always told me. You can be found anywhere."
"Now, I don't know if they found me. But I found them."