Speak to anyone who has interacted with Jack Armstrong, longtime radio and television color analyst for the Toronto Raptors, and they’ll tell you the story of how he took over the piano bar scene. Four years ago, Armstrong walked into a piano salon on New York’s Fifth Avenue with current broadcast partner Matt Devlin and Alex McKechnie, the Raptors’ vice president of player care and performance. It was holiday season; They sang Christmas carols. When all three were on the touchline, Devlin elbowed Armstrong.
“You’re better than that guy,” Devlin whispered.
“Me,” said Armstrong.
Devlin saw the look in Armstrong’s eyes.
“You want to sing.”
Devlin continued to do what any capable friend would have done in such a situation. He went to the piano bar and addressed the crowd. “Excuse me, everyone,” he said. “Do you mind if I introduce someone who came from a recent tour? Ladies and gentlemen, it is my great honor to introduce you to John Joseph Armstrong.
Fast forward four years to an early December evening at Danforth Music Hall, a 104-year-old hall on Toronto’s east side, where hundreds of fans gathered for Jack Armstrong’s celebratory chant, a live concert promoting Armstrong’s very authentic music. Christmas album, the proceeds of which go to charity. In a way, it was a night like any other. Little has changed, not even the way Devlin greeted Armstrong on stage. “The difference between tonight and then tonight,” Devlin joked, “is that no one will be on the phone and googling.” John Joseph Armstrong“.
He was right. Jack, after all, was the reason we were all there. We wanted to hear him sing all the Christmas songs he’d been humming and humming on the radio for years, to enjoy the absurdity of the moment, to see his face on the ugly Christmas sweaters, on the vinyl covers.
Armstrong, who turned 60 in January, will be the first to tell you he’s a scammer: a burnt-out Middle Division I basketball coach who failed at the top, landing a role as a radio analyst with the Raptors in the same season as a rookie. Vince Carter changed the landscape of Canadian basketball forever. Over the next 25 years, he turned it all into a kind of transnational celebrity: Armstrong is the only NBA broadcaster who records two holiday albums and perhaps the only person besides Drake who knows what it’s like to boil inside mink coat with teddy bear because he wore it for an hour during a home game against the Brooklyn Nets in late November. On Sunday, he will march through downtown as grand marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Toronto.
Sitting on the mezzanine back in December, I watched the spotlight descend on Armstrong, who is now in his 25th season covering the Raptors. He was in his element, receiving a standing ovation from Raptors fans (and more than a few Buffalo drinking buddies) who gathered to celebrate the charming life of Jack Armstrong, Canada’s least likely basketball icon.
Get that gaa-baja out of here!
Armstrong has long forgotten the moment responsible for the visceral challenge that has become one of the most iconic phrases in modern NBA broadcasting. But his former partner Chuck Swirsky, the current radio announcer for the Chicago Bulls, who has been calling Armstrong’s Raptors games for 10 years, remembers it clearly.
“I’ll tell you how it all started,” Swirsky said. “He started when we picked up Keon Clark.”
Clark, a skinny 6-foot-11 center acquired mid-season in 2001 in a trade with Denver, was a phenomenal blocker; in his 33rd game for the Raptor, Clark blocked 12 shots in 28 minutes off the bench. “I mean, Keon blocked those second-row shots from the side of the court,” Swirsky continued. “He threw the ball into the stands.”
Blocks became so commonplace, the thought of challenging Clark on the ring was so useless that one night Armstrong abandoned the contempt within himself in a way only a New Yorker could.
Get that gaa-baja out of here!
“And I thought FINE“ Svirsky said. “It will play.”
City of Toronto and Jack Armstrong team up to remind you #recycle right Information: https://t.co/N9gwaXOQcI #knowbeforeyouth #CityTO pic.twitter.com/ls7qK5P7wD
— City of Toronto (@cityoftoronto) June 10, 2018
In the decades that followed, this call became inevitable—naturally, the City of Toronto used it to conduct a PSA for recycling. When Jakob Poeltle returned to Toronto after the Raptors trade deadline, a local broadcast showed a 2018 clip from the team’s behind-the-scenes documentary. outdoor gymwhere young Pöltl and Pascal Siakam do their best get that gaa-bag out of hereas if it were a rite of passage. Armstrong’s pitch has changed somewhat over the decades, from what was once a full-throated insult to a high-pitched, whimpering screech of self-parody, a way to change his tone that legendary college basketball announcer Bill Raftery once suggested he try. But its root point of origin remains the same.
“People ask me how you came up with get this garbage out of here? I think it’s easy,” said Armstrong. “You play in a schoolyard in Brooklyn, you get blocked, people tell you to get this shit out of here, you know? Now, this is a family show, I can’t use it, so I came up with “garbage”. So for me it all comes together – there is something in New York, in his soul. People are pretty rude and people are pretty honest and pretty straight forward. It’s just the soul of New York basketball.”
Armstrong grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn and was the youngest of four sons. His father and mother are Irish immigrants who found each other at a dance in the Bronx. His mother worked as a barmaid at PS 238, where young Stephon Marbury went to elementary school. Armstrong fell in love with basketball when he was 7 years old, the same year his 48-year-old father died of a heart attack. He dribbled his red, white, and blue ABA ball with his right hand down the road to the school yard while dribbled home with his left. He played one-on-one with other kids at the only street club in the neighborhood – each of them betting money on the ABA team to represent: You were Virginia Squires, San Diego Conquistadors, Kentucky Colonels, New York Nets. He played with and against Hall of Famer Chris Mullin, a childhood friend. There has never been a question of who is better. “You know early on that he’s really good and you’re not,” Armstrong said.
But he never gave up on his hoop dreams. Armstrong coached seventh graders when he was 16 and coached upperclassmen as soon as he entered Fordham University, where he found his place on the bench as an alumni assistant. His presence and energy on the bench was enough for Fordham head coach Tom Penders to use his latest basketball scholarship to keep Armstrong on the staff. It paid for his master’s degree in communications, a degree that meant absolutely nothing to Armstrong. Little did he know that he would be joining a respected line of Fordham broadcasters: Vin Scully, Mike Breen, Michael Kay. “The difference is that all these guys went to school and wanted to do it,” he said. “You know, I took a degree to get a degree because it paid for it. And here I am in my second career, 25 years in communications. So figure it out, okay?
There’s something that Armstrong and Devlin often throw out during broadcasts, a sort of incredulity in the harsh reality that actor Rob Lowe, famous for his youth and good looks, is only a year younger than Jack. “He’s got a lot of highway miles,” Jack said. “I got city miles for them.” Most of the damage to his odometer came from the nine years he spent as head coach at Niagara University, a job he inherited after just one year on campus as an assistant. He was only 26 years old when he was promoted in 1989. In his first four years, he was the youngest coach in Division I basketball. By the end of his tenure, the stresses had taken their toll: worrying about hiring, losing or transferring players, raising funds, all for a team that was losing many more games than it was winning. . He brought depression home to his wife and three young adopted sons. He was fired a year before the end of the contract. Playing for money at home, he auditioned for a Raptors radio analyst role, receiving numerous referrals from fellow coaches he made along the way, including Niagara alum Hubie Brown.
Armstrong thought it would be a trial run for just one year. Coaching was still in his future. But his friends were convinced of the reality that would follow him for the next two decades if he returned to coaching: Ideally, take on the role of lead assistant at a school like Ohio State, work there for four years, and then fill the coaching position. to Bowling Green, where you are sure to be fired in five years, and so on. “You did it,” Armstrong recalled their words. “You coached for nine years as the head coach of the first division. You did it. What’s wrong with the new chapter?
Ask two of Armstrong’s longtime associates about their favorite on-air memories with Jack, and you’ll find the theme: There are few things more mind-boggling than being caught off guard by Armstrong…