1989 a number…another summer…
I’d turned 21 in March and wanted to get out of Delaware for a late fall evening. My son’s mother and I decided on the Phoenix night club on 7th and Arch Streets in Philly. Nice spot and I couldn’t wait to see those ear rings jingle for it’s what we did as a couple and also made her happy which was always good. This was the era of Hammer pants and box fades, so I was rocking both with presumably no conscious this particular night. I had shiny shoes, no socks and everything sliding across the floor like Kwame’s answer to Morris Day. My goodness, please no one show me any pictures because I’ll damn sure tell you it wasn’t me…trust.
We walk into the club which is jam packed and I walk right into B.J. Armstrong, who was recently drafted out of Iowa with the 18th pick and having a decent rookie year with the Chicago Bulls. Mike was mobbed on the dance floor and I was always the intuitive type, so I struck up a conversation with B.J. based on his choice of beverage which happened to be milk. Let me get something straight, I don’t bring this up to embarrass B.J. by any means. What it showed me early on was his willingness to be consistently focused to become the best. He told me he was determined early on in his career to win a championship. I always remembered the look in his eye. It was a look I hadn’t seen until I recently met Chris Paul. The next year the Bulls won their first of what we all know would be many championships. I remember telling B.J. that night after a couple of whiskey sours, I was going to include him in a future book. Hey I was 21, so what do you expect. He had this look on his face like who is this cat? No more drinks for him, but he gave me his autograph anyway. To this day, inexplicably it’s the only autograph I’ve ever asked for.
I came in contact with BJ recently through a mutual friend, a friend I trust. A friend who demands the best of those he associates with. It seemed like my life has gone full circle. So much has changed since 1989 and I’ve began writing the book I spoke of prematurely with B.J. half tipsy.
When we did this interview, I remember the effect it had on me as a writer. The phone conversation became an inspirational and as well as integral part of my recent development because I seek the truth in part because of it. You all know what I do is the interview, so here’s one that hopefully will let you in on B.J Armstrong’s basketball evolution from player, to ESPN TV analyst and now into the realm of successful sports agent.
Michael Tillery: I know it was a while back BJ, but what did you take from your college years?
BJ Armstrong: It was a great experience. As a young kid coming from Detroit, Michigan, I had the chance to experience a side of life I hadn’t previously growing up in the city. Going to school at the University of Iowa was an interesting experience. It was so opposite of how I grew up. I went there with an open mind with the mindset that I didn’t know what to expect. When I had the opportunity to visit, I saw that the people were what made it a place I wanted to be a part of. The people stood out to me. They were outstanding and looking back on it I’m glad I made the decision to attend the University of Iowa.
MT: How did Michigan let you get out of the state with your skill set?
BJ: Michigan was stacked. Michigan had great teams, especially of that era. At that particular time, they were number one in the country with Roy Tarpley, Antoine Joubert, Gary Grant and Richard Relford, so they definitely weren’t short on talent. Michigan State had Sam Vincent, Scott Skiles and others. There was a plethora of talent at that particular time to go around in the state. I was just one of many guys coming up through the system. I thought Iowa was the best place for me and also it addressed a need for my parents to be able to see me perform on the collegiate level.
MT: Why is Detroit such a hotbed for basketball?
BJ: I think it’s the environment. Basketball in the city has always been a year round thing there. The talent level, you can always find a run. If you want to find out how good you are, go down to the city and stay down there all day and all night and play and you will find out. The best players always find each other. It’s the same today. Detroit has always been that way as far as I remember. My dad told me the same thing. I suspect 40 to 50 years from now, it probably won’t change. Basketball has always been a high priority for youth in the city of Detroit.
MT: Was Detroit your squad growing up?
BJ: I was always a Pistons fan. My dad and I would always root for the Pistons when they played at Cobo Hall and later the Silverdome before they settled into where they are now the Palace in Auburn Hills. I remember being a young man watching Dave Bing and then Isiah coming around and Bob Lanier and all the Pistons that have come through there over the years.
MT: Was there someone you modeled your game after? When I see Chris Paul I see you.
BJ: That kid is pretty good. I wish I was as talented as him. He’s very talented. You know, my dad always took me around. I never really modeled my game after any one player. I grew up playing in the streets. My dad always stressed two things to me: If you have talent, it’s best that you hone that talent and do it the best you can. The second thing is you gotta be tough. If you are going to be good at anything in life, you gotta work. I just kept those two things in mind. Growing up, I knew what I could do, and I was going to do that very very well. I was definitely going to work, so the only way you were going to beat me was by outworking me. It wasn’t going to be because I wasn’t going to show up, not be prepared, nervous or scared. I wanted to see if you were going to work and also how much talent you had, because of my dad. Then he would say go out there and see if I’m wrong. To this day, I’m still reminded of that in my everyday life. Do what you do and do it hard. One of the most common traits of successful people is that they work hard, so don’t be different. That’s provided me a lot of inspiration of the years. I’m still trying to prove myself and I’ll continue to do so as I move on.
MT: I remember seeing you on TNT putting on the Bulls hat. Describe your feeling at that moment of being drafted into the NBA, especially to Chicago.
BJ: As a young man you always have dreams of playing in the NBA. Up until that time, it was always just a dream. I remember after I was drafted and thinking to myself…Wow, you’ve done it! All the hard work and people that helped me along the way, all the friends I had, and things that it took for me to get to that point came back to me. I remember once I got there having a burden of now that I’m here am I just happy to be here? Getting there was just a small portion of it. Being a contributing member of a championship team was really what I was shooting for. Of course I was thrilled to be drafted, but there were many thousands of players before me that were in the same position and never got the chance to be a part of a championship caliber team. There were some mixed emotions. It was time for me to get to work and make the best of it.
MT: Playing various sports growing up I relished going up against certain people. As a professional, was there someone you got up for?
BJ: Once I got to the NBA, I really transformed the way I thought about sports. It became very apparent to me sports are what I did in high school. Sports are what I did in the CYO league and all the little leagues I played in. I kind of suspected the business side when I got to college. Once I got to the pros, I began to really understand the business of professional sports. I completely stopped competing at a certain level once I got there. I had to bring it every night and not just get up for one game. I wanted to be 15-18 points every night no matter what. The person I found most interesting was me. It didn’t matter if I was playing against a great player like Isiah Thomas or someone that no one had ever heard of. The goal was every night for the team I was playing for to show my teammates this is what they were going to get from BJ no matter what. I don’t care if it was the NBA Finals or in the regular season or in the summer league. I was going to be solid across the board every time I played. It was kind of weird, but I began to look within myself for my energy and inner strength. I didn’t have people that inspired me.
MT: You finally get past Detroit and are headed into the NBA Finals to face Magic and the Lakers. You alluded to the feeling you had when you were drafted, how did it compare or contrast when you pull up to the arena for Game 1?
BJ: Well it was the first time I had been in an unknown territory, all of us. No one on the team had ever reached that level of excellence on the professional level. Every shot, every pass, every game, every dribble was uncharted territory. I just remember us going into that series without knowing anything. The only thing we did know was that we didn’t know, if that makes sense, so it was an incredible experience because of the uncertainty. We were going to go out there, give it our best and kind of report back what happened at the end. I remember the camaraderie that we had, the effort we put into it and the responsibility. The first time, we didn’t win Game 1, so we were just kind of bright eyed, young kids and fortunately for us we were able to put it together and win the series. Not knowing was the thing that stuck out to me about the whole experience.
MT: So talk about going up against one of the most valued point guards of all time, and someone also from Michigan, Magic Johnson. Did you have a sense of pride going up against someone you watched for so many years?
BJ: I’d watched Magic basically my entire childhood. Everyone talked about him in Detroit. I’d gotten a chance to see him play in high school, then Michigan State, so I followed his whole career. Then all of the sudden it dawned on me that here I am competing against a guy I had come to respect as a professional basketball player because of what he had done. Magic was not just a basketball player who worked hard, he was also an entertainer. So I told you about the business aspect, now I’m beginning to understand the entertainment side of sports. There are a lot of personalities, but there are guys who affect the top and bottom line. The bottom line is to win the game, but the top line is to put people in the seats. I remember seeing and feeling the Michael vs. Magic hype. Both guys understood their role in the NBA. I knew Michael because I was with him everyday, but then I saw another guy who understood the same dynamic that you could be entertaining.
MT: What did you learn from the combination of Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson?
BJ: This is the thing that I understand about both of those guys, those teams understood what the bottom line in sports is that it’s a business. When it’s time to play in that 94 X 50 area, whatever is going on off the court, whatever is going on in your personal life, whatever is going on in the locker room – you don’t bring that to the court. Their professionalism about the game of basketball is impeccable. When it’s time to practice, it’s time to practice. When it’s time to play, it’s time to perform. It’s not time to get ready for the game. It’s not time to talk about the game. It was all about performance. If you aren’t ready to perform, then you shouldn’t show up. Their professionalism regarding the bottom line was what sports are all about. All the other things, the analyzing, criticizing, hypothesizing about the game of basketball, those are for people who don’t understand what performance is all about. That’s the x factor in sports, that’s the x factor in business, the performance. Phil demanded performance and Michael Jordan performed. It was the perfect combination and demanded that every player hold themselves accountable and responsible. It was very simple to me. It wasn’t complicated. If you aren’t ready to perform, then professional sports are not for you.
MT: Last question on the NBA. How would you look back on your career both personal and professional?
BJ: It was a journey. What I thought the NBA was really about was different that what it really was. Once it was all over with, I remember thinking to myself after I played my last game that without the benefit of experience, no one is going to know what to do. We all have our imagination of what pro sports are, what it would be like to play it or what it would be like to dream of playing on a championship team. Without the experience you just have no idea. I remember thinking what did I really know about life after that last game and it was probably nothing because I hadn’t experienced everything. You have to remain humble with an open mind and always be open for suggestions. I was very humbled by the experience.
MT: After the NBA did you jump right into television or did you take some time off?
BJ: After the NBA I was the assistant GM for the Chicago Bulls. I did that for five years right after I retired.
MT: That’s right. I remember how eloquent you were on ESPN. You knew your stuff are seemed really comfortable. You definitely had a future in the biz.
BJ: Yeah I did that for five years then I went into television at ESPN–which was another interesting experience–and then into what I’m currently doing now. I find things very interesting, especially how the different perspectives of basketball are relayed.
MT: There had to be a demand for you. What I’m trying to get a sense of is why did you leave media?
BJ: I left the media for really one reason. There are people who talk about things and there are people who do things. Am I going to be a person who talks about what could be done or am I going to be an active participant of the problem or the solution? My personality is to be part of the solution. I’m not a person who needs to point out how come and why. They are just opinions. I’m more of a factual person. I can show you better than I can tell you. I never wanted to become an injustice collector. If you know what to do, then you should be doing it. Everyone makes mistakes. I just made mine in front of millions of people. You should be an example of excellence. To me, there is no argument or debate about what sports really are. It’s entertainment. It’s not what I wanted it to be, it’s what it really is. That was my decision to leave. I enjoyed my time there. I learned a lot and made some great friends.
MT: So you leave ESPN and become a sports agent. How did you hook up with Wasserman Media Group?
BJ: After the Bulls experience, as a player I always respected the huge business aspect. I wanted to understand how decisions were made. I wanted to know how people were drafted, traded, free agency, putting together a team and dealing with coaches, owners and media. It became very apparent that all these owners were very successful businessmen and the business of sports is very profitable. That was the first thing that I learned. I had to hold myself accountable for the business that it is. How can I share my experiences of not what I’ve heard about it, but what it really is? You have to understand as a professional, a level of excellence that’s unparalleled, because you are one of three hundred people. How can I get to that audience as quickly as I can? Once I began to look at the audience I was attracted to the players, because I was not attracted to fans or owners. I understood where I could make my mark. These people do not want to come here, have fun or a good time, they want to make the most of a finite life experience. It could be a day, two years or fifteen. I share a common denominator with the players. They are who I want to work with. That’s why I do what I do.
MT: Say the NBA draft is approaching, what is your typical day like from the time you wake up until eventually passing out?
BJ: Your day is really about forming a network within the league, within your group, within your circle of confidants if you will. You want to have people around you that will give you good enough information to make informed decisions. We really pride ourselves to give our athletes a wealth of information to help them make informed decisions as well. Nothing is based on opinions or rumors, only facts. Here’s what it is. Here’s the decision. What is the decision that is best for what you need or want as a professional athlete? My day starts off on the phone and then transitions into sit downs with clients and getting them mentally, physically and psychologically prepared for that date, the draft. We have to get them prepared to deal with problems they are not only going to see today, but later on in life. Going from college into the NBA, living in a city they’ve never lived in, getting married, and the like. We will be there for them before their careers, during their careers and post-career. That’s the most important to get them to transition to playing to life afterwards. The transition is very difficult. I have a vested interest to make sure their lives go on smoothly as their get into their forties and fifties. It’s a twenty-four hour day. I have to lead by example of how to be self-sufficient. I’m not doing my job if I’m not helping them become self-sufficient. The bottom line of my job is about adversity advantage. If you have a problem, do you have the skill set to address the problem and solve it? I enjoy the people. I enjoy the families. I enjoy speaking to their general managers and owners through my identification with the players. So that’s what a typical pre-draft day is like.
MT: Hypothetically, I’m 19-22, entering your office and looking to retain your services. What are you going to get across so I know I’m doing the right thing by signing with B.J. Armstrong?
BJ: I’m here to listen to what you have to say. I’m not here to tell you about what I did or what it’s going to take to be a pro, I’m here to listen to what it is you want to do. I’ve done my thing. I’ve seen the so called best player in Michael Jordan. I give you no illusions to what this is really all about. There is no fantasy of “Come with me, I’m going to get you drafted” or “Come with me I’m going to do this or that.” My work starts when it gets rough. When you are up by twenty, everybody looks good. My game starts when a kid gets hurt or in a crisis type situation. That’s what I do. I’m not here to sell you a bag of goods. Telling you look how many players we’ve gotten drafted. People that get drafted in lotteries, that’s a blessing. I’m here to ask you what is it you want to do. Let’s get organized and execute the plan. If you don’t want to execute, then I’m not the person to deal with. I’m not much of a talker about selling points of what I can do for you. We know what we can do. We are going to work hard at it. It’s about attracting people with that same mentality. They are going to work hard and maximize their talents at this particular time in their life. I want people who want to be the best at what they do. I don’t want anyone telling me something illogical. I want people to give me information that is prevalent with logic and people that will work hard. We are going to stick by our clients 1000% no matter if they are the first pick in the draft or someone undrafted. It’s about integrity and excellence. We are going to do both. I get to the core of things. This is a very simple operation. We are going to go at it and we are going hard after it.