For Armstrong, Jordan's defining moment in defeat
"Everything I needed to know about Michael Jordan, everything I needed to know about the NBA, I learned in a 48-minute game in Detroit, Michigan," said B.J. Armstrong.
When you think of Michael Jordan’s defining moments, losses don’t typically come to mind. But for B.J. Armstrong, it was a Game 7 defeat to the Pistons in 1990 that taught him everything he needed to know about Jordan and the NBA.
It was the final game of the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, and it would be the third year in a row the Bulls fell to the Pistons in the postseason. It would also be the last time that would happen during Jordan’s tenure.
“You learn a lot of about people in failure,” said Armstrong. “I learned everything I needed to know about that team from a loss. I learned everything I needed to know about Michael Jordan. And most importantly, I learned about myself.”
Armstrong said it was a matter of the Bulls no longer being afraid to lose. Gone was the mindset of failing in another Game 7, as the team was only concerned with giving themselves an opportunity to win in that situation moving forward.
When Detroit and Chicago met again in the 1991 playoffs, the result was much different. The Bulls swept the Pistons in the conference finals before winning their first world championship over the Los Angeles Lakers. Jordan’s Bulls went 15-2 that year in the postseason.
"Michael had an incredible amount of skill and was a person who I can truly say maximized every ounce of talent that was given to him," said Armstrong. "That was probably the most beautiful thing to see for me as a basketball player."
(Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images)
“Winning is the easiest thing that I ever did in the NBA, but being able to come to the realization of what it means to compete in this league no matter what—win, lose or draw—was the most difficult thing,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong came to the Bulls in 1989, when Chicago selected him with the 18th overall pick in that summer’s draft. At that time, Jordan was still learning how to win in the NBA, a league that had been dominated by Magic’s Lakers and Bird’s Celtics in the years prior.
He didn’t set any expectations about playing with Jordan in the backcourt; rather he consumed himself with one thing: winning. Jordan’s talent was second to none, but how would he translate that into team success?
“Obviously, Michael was a fantastic talent,” Armstrong said. “But he made a conservative effort to integrate himself within the chemistry of the team. That’s what I remember more than anything, that he was conscious of the team. I think that was right about the time where he really made an effort to hold the team accountable and responsible for the success of the team. Jordan’s transformation in just a few seasons from a young player to someone who had the highest esteem and respect for winning was remarkable.
“He held himself responsible, he held the team responsible, and he held himself accountable at all things,” Armstrong added. “That’s what elevated him and us to the next level. Those two words—responsibility and accountability.”
During the 1990-91 season, Armstrong averaged 8.8 points and 3.7 assists per game in a reserve role. He continued to come off the bench the following season when the team won its second title, and was moved to the starting lineup for 1992-93 campaign, when he averaged 12.3 points and 4.0 assists per game.
However, Armstrong’s Bulls’ career would be cut short in 1995, when he was the first player taken in the NBA Expansion Draft. He played two seasons with the Golden State Warriors and was acquired by the Charlotte Hornets four games in to the 1997-98 season. Later that year, Armstrong and Jordan would share the court in the NBA playoffs again, this time as opponents.
The Bulls were fresh off a sweep of the New Jersey Nets when Armstrong and the Hornets came to town for the 1998 Eastern Conference Semifinals. Chicago won the first game, 83-70, but Charlotte put up a fight in Game 2 at the United Center. Armstrong scored 10 points off the bench and played many crucial minutes down the stretch as Charlotte took away Chicago’s homecourt advantage with a 78-76 upset. The Bulls, however, were no strangers to winning on the road, as they scored three straight victories and won the series 4-1.
“When playing against players and teams with experience and success, there are counters to everything that you do,” said Armstrong. “Everyone was in an uproar about us stealing a game, but nothing had changed. We won a game, but we needed to win the series. It was just one game and we weren’t able to counter.”
While Armstrong no longer plays for—or against—the Bulls, he’s still very much tied to the organization in that he represents Derrick Rose. In his conversations with the young point guard, Rose often asks about Jordan and the game’s other greats. But there is one question Rose keeps asking: How do you win in this league?
“The great players win in this league,” Armstrong tells Rose. “For all that Michael Jordan could run, jump and entertain, he is best known for one thing: He won. If you want to be a great player in this league, you have to focus on one thing—the bottom line, which is winning.”
Armstrong said Rose comes to him wanting to know about all of the game’s legends, from Jerry West and Oscar Robertson to Magic Johnson and Larry Bird. He likes that the Chicago native, still a month shy of 21 years old, is becoming a student of the game, and he’s happy to share his knowledge.
“They all had their own unique style, their own brand, and their own things that they brought to the team, but one common denominator touched them all,” Armstrong said. “They won. I try to make the game really simple for Derrick. If you win, all the other things will take care of themselves.”
Going back to one of the game’s ultimate winners, Armstrong considers Jordan to be a good friend.
“So much has been said about Michael Jordan as a basketball player, but when I played with him, the Michael I knew was just Michael,” he said. “I guess more than anything is that I got to experience the human side of the so-called gladiators, warriors and heroes that we worship. Nonetheless, I got a chance to see the human side of all those people. Michael was, and is, a good friend, and he was a great teammate.”
All of the championships, MVPs and other accolades aside, it was the day in and day out commitment that Armstrong appreciated most about Jordan.
“I look at him as a person who perfected his craft more than anything,” he said. “Michael had an incredible amount of skill and was a person who I can truly say maximized every ounce of talent that was given to him. That was probably the most beautiful thing to see for me as a basketball player. In many ways, the greatest success is in knowing that you gave your best. I had an opportunity to see that.”
As Jordan prepares for his Hall of Fame induction, Armstrong shies away from putting the “best ever” label on him, respectfully saying it is up for debate. He didn’t see all of the NBA’s legends firsthand or compete against them, and neither did Jordan. But he does put into perspective the cumulative sum of Jordan’s contributions to the game.
“I think we’re all beneficiaries of great timing,” said Armstrong. “Michael certainly came along at a time and era where the media and ESPN and all the things that he contributed, along with the vision of this league, added to the success of the game of basketball. I’ll always look at the great ones as leaving the game in a better place than when they came to it. Michael was a huge ambassador for the game, and globally, with his style and what he was able to do, he painted a picture like no other.”