B.J. Armstrong might have played a role in the Chicago Bulls getting their 1996, 1997 and 1998 titles — even though he wasn’t on those teams.
Armstrong was the person who, at a breakfast chat over pancakes in Chicago, nudged Michael Jordan to stop by the Bulls’ practice facility one morning late in the 1994-95 season to go see his old teammates. Before long, Jordan ended his retirement; the Bulls won three more titles in Jordan’s second stint with the franchise.
Jordan’s first retirement in 1993, the murder of his father James, his stint in minor league baseball and — after a gentle push by Armstrong, who takes no credit for Jordan’s return — his comeback were among the themes in the latest installments of the ESPN and Netflix documentary “The Last Dance,” a 10-part series that showed episodes seven and eight on Sunday night.
“I’ve never thought about it, to be honest with you,” Armstrong, the longtime NBA guard and three-time NBA champion with the Bulls who is now a California-based sports agent, told The Associated Press. “I just wanted to be a good friend and I just saw something in him. When you see someone who really loves something … he loved it. He didn’t like it. He loved it. That’s who he was. And out of respect to the game of basketball, I wanted to be a good friend.”
Sensing the time was right, Armstrong suggested Jordan to go to practice with him that day under the auspices of just seeing the guys. Then Jordan went back for another practice. Then another. Before long, Jordan’s baseball days were done. He was back.
“I just got him, he got me, and we got each other and you did what was needed,” said Armstrong, who helped the Bulls win titles in 1991, 1992 and 1993. “I didn’t need to tell anyone or talk about it or anything. That’s just what happened. I was just happy for him because I know what the game of basketball meant to him and meant to his life. He kept basketball in a sacred space and it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Jordan retired in October 1993, not long after the murder of his father and with the Bulls having just won their third consecutive title.
The first season of Jordan’s hiatus became Armstrong’s best season, in terms of numbers. He set career-highs in points (14.8) and minutes (33.8) per game, started all 82 regular-season games for the first time, plus was a starter in what became his only All-Star appearance. He was a fan favorite, finishing third in All-Star voting that year behind only Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal.
Armstrong didn’t replace Jordan in the Bulls’ lineup — he played point guard, while Pete Myers became the answer to the ‘who took Jordan’s starting shooting guard spot?’ trivia question — but he did assume a much bigger role, and did so with Jordan encouraging him with occasional phone calls.
And when Armstrong was named the All-Star starter, Jordan was the first person to call him with congratulations.
“He was so happy for me,” Armstrong said. “I wasn’t playing to be an All-Star, but when he called, it meant the world to me then and it means the world to me now. I know what it means to have a friend and I always tried to be a good friend.”
Unwittingly, Armstrong may have been a friend again in the 1998 playoffs — when he was with Charlotte, playing against Jordan and the Bulls in what would become their last title run. Armstrong hit what became a game-winning shot in Game 2 of that series for Charlotte in Chicago, and Jordan didn’t like seeing his former teammate celebrating. He took it as a slight, and he always turned slights into fuel.
“I felt like B.J. should know better,” Jordan says early in Episode 8. “If you’re going to high-five and talk trash, now I have a bone to pick with you. I’m supposed to kill this guy. I’m supposed to dominate this guy. And from that point, I did.”
The Bulls didn’t lose again in that series. Armstrong — who got plenty of defensive attention from Jordan over those next three games — has no regrets.
“Whenever you start a series, you’ve got to let the other person know you’re there for a fight,” Armstrong said. “Michael knew exactly what was happening. I knew exactly what was happening. I don’t know if anyone else did … He didn’t guard the point guards. He went there.”
The final two episodes of the documentary series will debut May 17.
B.J. Armstrong will offer perspective and analysis to The Associated Press throughout the airing of the series. He is also a host of a podcast about the series.
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