Jack Armstrong, FCLC ’86, GSAS ’88, has one of the most recognizable voices in basketball. As a longtime broadcaster for the defending NBA champion Toronto Raptors, the Brooklyn native’s New York accent can be heard across Canada and the United States delivering memorable game calls and signature lines like “Get that garbage outta here!” after a blocked shot. Armstrong also serves as a college basketball analyst for the Sports Network, a job that connects to his time as an assistant men’s basketball coach at Fordham and head coach at Niagara University. He recently spoke with FORDHAM magazine about his Fordham roots, his unusual career trajectory, and the growth of basketball in Canada.
Your first college coaching gig was as an assistant at Fordham while you were a student. How did that come about?
I got into coaching earlier, probably through CYO [Catholic Youth Organization] basketball when I was 16. I didn’t play in college, so I went back and coached at my high school in Brooklyn, in one of the best leagues in the United States. A friend of mine, Pete Gillen, was an assistant at Notre Dame at the time. He mentioned to [Fordham men’s basketball coach] Tom Penders, “I’m not sure you know it, but you have a Fordham student who is coaching at Nazareth High School—probably a good guy to meet.” I was an undergrad at Fordham at the time, and Tom had an open spot on the staff and kind of brought me in as an undergrad assistant. Obviously to this day I can’t thank Tom enough for the opportunity.
And you stayed on as a coach after your undergrad years, right?
Yeah. [Coach Penders] did something really cool that I’ll never forget. He [awarded me a]basketball scholarship to stay onboard. Here’s a successful coach I respected saying, “Hey, you have a future in this,” and kind of putting his money where his mouth was. That was a signature moment in my young coaching career. I was able to live at Rose Hill and have a meal card and go to grad school and work 60 hours a week as an assistant coach. We also had a JV program as well, and Tom allowed me to be the head coach of that, which was a great experience.
Did you have any a background as a player?
I grew up playing basketball in Brooklyn, and the guy I had to guard and play against from the time I was probably 6 or 7 years old was Chris Mullin, who’s in the Hall of Fame. I played at St. Brendan’s, he played at St. Thomas. There comes a point early in life where you look, and you go, “That guy’s really good … and I’m not.” But I love the game. There’s a lot of great coaches out there who didn’t have an extensive playing career and yet found a way into it, and found a way to connect with the athletes and lead and motivate them. I feel like I was very fortunate to get with the right people to develop those same things.
What about Fordham, and the Lincoln Center campus in particular, appealed to you as you were deciding on college?
A few people in my neighborhood had graduated from Fordham and raved about it. I remember visiting both Lincoln Center and Rose Hill. I still had to work and pay for school, and I wanted to coach, so being able to take the subway to Lincoln Center from Brooklyn kind of fit me. I’m a big believer in Jesuit education, and I’m a big believer in the formation that it gives you. I feel very fortunate to have two degrees from Fordham, and to have [studied on]both campuses. Because they both offer something different and something unique, and I feel like I benefited from the best of both.
After Fordham, you coached at Niagara University for 10 years. How was that experience?
For almost my entire first four years as a head coach, up until I was 30, I was the youngest head coach in college basketball. So, it was an amazing opportunity, obviously, and an incredible experience—to go to the NIT in 1993 and be the MAC and New York State Division I Coach of the Year. We had good years, had bad years, and had everything in between—and I was fortunate enough to meet my wife there. She was the head women’s soccer coach at Niagara. So, I can’t thank Niagara enough. Here we are married 26 years later and with three kids. I’m blessed.
How did you get into broadcasting?
The change was made for me. As we all know, in coaching, you get whacked, you get fired, and after 10 years at Niagara, nine of them as the head coach, I was let go. I’d made a decision that I was kind of burnt out, and I needed a year off. I had a number of friends let me know that the Toronto Raptors had an opportunity for a broadcaster. So, here I was, only an hour and a half away from Toronto. I had name recognition there because back then, in 1998, Niagara, St. Bonaventure, Canisius—those schools are the schools that people would hear about, because Toronto gets all the broadcasts from Buffalo. So I was hired by the Raptors, and I started off as a radio analyst, and then a few years later transitioned into being a TV analyst, which I still do [21 years later]. It’s been a really cool experience, and I can’t thank that orange ball enough. It’s given me an opportunity to make lifetime friendships and grow as a person and travel the world, and just have an amazing experience in my life.
Can you speak a little bit about how basketball has grown in Toronto and Canada in general since you started?
Since coaching at Niagara, I’ve been in the Toronto region for 31 years. To see Canadian basketball when I got to the area in 1988, and to see it now, it’s light years ahead of where it was. Canada now has the second most NBA players in the world. The only country ahead of it is the United States. Toronto is the third largest market in pro sports. You’ve got New York, LA, then Toronto, and then Chicago after that. All our games are on national TV, and in the playoffs, all our games are on national radio. I called game six of the Finals on TV, the clinching game at Golden State. It was the largest television audience ever in Canada for a basketball game, and one of the largest TV audiences that they’ve had this decade. So, that’s pretty intense stuff.
It’s not just a city team. It’s a national team. Our players are national heroes. During the playoffs, where everyone in the building stands and sings the Canadian National Anthem, it sends goosebumps through you. It gives you chills. It’s like being at the Olympics. People think of Canada as a hockey country, but it’s become a basketball nation, and people just absolutely love it. It’s the fastest growing sport in Canada right now, and the people are just warm and friendly and have embraced me, and more importantly, embraced the sport.