FUNABASHI, CHIBA PREF. – The Chiba Jets’ home gymnasium is far from the ultra-bright lights and mammoth-size arenas that dot the NBA landscape.
But, in its first season, the new B. League offers rookies and seasoned veterans the same opportunity: a chance to play the game and earn a living.
For 211-cm Jets center Hilton Armstrong, a fierce desire to compete and improve has ignited a long career in the pros. The journeyman pivot was the 12th overall pick by the Hornets in the 2006 NBA Draft and has also spent time with the Kings, Rockets, Wizards, Hawks and Warriors, appearing in 292 NBA regular-season games and participating in the postseason for New Orleans in 2008 and ’09, for Atlanta in 2011 and Golden State in 2014, the season before the team’s stunning run to an NBA title.
In the NBA Development League, Armstrong played 61 games for the Santa Cruz Warriors over the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. In that span, he averaged 12.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.0 blocks and 1.4 assists.
Armstrong played on the University of Connecticut’s title-winning squad in 2004. And he graduated from Peekskill (New York) High School, where Elton Brand attended before going to Duke University and becoming the No. 1 pick in the 1997 draft.
The 31-year-old veteran big man made a quantum leap between his junior and senior seasons at UConn, setting the stage for a career in pro basketball. He was named the Big East Conference’s 2005-06 Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 9.7 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.1 blocks a game. (The previous season, he scored 3.8 points per game, grabbed 3.4 rebounds and blocked 1.2 shots.)
What did that award mean to him?
“For me personally,” he told Hoop Scoop, “it was personal pride for me. That’s one of the few individual awards I’ve ever had in my college career, high school career, anything, and I take that to heart. I’m very proud of it. That’s something that I will never forget.”
As a college senior, Armstrong reflected on his maturation as a player and improved productivity.
“I’ve done more than people expected,” he told The Journal News, a suburban New York newspaper, in a 2006 interview. “But you know what? I still have a lot more to accomplish. I want this to be the beginning of something, not the end.”
Then-UConn coach Jim Calhoun marveled at Armstrong’s development as a player during his four seasons as a Husky.
“He has matured as much as any kid I’ve ever had,” the college coaching legend told The Journal News. “I have so much respect for what he has done because he never complained, he just worked.
“He’s a product of what college basketball used to be about, when a kid would come in and get better and better. I’m really proud of him.”
A decade later, Armstrong is still playing basketball. The Jets, meanwhile, fell to 1-3 last Sunday after dropping their second game of a two-game home series against the Tochigi Brex.
I asked Armstrong to pinpoint what his team learned from that series.
“We just have to learn how to stay focused throughout 40 minutes,” Armstrong said on Sunday, when the Jets were outscored 36-13 in the decisive fourth quarter. “I think we played the first three quarters pretty tough, pretty hard, and towards the end mentally we broke down.”
Playing in a new league will require some adjustments for him, too.
“I know for myself throughout the whole game I was very frustrated with the referees. . . . I’m still trying to get used to what they are doing out here,” he said after Chiba’s 87-69 loss. “I have no clue; I don’t understand what they are doing. But it’s part of the game. I have to make an adjustment.”
Without hesitation, Armstrong admitted he struggled on both offense and defense in the series finale, when he had seven points, three rebounds, five turnovers, two steals and one block in nearly 16 foul-plagued minutes.
“But that’s not going to be a harbinger of things to come,” he said.
What makes Armstrong a strong defender?
He summed it up this way: “I think I can read the other team’s offense pretty good, especially from the weak side — just help out on weak-side defensive men and (if they) get beat, I can step out and alter his shot. I don’t necessarily have to block his shot but I can alter a lot of shots around the basket, use my size, use my jumping ability to deflect the pass or something to disturb the offense a little bit.”
It’s early in the season, but Armstrong is clearly frustrated by the way B. League game officials are calling the game.
“Over here in this league, with the referees we’ve had so far, offensively I have no clue what I can do,” he said. “Every time I touch the ball, they call a travel. I’ve never experienced that in the 10-year career that I’ve had professionally. I’ve never experience that in college, not even high school . . .”
The Tokyo Apache, a former bj-league team, folded in 2011. But Armstrong has ties to the defunct franchise. Longtime NBA coach Bob Hill, who served as the Apache bench boss during the 2010-11 campaign, worked alongside his son, Casey, and helped him launch his pro coaching career that season. The younger Hill became the Santa Cruz head coach in 2013.
“Casey Hill is my absolute favorite coach that I’ve ever had,” Armstrong revealed. “I think part of that is I knew his father before he became my coach and we just really built up a relationship, a really strong relationship, a good bond. He understands the game offensively and defensively. . . .
“He’s very brilliant. I think he has a very bright future in coaching.”
Elaborating on Casey Hill’s coaching strengths, Armstrong observed that Hill “sees the game, he understands the game, and he makes adjustments when needed.”
Contacted this week via email, Hill explained why he enjoyed coaching Armstrong at Santa Cruz.
“Hilton Armstrong is one of my favorites of all time. As a young head coach, having Hilton on my team was really special,” Hill wrote. “He has a great sense of perspective when it comes to being a part of a team and he always had my back. He was a great leader of our young team here. He led by example with his work ethic and his coach-ability.
“There are still school kids here who ask where he is or if he’s coming back. His ability to reach children and be a role model for them was nothing less than spectacular. Watching him from afar having great experiences overseas has been fun for us.
“I am really happy that he is in a familiar place and league for me, he and I have chatted briefly about the Tokyo area and the league in general, the Japanese basketball community is extremely lucky to have Hilton, he is a special guy.”
Basketball is also in Armstrong’s genes. His father, Hilton Sr., played college ball at New York Institute of Technology (he is a member of the NYIT Athletics Hall of Fame) and was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs during the team’s ABA days.
And even though the team had only played four games before we spoke, Armstrong, had already developed an informed opinion about three key Jets contributors, forwards Michael Parker and Tyler Stone, who attended Evergreen (Washington) State and Southeast Missouri State, respectively, and spitfire guard Yuki Togashi, who turned pro after graduating from Montrose Christian High School in Maryland, the same school that Golden State Warriors star Kevin Durant went to.
*On Michael Parker: “Michael is definitely a leader on the team. He’s very vocal, he speaks out when he sees something going on. He speaks to everybody and tries to get them to focus on things that need to be done. . . . He’s a tough, hard-nosed player.”
*On Stone: “He’s probably one of the most talented players I’ve played with. He could score, he could drive, he could get to the basket and shoot. Offensively, he’s just like the total package. Defensively, he’s a big body out there, he can rebound and I’m glad he’s on my team.”
*On Togashi: “He’s just a little bullet, he’s everywhere. He reads the game. A great point guard, he can shoot, he can pass, he’s scrappy on defense.”
As the Jets strive to contend for a playoff spot, Armstrong admitted that coach Atsushi Ono’s message to his players signals a desire to work hard and progress steadily for the long haul.
“We have a strong team all around,” Armstrong said, echoing Ono’s words. “We’ve got to learn to put it together.”
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