Late Monday, Jack Armstrong was driving back to the U.S. from Toronto after calling the Raptors game against the Magic in Toronto. When he got to the border crossing at the Queenston-Lewiston Bridge, the guard recognized him and asked if he was bringing anything back from Canada.
“I have the Larry O’Brien Trophy,” Armstrong told the border agent.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” the man said.
“Come on, I’ll open the trunk,” Armstrong said as he and his son, Kevin, broke out laughing. “We’ll take a picture.”
The agent got a photo of himself with the NBA’s championship trophy, thanked the Armstrongs and waved them through. “You made my day,” he said through the driver’s side window as Jack drove away.
Armstrong made a lot of people’s nights on Tuesday. He and his wife, Dena, held a trophy celebration at their home along the Niagara River to celebrate the Raptors' first NBA championship last June and to allow family and friends from the American side to view the sport’s most coveted piece of hardware.
The former Niagara hoop coach is something of a precious commodity himself in The North, where he is regarded as the voice of Canadian basketball after two decades as a Raptors analyst for TSN, the country’s national sports network.
Armstrong, 56, has won an Emmy for his work. Above all, he has been a happy, engaging ambassador for the sport in Canada and a devoted family man who raised three sons in his Lewiston home, where he can wake up and gaze across the river to Canada from his back porch in the mornings.
It’s a good life. Armstrong, who was raised by his mother in Brooklyn after his father died of a heart attack when he was seven, has a motto: “Don’t f— with happy.” He’s loved his time as a Raptors announcer and wanted people to share that happiness by coming over to see the trophy in his home.
It was a happy few days. Kevin, his eldest, was home from San Diego. He and Kevin took in the Bills’ home game on Sunday (Jack is an avid fan and season-ticket holder of the Bills and Sabres). They went to the Raptors game Monday and then came the big party on Tuesday.
Well over 100 people stopped by to see the trophy — and in many cases, have their picture taken with it. Greg Paulus and Jada Pierce, the men’s and women’s hoop coaches at Niagara, showed up. Former Sabres executives Larry Quinn and Ron Bertovich were there. Many of Armstrong’s old media friends showed up, including Bills radio play-by-play man John Murphy.
“You have to sign up for it,” Armstrong said. “I signed up about two and a half months ago. All the players and coaches and owners and support staff, everyone has had an opportunity to have it. So many people have had the trophy, and I’ve been at a few trophy parties in Toronto.
“You give them dates when you’re available and sooner or later you can get it. I’ve got to bring it back tomorrow.”
The Larry O’Brien Trophy was on a three-week MilkUp Tour in October, traveling through 10 Canadian stops before finishing up in Toronto on Oct. 21. Armstrong figured it would be a nice thing to bring the trophy over to the United States for the hoop lovers on the American side to see.
As Armstrong spoke in his living room — with a replay of the Raptors winning the title in Game 6 of the Finals against the Warriors on the TV — a security guard stood in the adjacent room watching the trophy.
Aaron Lilly, a Lewiston police officer, had the job of making sure it was safe. You never know with basketball fans.
“That’s a rule,” Armstrong said. “You have to have somebody with it at all times. I think it might be the first time it’s ever been in Western New York.”
Armstrong said his life has been a whirlwind since the Raptors won the championship in Oakland on June 13. He’s an immensely popular figure in Canada, and gets invited to a lot of celebrations. In two weeks, he’ll get his vast, official, diamond-encrusted gold championship ring.
“It’s been an amazing experience, a tremendous experience,” he said. “I have great respect for teams like the Warriors and Cavs, who have had to go a long way every year. The Patriots, the Penguins, Blackhawks … there’s a lot to it. The intensity and pressure of it, on top of all that media attention. You get pulled in a million different directions."
Jack arrived in Western New York as a Niagara assistant coach in 1988. A year later, he became the youngest Division I head coach in America when Andy Walker was fired. That was around the time the Bills began their Super Bowl run. He has been a huge fan ever since, and he’s encouraged by what he sees of his favorite football team these days.
“I think the guys running it have got it on the right path,” he said. “They’ve got a ways to go, but they know what they’re doing. I go to Sabres games, too, when I’m home and have a night off.”
He paused and look adoringly at the Larry O’Brien Trophy on the table, where people were taking turns having their pictures taken.
“I really hope those teams get one of those some day.”
Jerry Sullivan is a sports columnist with over 30 years experience in Western New York, as well as the host of The Jerry Sullivan Show from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. weekdays on 1270 AM The Fan. Follow him on Twitter @ByJerrySullivan or respond via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.