AP Photo/Chuck Stoody
Darrell Armstrong’s career with the Orlando Magic can be summed up in one phrase.
The ultimate underdog.
Undrafted coming out of Fayetteville State University in 1991, Armstrong took a long and winding road to make it to the NBA. Armstrong spent time in the USBL (United States Basketball League), CBA (Continental Basketball Association), GBA (Global Basketball Association), and in Europe where he played in Cyprus and Spain.
Spotted by former general manager John Gabriel during his days with the USBL, Armstrong signed a 10-day contract with the Magic in 1995. That was Armstrong’s first big break, but he didn’t reap the benefits right away.
In his early years with Orlando, Armstrong made his impact either in street clothes or in warm-ups as a bench cheerleader. Then there was his embarrassing showing in the 1996 Slam Dunk Contest, where Armstrong accidentally made a reverse layup rather than complete a dunk. Needless to say, it took several seasons for Armstrong to play a significant role for the Magic in actual games.
Then 1997 came. That’s when Armstrong became a role player. It seems silly that Armstrong coming off the bench and averaging 15 minutes per game marked a watershed moment in his career, but it was. It proved Armstrong belonged in the league.
Then 1999 came. That’s when Armstrong became a star.
It seems unfathomable that a player trapped in basketball purgatory for so many years could become an under-the-radar star in the NBA, but that’s what happened to Armstrong. Coached by the late, great Chuck Daly, the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season served as a bridge between two eras for Orlando. It was the final season for Nick Anderson, Horace Grant, and Penny Hardaway — three players that fostered the first golden age of Magic basketball. Armstrong, on the other hand, represented a new era.
During that year, Armstrong became the first player in NBA history to win both the Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year awards. Deservingly so, as Armstrong made quantum leaps in his game from the previous season, becoming Orlando’s best player despite coming off the bench (he averaged 30 minutes per game). For example, Armstrong’s PER jumped from 15.7 in 1998 to 22.2 in 1999 and his WARP jumped from 3.2 to 16.0 in the same timeframe.
And Armstrong did it his way — being a leader, as well as taking charges, picking up floor burns, and diving into the stands. Armstrong’s motor never stopped. It’s a cliche term you hear a lot from scouts, but it accurately described one of Armstrong’s strengths as a player.
It’s through that heart and hustle that Armstrong became “Mr. Heart and Hustle” during the “Heart and Hustle” season the following year in 2000, permanently endearing himself to Magic fans with his passion and zeal.
In nine seasons with the Magic, Armstrong was a true rags to riches story. Armstrong was a hard worker and the Magic fan base loved him for it.
Voter breakdown for Darrell Armstrong
What is #ORLrank?
Magic Basketball ranks the top 10 players in Magic franchise history. #ORLrank is the Twitter hashtag to use if you want to get involved in the discussion or just follow along.
You can also follow along here: @erivera7
How did we rank the players?
Five MBN writers ranked each player 1-to-10, in terms of the quality of each player.
Thanks to Daniel Myers, Neil Paine of Basketball-Reference, and Kevin Pelton of Basketball Prospectus for contributing to the project.