By Matt Dullinger (Sports Illustrated):
BJ Armstrong is approaching his 50th birthday (September 9th). It’s a fact that makes any 90s basketball fan cringe a little bit.
Yet, the former Bulls point guard and Michael Jordan sidekick still looks like he could give a contender meaningful minutes off the bench. It’s been 17 years since Armstrong played his last game in the NBA, but the boy-ish smile and young-at-heart enthusiasm has endured over the years. Rather than setting up teammates on the court, Armstrong is now setting up clients off it, serving as an agent at Wasserman for players like Draymond Green, Derrick Rose and Josh Jackson. It’s easy to see why players are drawn to him. With a delivery that’s half John Calipari, half Denzel Washington from Training Day, Armstrong speaks with passion about the business of basketball. And with the rings (three) and seasons (13) to back it up, his words come with a certain weight.
Armstrong broke into the agent business in 2006 after a short stint as a special advisor and scout in the Bulls’ front office. Since then, Armstrong has been using the same skills that made him an effective point guard to become an effective powerbroker in the NBA. He’s helped his clients get drafted, sign contracts and endorsements and navigate the many problems NBA players navigate on a daily basis.
“Crisis management is what I do all day, everyday,” Armstrong said. “When things are going good, I get nervous.”
Armstrong sat down with SI.com earlier this spring to discuss his life as an NBA agent and some of his favorite memories as a player (the name “Michael Jordan” comes up once or twice).
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On his mantra as an agent: “Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. If I could just be an agent, this would be an easy job. But I deal with the people and the problems they have.”
On whether his playing experience helps him as an agent: “It doesn’t that much. You may go to a restaurant the first time because the chef was popular. But you’re only going to come back if the food is good. People might say, ‘Oh, B.J. Armstrong is an agent? I remember him.’ But if the quality of the work isn’t excellent, people aren’t coming back. So I quickly realized that being B.J. Armstrong might have gotten me the meeting, but it won’t help me achieve that I want to achieve in this business.”
On signing Derrick Rose, a fellow point guard from Chicago, out of college: “Even when I got Derrick, that might have helped me get the meeting, but it didn’t help me sign the kid. It became very apparent to me that it got me in the door, but it wasn’t going to keep me there. I learned that the first day on the job. But I also realized that I wish I had someone to talk to that had already been through what I was about to go through. To ask those questions. Or to find out how they dealt with this. So there were a lot of things that I saw as a player that I wish I could have spoken to someone about. I just saw a need and wanted to give people an opportunity to talk to someone as they go through it.”
On if there was a moment as a player when an agent left him wanting more: “It wasn’t that necessarily. Agents do their job and represent their client in the business of basketball. These agents do their job and many of them do their job very well. But the basketball business is a different business. They go over the contract, they make sure their player is protected and that it’s executed. But in the basketball business, that’s totally different. The business of basketball is one thing, the basketball business is another. When I saw that, I decided it was important to help these young people understand the basketball business.”
On who taught him the most about being an agent: “My whole life, I’ve been incredibly lucky. I was very lucky to be in the right place at the right time and play with Michael Jordan. So all of the things people talk about—building their brand, being the best, being a champion—I just happened to have been standing next to the guy who was doing all of these things at the height of his career. I had a front-row seat with no one in front of me. There was no one between me and him as I was watching all of this. It just tickles me to hear all these players saying what they want to do, when I actually saw it happen! Then I hear other people telling people how to do it, but the guy who actually did it was the guy I played with. So, my mentor was my experience. I firmly believe there’s no replacement for experience. No one told me about it, I saw it. I went to the commercial shoots with MJ, I talked to him about why he made that decision or why he chose Gatorade or Hanes or whoever. I can’t have a better teacher than that. I actually saw the guy who executed maybe one of the best marketing campaigns ever.”
On players trying to emulate MJ as a businessman: “I was very lucky and very fortunate to see it and I think I would have a pretty good idea if I see it again. I’ll be able to recognize it. Because it takes a very unique set of circumstances for all of those things to come together, and I give Michael credit, he saw it, and when he saw it he recognized it and more importantly he executed it. He was prepared for the moment clearly, but he was genius in that he recognized the opportunity in front of him in the moment. It was an amazing accomplishment by him and the people around him to help him navigate that situation.
On if he calls Michael Jordan for advice: “It’s funny, when you have a relationship like that, I don’t talk to Michael about business, he’s my friend. ‘How you doing, how’s your family, you good?’ That’s it. If he needs something, he knows he can call me. So I never mix my friends and my business. He’s my friend, we had great times together, we have a lot of things that we share and we share the most valuable thing we have: our time. So that’s a relationship I want to keep sacred. So I never call and ask for business advice. When I call, it’s for a laugh. I’m sure he has enough problems without me adding to his plate and vice versa. And that’s the great thing, because I know when he does call me, it’s for a laugh. So when he calls or my former teammates call, it just takes me back to a good place.”
On dealing with the Hornets outside of MJ: “I talk to [Horents GM] Rich Cho all the time! We talk business. I like Rich. So the Hornets have always been great to deal with. But it’s always funny, because I know he’s aware of my relationship with Michael. I’ve always wanted to ask this to Rich. Rich is probably wondering: ‘Why don’t you just call Michael?’But no, I’m calling you Rich!”
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On his chats with MJ: “We always talk a little trash. At 50, I think I can beat him 1-on-1 now. He had me at 20, but at 50, I think I got him. So I’m waiting on the chance.”
On if NBA players encounter more problems today than players of his age: “What’s been crazy is the evolution between journalism and social media. And that’s what I’m dealing with. So, I’m a huge proponent and advocate of leadership. Either lead or get out of the way. Problems have existed since the beginning of time. Wherever there’s people, there’s problems. All of these things that are happening now were happening then, minus this [points to his cell phone]. Now people are like, ‘Ahh, this is crazy.’ But it isn’t crazy. It’s: ‘Who has the skillset to deal with these problems?’ Because I’m a huge proponent of leadership, and I take responsibility. How do I deal with knowing every time my client goes out the cameras will be there? I didn’t have to deal with that as a player. I didn’t have to deal with everything I say being out instantly into the world. I didn’t have to deal with that. Same thing athletes are doing today we did, minus phones. So this isn’t crazy. If you have a problem, you should call me. Because that’s what I do. I deal with problems.”
On if he sees himself as a “fixer”: “I just happen to love problems. Because I see problems as opportunities.”
On his goals as he approaches 50: “The one thing I love about this business is you never know what’s going to happen next. This business is constantly changing. What is the goal? The goal is to get these kids to take ownership of what it is they’re doing.”
On if social media is a nightmare for players: “I actually think social media is genius for the players. Social media is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to today’s athlete—if he sees it. You and I, when you were 10, ESPN was a huge machine. When I was coming up, television, if you were on television, WHOA! The Super Bowl was like, WHOA! Did you see the game on television? Did you hear the news on television? My kids, they’re 16, 13, and I’ve got a one-year-old. My kids don’t even watch TV. My 16 and 13 year olds don’t even watch TV. Think about what I just said. You and I couldn’t wait to watch SportsCenter or a sitcom, but my kids don’t even watch TV. That’s how powerful social media is.”
On how being a point guard translates to being an agent: “I grew up as a point guard, and as a point guard you learn how to navigate situations. Without communication, there can be no cooperation. I learned as a guard and a young kid that cooperation is more important than competition. The biggest thing I learned from Michael Jordan, when I met him, was how to communicate with him. Yao Ming was just on my podcast last week, Yao Ming said something that I learned as young kid but never knew how to articulate. I grew up in Detroit but went to a private Catholic school in the suburbs. I was living in two different worlds: the city of Detroit and the school where there were 5,000 kids and there were one or two people of color in the entire school. There was this world, and that world. Yao Ming said on my show that the first three years of your life, you learn how to talk. The rest of your life, you learn how to listen.
When I went to school out here, I had to learn how to listen to people because they didn’t know me and I didn’t know them. So it forced me to understand how to communicate with people, which ultimately helped me as a player. This is how Scottie Pippen communicates, or Bill Cartwright. So I always thought I was like a Vegas card dealer. I shuffle the cards, I go pass, pass, pass, shot for B.J. Pass, pass, pass, shot for BJ. Sometimes I’d skip me! Sometimes other people would need an extra card because he’s struggling. When I went to college I learned how to navigate these worlds. Once I saw that, I learned the kids that grew up in the north were different than the kids who grew up in the south. Once I figured that out I learned how to cooperate which ultimately has helped me in every thing. I learned what unity and cooperation can do. Everyone talks about competing. But it’s only when you learn how to cooperate and learn what a team is all about. There’s been a lot of teams with great individual players, there’s going to be a game played with a lot of individual players, but it’s the only the players that are going to surrender to the team that are going to win the game.
On watching MJ learn those same lessons: “It took him eight years to figure it out. He didn’t win a championship in year one. It takes time for everyone. Everyone is on their path. But once he did figure it out, and because he was a massive talent, he went on to great things.”
On his favorite MJ story: “My favorite MJ story came when he retired the first time. We probably spoke more then than when we actually played together. I always wondered, ‘Why does he still care who the best player in the NBA is when he wasn’t even playing in the NBA?’ Why am I still going over scouting reports with Michael Jordan and he doesn’t even play anymore? Why was he still asking me: ‘B.J., make this guy go left tomorrow night and see what he’s going to do and tell me what he does.’ Why was he still involved in the details of the game to that level? And I miss that because we were discussing details. ‘Tell me what happens if you go under a screen on him. Will he shoot or pass? B.J. go double-team him tomorrow and tell me how he reacts.’ I miss that. I don’t miss playing, I don’t miss scoring, but I miss these conversations. His level of detail and excellence was so high. When he retired, his attention to detail was even more superior because he was able to just observe the game. He was watching basketball and just looking at it. And then when he did come back, he didn’t miss a beat because he was already engaged mentally. His attention to detail was far superior than anything I was around—and I was still playing the game! He was asking me for scouting reports! You don’t have a skill like that and just shut it off. That’s something that belongs in the universe. It’s not yours. Who cares how someone passes the ball out of a double team? Unless you’re so obsessed with something. Did he cut? Did he stand? What did he do? Who the f— asks those questions?”