One cup of coffee loaded with seven lumps of sugar before each game, two pieces of candy at halftime, run all night.
Call Darrell Armstrong superstitious if you want, but the wired Orlando Magic guard has developed into a top candidate for the NBA’s Sixth Man and Most Improved Player awards.
Not bad for a little guy who didn’t play basketball until he was a senior in high school, then left home for college with a dream of becoming a pro football player.
“Flash, Baby Boy, whatever we call him. Coffee Man, Chocolate Man. He brings a lot of energy,” teammate Nick Anderson said. “His energy means a whole lot to this team. You have guys who don’t have it every night. Here’s a guy who brings it all the time.”
Armstrong has become a human caffeine jolt for the Magic. It’s as if he plays on a pogo stick that never stops bouncing, so pumped he picks up the entire team and leaves opponents dizzy.
Former teammate Shaquille O’Neal called Armstrong Orlando’s best player after he scored 17 points and had 11 assists against the Los Angeles Lakers on March 21.
Two nights later he scored a career-high 28 points against Charlotte, then followed with a team-high 25 points and seven assists against Cleveland on his way to joining Elliot Perry and Michael Adams as the only graduates of the Continental Basketball Assoc. to earn NBA player-of-the-week honors.
“He’s their little energy bunny. He’s a pest,” Sacramento’s Chris Webber said. “I think he gets his teammates going. They know if they don’t pick up their energy they might get embarrassed.”
Armstrong averaged career highs of 13.8 points, 6.6 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 2.1 steals per game this season, helping the Magic to a surprising 33-17 record and a first-round playoff matchup with Philadelphia, starting today in Orlando.
But the 30-year-old guard scoffs at the suggestion that he’s emerged from nowhere since spending four years in the CBA, USBL, Global Basketball Association and playing overseas in Cyprus and the Spanish League.
A former college place-kicker who twice kicked school-record field goals of 48 yards at Fayetteville State, Armstrong originally signed with the Magic only a few weeks before Orlando went to the NBA Finals in 1995.
His role with the team increased two years ago and he was having the best season of his career in 1998 when he was sidelined after 48 games by a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder.
Satisfied that he had fully recovered from the injury, the Magic rewarded him with a five-year, $18 million contract after the NBA lockout ended in January. The most he made before was $350,000 a year.
“A lot of people had doubts that I was coming back,” Armstrong said. “I didn’t have any doubts. My therapists said I had the best attitude of anybody they ever worked with. All the things I’ve been through, that was probably the easiest thing to come back from.”
Armstrong appears smaller than his entry on the Magic roster, 6-foot-1, 180 pounds. He credits much of his success to his mother, who raised him and two brothers in Gastonia, N.C., his wife, Dee, and two young daughters.
He still owns a 1966 Volkswagen beetle he bought and restored a few years ago. With some of the money from his new contract, he bought a new home for his mom in North Carolina.
“She was a single parent and worked two jobs all her life. She instilled in me how hard you need to work once you’re out here in real life for your family and yourself,” he said. “When you work hard, good things happen. She showed me that. She raised three boys, and we all turned out fine.”