Magic Guard Darrell Armstrong has to be the only NBA player whose biggest three-pointers in college came off the basketball court. As a walk-on kicker for Division II Fayetteville ( N.C.) State in 1989, he twice booted school-record 48-yard field goals. "That was a big thrill," Armstrong says. "A lot of people didn't think I could kick it that far."
Armstrong has made a career of proving skeptics wrong. Before signing with the Magic as a free agent in '95, he spent four years toiling in the Global Basketball Association, the USBL, the CBA and pro leagues in Cyprus and Spain. Few 6'1" players make it from those basketball backwaters to the NBA. But then few work as hard as Armstrong does. He dives for loose balls, takes charges and plays like a hoops version of a special teams kamikaze. "He's a spark plug," Orlando All-Star guard Penny Hardaway says. "When he's in the game, good things happen." Indeed, Armstrong is a big reason the surprising Magic led the Atlantic Division at week's end. On Sunday he had 19 points, eight assists and three rebounds in just 25 minutes as Orlando beat Houston to improve to 8-2.
Although he grew up in the heart of basketball country, in Gastonia, N.C, Armstrong always preferred football to hoops. A punter and part-time receiver for Ashbrook High, he didn't even play basketball until his senior year and didn't dream of the NBA until several years after he made the basketball team at nearby Fayetteville State. There, under the tutelage of coach Jeff Capel (now at Old Dominion), he became a first-team black college All-America. After being passed over in the '91 NBA draft, Armstrong went on an odyssey through basketball's alphabet-soup leagues before being signed by Orlando. Armstrong got his big break when injuries depleted the Magic before its first-round playoff series with the Heat in '97. Thrust into the starting point-guard slot—Hardaway shifted over to shooting guard-Armstrong averaged 11.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.4 assists as the Magic stretched the heavily favored Heat to five games.
Armstrong got off to a strong start last year, averaging 9.2 points, 4.9 assists and 3-3 rebounds before a torn right rotator cuff ended his season after 48 games. In the off-season the Magic signed him to a five-year, $18 million contract, but Armstrong sometimes wonders if he could kick in the NFL. He keeps his Fayetteville State helmet in his locker and always rushes out to buy the latest football video games. "I still love football," he says. "If the lockout had gone any longer, I was going to ask my agent to call some NFL teams."