Fifteen years ago, B.J. Armstrong had just finished his third season as a special assistant to Jerry Krause, scouting and learning the nuances of management.
“I learned a lot in those years working for Jerry,” Armstrong said Friday by phone in a rare interview.
In April 2003, Bulls Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf hired John Paxson from radio broadcasting to replace Krause, a decision Reinsdorf called “an easy one.” At the time, given Armstrong’s ties to the organization and role, Armstrong had been listed as a candidate in multiple media reports.
Armstrong left the organization two seasons later in May 2005.
“Like anyone working, of course you want to continue to move up in your profession,” Armstrong said. “But at that moment, I was still learning the business. I wasn’t looking to replace Jerry Krause. And certainly I hadn’t spoken to Jerry Reinsdorf. There was no reason for me to feel at any point that I was looking to move up in Chicago because Jerry (Krause) was doing it and I was just making the transition to the front office. It was a very educational process for me.”
Nevertheless, Armstrong admitted leaving the Bulls after five seasons in management and seven of his 11 seasons as a player was hard.
“It was difficult emotionally for me to leave because I was drafted by Chicago,” he said. “The city embraced me. The fans were incredible. I had an emotional attachment to that city, to that team. It wasn’t like I was working for any team. I grew up in that organization. We won titles there. I was a part of the history there.
“I’m from Detroit, but Chicago is a second home for me. My adult life, I grew up in Chicago. When I go back there, I always have fond memories.”
Armstrong initially dabbled in media, working as an analyst for ESPN. But he quickly discovered his passion was in sports representation. He joined Wasserman Media Group in 2007 and was promoted to executive vice president and managing executive for Wasserman’s basketball group in 2012.
“My previous experiences taught me my true passion was working with the players,” Armstrong said. “I love the business. I love sports. I love everything about the team aspect. But I have this deep appreciation for the players and their perspective. I always remember how tough it is and things I wish I had known when I first came in the league. I like to help them understand how precious these moments are.”
Armstrong represents Derrick Rose, Denzel Valentine, Draymond Green and Suns promising rookie Josh Jackson, among many others. He negotiated Rose’s monster, $185 million lifetime deal with Adidas.
And he now gets to do a different kind of business with Reinsdorf and Paxson, his former backcourt competitor on the Bulls’ first three-peat team.
“It hasn’t been awkward at all. Actually, it’s been quite pleasant,” Armstrong said of negotiating with the Bulls. “I consider Jerry (Reinsdorf) a mentor. And I consider John a friend. I’ve known John for almost 30 years.”
In fact, Armstrong, who resides in Los Angeles and has returned to his media roots with an entertaining podcast called “In The Key,” said the business relationship has offered a perspective of Reinsdorf he didn’t previously have.
“Jerry calls now and he’s got jokes,” Armstrong said. “He calls just to give me a hard time. The one thing I didn’t expect was to learn how much of a sense of humor Jerry Reinsdorf has. He’s really funny. I never got a chance to see his sense of humor when I was working for him or playing for him. He was always very serious. Now, when you’re negotiating and you’re talking business, he’s a really funny person.
“Talking with John is easy. Look, John and I have been in battles together. I know who John is. He knows who I am. We’re always able to get right to the business of it. We grew up in the business together.”
Their business included Rose’s rapid rise to becoming the youngest most valuable player in NBA history to his difficult descent because of multiple knee surgeries. The dynamic played out most dramatically when Rose sat out the 2012-13 season entirely following his first surgery to repair a torn left ACL.
The Bulls at one point leaked that Rose had been physically cleared to play.
“A lot has been said and written about it,” Armstrong said, addressing the topic publicly for the first time. “Behind closed doors when you have an injury like that, it’s very significant. You don’t know how people are going to respond to it.
“I look at this from a lot of different perspectives. I never had an ACL as a player. But when guys had an ACL, that basically meant his career was over. Now you have guys coming back in a year or a year and a half or two years. I just recall sitting there with the doctors and nobody really knew. I’m so torn with it because I know how badly he wanted to return and how much work and effort he put into it. And for whatever reason, it didn’t work out. One person’s response is different from another.
“I don’t like injuries, period. And when you have that injury, I have so much empathy for it. I’ve chosen not to hear the noise because I’ve seen these injuries and my heart goes out to anyone who sustains it. And I think people who sustain that injury will all tell you it has such an impact and there isn’t a right or wrong or a timeline. And you do the best you can. Everyone did the best they could. And the Bulls were always supportive.
“I know how badly Derrick wanted to win for Chicago and what he wanted to do for the city. I’m just heartbroken about it because I know how much Chicago means to him and how much that team meant to him. But you know what? It’s part of it. Maybe someday he’ll talk more about it. But that was such a trying time for him because he wanted that more than anything. Wherever he’s at, Chicago is home — no ifs, ands or buts about it.”
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