by Katherine Martinko
For years he was a father-figure, mentor and role model to young people — as an athletic coach. Becoming a dad himself one day was seemingly always in the cards for Jack Armstrong.
“It’s like the ultimate calling that you could have,” the award-winning sports broadcaster told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk.
“I didn’t have a dad my life for most of my life. My mom did an amazing job raising us and she’s my hero,” he says.
Click for video transcription
Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a broadcaster who is in his 25th season as a sports caster and color analyst for the Toronto Raptors. Jack Armstrong is also a musician, a former college basketball coach, and a father of three. He joins us today from his home in Lewiston, New York. Thank you so much for taking time. Yeah, my pleasure. Glad to be on with you. And you know, we’re going to talk about all things parenting. And I’d like to start by asking you had you always wanted to be a dad?
Yes, absolutely. I mean, there’s no question about it, I just there was always something as a young person that I’ve looked at and felt like, you know, it’s kind of like a higher calling. It’s like the ultimate calling that you could have. And so to me, yeah, no doubt. And you know, my dad passed away when I was seven. So I didn’t have a dad my life, for most of my life. My mom did an amazing job raising us and she’s my hero.
And I just even looking at the job that my mom did, raising four boys by herself.
You just have that much more respect for what a parent is, and the impact a parent can make on a young person’s life. So yeah, absolutely. So when you think about your mom, who was a widow, fairly young age, single mother, then who raised three or four boys, you were the last of the four, what stood out for you in terms of how you sort of watch that unfold over your life?
Well, I would say incredible resiliency, because it’s, it’s, you know, my parents are immigrants to the United States from Ireland. And, you know, to lose a husband at age 48, have a heart attack. And to now, my dad was 48, when he passed, and to have now have to raise four boys by yourself. My mom was a cafeteria worker at a PS 238, a little public school in Brooklyn. And, you know, obviously, it’s not easy raising four boys on a small salary. And I just think that she was a person with grace, she is a person with great faith, and will, and love, and spirit and determination that, you know, guided us on that path in life, and was very instrumental in terms of everything that I think my three brothers that I have in our lives.
I can’t thank her enough, we can’t thank her enough. She’s, as I mentioned earlier, our hero, I call my mother every single day, sometime between 9am and 11am. And I always finish the conversation with the three most magical words you can say to someone, and that is, I love you.
She’s 96 and lives on her own in New York. And she’s doing great. And, you know, we’re her legacy. And, you know, now, My children, and my three brothers children are her legacy, 14 grandchildren, now a great grandchild. And so to me, you know, I’m just part of that circle of life. And part of that, that
little piece of the puzzle, and she just showed us the right way. And there were, you know, obviously, growing up in Brooklyn, there were some challenging situations in a challenging place. And you know, a lot of people I know, went the wrong way. And she wouldn’t let us go the wrong way. She was our guiding light. So, to me, you look back sometimes, and you say, how did I get through that? And, you know, you always come back to that same person. And as much as you want to give yourself credit.
You always look back and you say, No, that was instilled in me. And I think that’s the higher calling I’m talking about in terms of parenthood, that you kind of leave a little bit of yourself within that next person that you you have an impact on and that not just as a parent, you know, as a coach and as a mentor and a colleague, whatever, friend, we all leave a little something of ourselves with each other.
Now you have been a coach from a very young age and speaking of being the Guiding Light along that path, from a young age until today, when you’re no longer coaching directly, but you’re around coaches, you see these young players all the time.
You know, was being a father figure part of how you saw coaching?
Oh, yeah, definitely, I think that
it would be disgraceful. If you didn’t see that as a big part of your job, if you’re just in it for the
clear cut, hey, winning and losing hate us as a business than players see through that. And I think that has an impact on the relationship. And when that relationship reaches a point, as it always does, in, in coaching, where there’s going to be disagreement and conflict and trying to get back on the same page, if you haven’t shown that you care about them, as a person, first and foremost, it’s going to be hard to bridge that gap. I’ve always been a big believer, you can go through life being a bridge builder, we can go through life being
a wall builder, and I’d rather build bridges, and I rather build a wall. So that’s all part of it is that you show you care. You’re there for them. You have empathy, and love, and spirit and soul and you’re in there in the fight with them.
Sometimes you’re giving them tough love and telling them what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear. But nonetheless, you’re there for them, and you have their back. Because it’s not transactional. It’s real. It’s love. And it’s, it’s passion. And it’s emotion. And it’s something that it’s a shared journey. And just like it’s a shared journey with your own children, as a father, it’s that same journey with your players. And I used to always say, as a college coach, that the school years affect how you do the next 40. And we’re part of that. And the thing I’m most proud of is that every guy coached in my time at Fordham University and Niagara University, as their college degree. And maybe I played a little small part in their development, not only as a student, but much much more as a player, but much, much more importantly,
trying to help them on their journey as a young man reach their goals and reach their potential.
Now along those lines, Jack, what specific attributes of coaching that you covet, do you believe translate directly into parenting?
Well, I you know, I’ve always been a big believer in the five P’s proper planning prevents poor performance, I think if you if, overwhelmingly, if you spend time with a coach, and my wife is a former division one head coach herself, she was a women’s soccer coach at Niagara University, and also women’s basketball assistant. So she was a division one coach and two sports. That’s where we met. But I think you got to have a plan, you know, you got to be organized you have to have, because, particularly when you raise kids, all within the same age group, it’s absolute utter Bedlam and chaos. And many times, it could be a gong show, because they’re all going in 85 different directions. And it’s very stressful. And, you know, obviously, I travel for a living, I give my wife, so much credit. I mean, she’s an amazing person with great spirit, and just
just relentless in terms of, you know, we, we got those kids to what they needed to be at every day. And I don’t know how it happened, but it happens. And that’s what parents do. And but I think, you know, they’re the things that matter to the soul, and that it’s the love and the care and the compassion and the empathy and the concern and the guidance and all those things that you bring. But you also have to bring structure. And structure is important.
You know, that they understand, you know, how we go about our daily schedule and having a plan and let’s not mistake activity for achievement. We’re not just running around with no purpose. And so I think coaching helps that, that there’s a mission statement as a game plan. There’s a vision for what we want to get accomplished. We don’t know what that’s going to end up being. But I think just being able to give them some structure and stability, I think is very important. I think in coaching. That’s what you’re trying to do every day. And I think in parenthood, you know, there’s something to that.
Let’s go to the story about how you and your wife became parents. And I’m curious as to have you ever thought about adoption in a deep and meaningful way prior to both of you looking at that as an option to have a family
You know, I, you know, we had friends that had
But we just always thought we were going to be fortunate enough to have our own children, and unfortunately, we couldn’t. And then when that took place,
you know, it’s a very emotional experience. And
it was like, hey, well, let’s do this then. And I said to my wife, you know, I said, I didn’t marry you for your ability, biologically, to have children, I married you, because I love you. Let’s adopt. And it’s funny. One of my former colleagues, I named Ed sands, who was an assistant at Fordham University with made from 1984 to 88. And then was coaching high school basketball, and I was recruiting one of his players in New York City. And we were out to dinner.
And we decide to chat and he and his wife adopted a few boys. And so that’s kind of how it happened.
I connected my wife with his wife, they had a conversation, and then the wheels just started rolling. So and then they asked us the adoption agency, well,
what kind of child would you like? And we were like, What are you talking about? We’ll take what you got, you know, we’ll take any child, I mean, whoever needs a home, we’d be honored and blessed to have a child. So they say, Well, you know, we are having a difficult time right now, placing minority, African American boys, like, Hey, we’re in counter sin, you know, we’ll do it, we’d be honored and thrilled and blessed to have a boy. And then one boy led the to two boys like the three. And we had three diapers at one time. So it’s been an amazing journey, and an absolute blessing. So,
you know, the best decision, my wife, you know, I would say the best two decisions I’ve made in my life, we’re number one asked my wife to marry me. And number two, my wife and I, collectively as a partnership,
you know, deciding to adopt three boys, and it’s the best decisions in my life.
You know, it’s such a powerful story as you were counted, because we are talking about more than 20 years ago when you adopted your first son. And I wonder, you know, with the joy of welcoming this new family member, did you have any trepidation? Were you nervous at all about the fact that you were now going to welcome a child from a different cultural background into your new family? Well, you know, it’s interesting, that first child just got married two weeks ago in California. So
you know, so one down two to go in that category. And so, now they’re 2726 25. And trepidation, I don’t think so. I mean, at the time that we adopted, I was a division one men’s basketball coach, my wife was a soccer coach. I mean, and particularly what I do, there are a number of African American
players that I coached, and coaches that work for me.
So I felt like I was in the perfect environment, to have a support system, and then going from coaching, to working in the NBA with the raptors, where I’m in my 26th year.
You know, again, there was that natural connection, that they’re going to be around some people that look like them, and
could be also mentors or role models to them, and help along that journey. But the thing I learned a long time ago, growing up in Brooklyn, and in my whole career as a coach, whether it be grade school, high school, college, my whole experience, people are people. Yeah, we, you know, we all come from different backgrounds and all that. But ultimately, it’s your soul, that if I cut you and you cut me, we both bleed the same color. And we’re people, and it’s ultimately about the love and the compassion and the care and your soul, and being able to get past all that other stuff. And to me, that’s what it’s all about. So, you know, you’ll always have moments where you’re, you know, you say to yourself, can I can I bridge that gap sometimes and, you know, there are times where you say, I need a little bit of advice, and I would reach out to folks that maybe have walked in those shoes to help me through some of those things. And it’s been very helpful.
Would you say gave you that confidence was it as you described, just being around that scene of other, you know, young people from different cultural backgrounds, etc, that helped you sort of empowered you as a new dad, or were there other things that you relied on, to give you that confidence to become a parent.
I just think in your heart, you know, you’re doing the right thing. And your faith
that you’re doing the right thing, and to support.
My mom, my wife’s parents, my wife’s family, my family, our friends, everyone got behind us, and we’re incredibly supportive. And I just think that, you know, our kids were just smothered with love, and support, and direction, and foundation and structure
that, you know, anywhere they turned, it was somebody to ask for them. And somebody with an embrace, and a kind word, and sometimes a very direct word when they needed it. Because when you’re raising three boys, they need to ask.
So, to me, I, you know, I don’t know. I don’t know if it was confidence. I just felt like, hey, in your heart, when you know you’re doing the right thing. The answers start coming on their own.
When you talk about having a game plan, right, as a coach, and certainly as a parent, having that strategy sort of mapped out.
You talked about the structure as well. And I’m curious with your busy schedule, your career that has continued on while you’re, you know, you and your wife are raising these kids. What did the Armstrong game plan look like? For you to survive you and your wife to survive all the different ages and stages of parenting? Well, the funny thing is, we have a mudroom, downstairs here in our house, and a cat. There’s a calendar in the mudroom. Right now the calendar is empty. Sadly, sadly, because all three boys have grown up and they’re out of the house and they’re all doing their own thing. And we’re very proud of them. But that calendar on a weekly basis was completely filled. And you know, people ask me sometimes why don’t you live in Toronto, your work at Toronto, you live in Toronto, my wife’s family’s from here in Lewiston. And, you know, you look at
the fact that where I live, I mean, I can look out my window right behind me. And Canada is 400 yards from I live right across from Niagara to Lake, I live right on the Niagara River.
So I’m kind of like an adopted Canadian, a lot of adoption going on. And, but to have my wife’s family around here, and it kind of a built in support system for my kids. It just made complete sense to stay here. And for me to commute in and out when I needed to. And it’s worked out great for 26 years. I’m glad I’m glad we stayed here and all my friends from Toronto, when they come and visit and they go wow, you live right on that on the Niagara River across from Niagara nollaig What a beautiful spots. And now it may all make sense of why you would stay where you all because your kids had that built in support system. So and I’m not saying it would wouldn’t have happened in Toronto. It just was easier at that point when you have three in diapers at one time. That you know you need that stability and that shortness that when I’m on a road trip for two weeks, that my wife has the help that she needs. And you know, her family and friends and we have a young lady that
her mom was in our wedding party, one of my wife’s dear friends and her daughter
ended up being kind of like our somewhat of our nanny that she would drop by the house every day at three o’clock my wife was working. And she picked them up at school and they’d sit around the kitchen table and they’d have grilled cheese or whatever and they do their homework. And then my wife would get home from work around four or 430 and then off we go to hockey and basketball and swimming and all these different activities every night. And so it’s just mayhem. And then when I would have my offseason I was kind of like the proverbial Mr. Mom where I’m taking the three boys everywhere. So we missed those days. Literally. speaking to you on a Sunday I got home. We landed in Toronto after playing the Chicago Bulls and crazy overtime loss. And by the time I got home after a long flight and game going late, I got home at four o’clock in the morning pulled into my driveway. And you know, I said to myself, How can I do it that my wife doing? When you have maybe a seven, six and five year old at home. You get home at four and now you’re up at six because you got to be at the rink
630 to lace up their skates and put them on the ice. And then there’s a full day ahead where, you know, they’re gonna three different sports and all that times three, you know, so you just, you think of the energy that you have, and you have to have. But the thing I learned too, is that, at some point time, you gotta let go of who it’s about you and get to the realization that it’s now about them. It’s their time, I’ve had my time. And I’m not giving up on myself and my wife didn’t give up on herself. And you need to have your time with your friends and your time together, more importantly, as a husband and wife to do your thing. But you got to put a lot into it, you got to dive headfirst into their lives, because they’re the ones that matter. And we’re adults now we got to help them get to that point.
I’m curious as to how your sons would describe you, as dad.
You know what I have to say? Probably, I couldn’t answer that question. Because, you know, they would be the ones that have to describe it, I can tell you what I’ve tried to do as a dad, I you know, as we know, it is Every parent knows, and as every coach knows, is every leader knows, we succeed. In some areas, we fail in others. But I always tried to, I tell my kids, every single solitary chance I get, whether it be a spoken word, the written word, through action, I always tell my kids, I love them, every time I’m in their presence, I hug them and always kiss them.
I always, but that you know, a lot of that ceremonial, you know, but then you really, then you have to follow through with it with your actions. And your actions got to tell them on a daily basis that you love them and, and the different things that you do your kids, to let them know that, hey, I’m there for you, you know, good, bad or indifferent, I got your back. And it’s tough times to where you got to give them tough love. And you got to set them straight. And you got to say, No, this is unacceptable. And these are the standards and you’re not meeting the standards. And I expect more of you. And we’re going to get there, and I’m going to be there to help you get there. And they’re going to be times you don’t want to do it, but you’re going to do it. And so I would say I’ve tried to be up the two of us, I think my wife is very direct, come atcha straight. And you know, some I think my boys all know her bark is a little bigger than her bite. But nonetheless, this bite, and they, you know, they’re on blast when they’re around her. And yet, I could be very firm and direct as well. But nonetheless, I’m probably more of the conversational type. And, you know, let’s try to get to the core and the root of what the issue is. So I’ve always tried to be that mentor and guide, and that helping hand. And as again, as I said, they’d be the better one to answer how well I did, I guess. But you try your best every day to show them the way and you know, I had a teacher one time there’s a song by The Eagles already gone. Sometimes you can see the stars, but you can’t see the light. And when you’re raising children, and the same as when you’re coaching young people, they see the star but they don’t see the light. And it’s our job as a parent or your job as a coach or a leader, whatever it may be. To help those people young people see the light. And it’s the same thing, do they see the tree? Or do they see the forest, maybe as a parent, you see the forest and the child only sees the tree. So it’s your job to kind of stretch them out and help them on that journey. And there’s a lot of times they go down the wrong path. And you got to help them find the right path. And you got to be there for them. So
man, I tried my best. And I couldn’t have been prouder a few weeks ago, when my oldest son Kevin got married so and you see just how he carries themselves, but more importantly, my two other boys at his wedding party and seeing the three of them interact and play off each other and bust each other’s chops and have fun with each other being at his bachelor party back in the spring and just you know hanging out now and being kind of a secondary figure, and hanging out with his friends and my sons and kind of I’m along for the ride now. And these guys are all in their late 20s And they’re like Hey, Mr. Armstrong, this that the other day and I’m just following orders, you know? So it’s really cool to see how they navigate the world. Now.
Speaking of navigating the world, certainly in the last three years in particular, the whole issue of race and you know, racialization are in the headlines, basically every day
Since George George Floyd’s death, and I wonder, how did you or did you address this topic with your sons? And what did that look like?
Well, it’s a very painful time in everyone’s life. And obviously, I think for my son’s, the good part of it was that there, they were older, and they could absorb it a little bit better. Maybe if they were
1011 and 12, rather than in their early 20s, it probably would have been even a little bit more difficult.
But so that my point is, I think I could have a really adult, direct conversation with them about what was going on, and How disgraceful it was, and how that the world has to change. And the United States has to change and the history in terms of civil rights and race relations, needs to grow and improve, not only significantly, but dramatically, so being able to have those conversations with your children, and say, Hey, I support this, and I support how you feel. And we’re here for you. And we’ve always been here for you. And we’re always going to be here for you. And that this is wrong. And, you know, I think what, you know, I think ultimately, when I look at it from my wife and I,
some people talk it, other people live it.
And I feel like my wife and I have lived it. You know, we’ve lived we lived the cause. And that is that
we love these three boys, and I couldn’t love a biological son or daughter any more than I love my three sons. And I think that’s what kind of the whole core of everything is is that? Why are you looking at someone based upon the color of their skin? Or their religious background? Or whatever the case may be? What does that have to do with anything? It should have nothing to do with anything. So to me,
I think that’s the lesson we’ve always tried to instill is that, you know, it’s about people. It’s about who, you know, respecting people? And, you know, I don’t know, I think that goes back to my faith.
Jack, what would you say strikes you most as you look out at the parenting landscape today?
Well, I think the biggest challenge is, and there’s so much pressure on parents today, for you to raise the perfect daughter or the perfect Son. And that’s never gonna happen. Because we’re all perfectly imperfect. And we have to accept sometimes that our son or daughter isn’t going to end up going to the top college is going to be the best hockey player or soccer player, that they’re not going to be
the best dancer at the dance recital or the best singer at a school play or whatever the case may be. It’s okay. And I
think sometimes we enable too much. Rather than empower.
Kids need to fail.
Kids need to know it’s okay to fail.
Failure is part of the journey. Well, we need to do a better job of and look guilty as charged. I think I’ve been guilty of enabling. And I feel like I’ve been at my best when I’ve empowered.
You know, we have to teach them resiliency, we have to teach them
that you’re going to fail. And that’s okay. We’re gonna be here for you. And the most important thing is you got to get back up.
And as parents are loved is the safety net for them.
Nonetheless, we can’t be there catching them all the time.
They got to catch themselves and make good life decisions. Because what do they say the only way you lose in the game of life is if you beat yourself, and but but those are the things you instill in them every day. So I think, you know, the idea of helicopter parent is something that there’s so much pressure on parents today that they feel like they have to raise that perfect child. And there’s no textbook. There is no rulebook.
Parenting is a case by case
gang. And look, we have three
boys. And none of them are related biologically. They’re all come from different backgrounds, you could be in from a house, you know, three older brothers that we’re all biologically wired the same. Nonetheless, we’re all unique and all distinctly different. And my point is, there’s no, there’s no right or wrong way. And it’s a case by case basis. I think you have to try to instill the same values, and you have to try to instill that discipline, you got to be consistent on those fronts. And you go to provide that love and all that. But sometimes they need a pat on the back, and sometimes they need to kick it. Yes. You know, it all depends which one you deal with. And in many times, it varies based upon the circumstance.
Absolutely. Jack Armstrong, color analyst for the Toronto Raptors and dad of three, thank you so much for sharing your time and your lived experience with us today. Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it. And
I would, you know, for any parent, any person out there, I would strongly encourage adoption. I think it’s a wonderful thing. And there are so many children out there right now that need some place and need loving parents. So I absolutely advocate for it. And I hope our story in some way, shape or form, maybe resonates with somebody and gets them to reflect on, on maybe that decision in their life. So I know, I know. I don’t regret it. I know my wife doesn’t regret it. And it’s again, as I’ve said many times, it’s been a blessing. People say to you all the time. What a great thing you did for these three kids and I always say great thing I did you kidding me? You got you got to completely wrong. It’s it’s in the reverse.
They’ve made our life complete. They’ve made our life whole they’ve made our life when they made our family. So no, the blessing has been in reversed towards my wife and I
it’s a wonderful story. We really appreciate you sharing it with us. Thank you, Lianne.
Speaking from his home in Lewiston, New York, Armstrong, has spent more than 25 seasons as a broadcaster with the Toronto Raptors basketball team. He is also a musician, a former NCAA Division I basketball coach, and the father of three adopted boys.
Armstrong described what it is like to be a white father to black sons, which followed years the childhood loss of his own father at the age of seven.
“Looking at the job that my mom did, raising four boys by herself, you just have that much more respect for what a parent is, and the impact a parent can make on a young person’s life.”
His father died of a heart attack at 48, leaving his mother, an Irish immigrant to Brooklyn, with four young sons to raise while working in a cafeteria. “She was a person with grace, with great faith, and will, and love, and spirit, and determination that guided us on that path in life; and [she] was very instrumental in terms of everything that I think my three brothers and I have in our lives.”
Fast forward a few decades, and Armstrong and his wife, also a former NCAA Division I coach, decided to adopt children when they couldn’t have their own. This turned out to be “the best decision” of his life. They ended up adopting three black boys.
When asked if he had trepidation about adopting babies from a different ethnic background, Armstrong said no, he felt like he was in the perfect environment, surrounded by black athletes and other coaches and a community that could provide support and be mentors or role models.
He also didn’t see transracial adoption as an issue: “The thing I learned a long time ago, growing up in Brooklyn, and in my whole career as a coach, [is that] people are people. Yeah, we all come from different backgrounds, but ultimately… it’s about the love and the compassion and the care and your soul, and being able to get past all that other stuff.”
Armstrong tells Castelino that his coaching background certainly shaped his approach to parenting and vice versa: “It would be disgraceful if you didn’t see [being a father figure to athletes] as a big part of your job.”
Structure played a big role in keeping organized, as did providing feedback and tough love when needed: “I’ve always been a big believer [in the idea that] you can go through life being a bridge-builder, or we can go through life being a wall-builder. And I’d rather build bridges…You’re there for them. You have empathy and love and spirit and soul, and you’re in the fight with them.”
Armstrong’s sons are now in their late twenties, but he remains a passionate proponent of adoption, urging couples to consider it.
“It has been a blessing,” he says. “They’ve made our life complete. They made our life when they made our family.”
He also remembers with gratitude the sacrifice, resilience and courage of his own mother, who is 96 and lives on her own.
“I can’t thank her enough. We can’t thank her enough,” says Armstrong. I call my mother every single day, sometime between 9am and 11am, and I always finish the conversation with the three most magical words you can say to someone, and that is, I love you.”