B.J. Armstrong woke Chicago up. That's how Michael Jordan described the jolt his former teammate delivered to the Bulls in Game 2 of the 1998 Eastern Conference semifinals.
In that game, Armstrong helped the Charlotte Hornets beat the odds and the Bulls, hitting a shot as the seconds dwindled to seal their fate. As documented in ESPN's The Last Dance series on Sunday, he stared down the whole Bulls team as he did it, igniting a fire in Jordan that would help the Bulls dominate the rest of the series.
As focused as he was in that moment of defeating Jordan, on his feet was a symbol of solidarity with him. In that Game 2 performance, as he eluded Jordan with the help of a Vlade Divac screen, Armstrong wore Jordans.
"This was about unification," Armstrong says now, reflecting on his footwear choice back then. Playing against Jordan in the series he wore the Jumpman Team 1, one of the first-ever team Jordan models released separate from the mainline Air Jordans. MJ, of course, had on that year's flagship model, the Air Jordan XIII.
For some in the current NBA, wearing a player's signature sneaker against him is considered taboo, a concession that might give someone a mental edge in competition. For Armstrong, who was drafted by the Bulls in 1989 and won three championships alongside Jordan in the 1990s before landing in Charlotte in 1997, it was about supporting his friend's burgeoning business.
"My perspective was: I saw someone do something that had never been done," Amstrong says, referring to Jordan Brand, Jordan’s Nike subsidiary company that launched in September 1997. "They were creating a business within a business—any way I could help support my friend."
He explains that, back then, it never occurred to him that lacing up a pair of Team Jordans to play against Air Jordan himself would be a conflict. It wasn't until his 19-year-old son pointed out the sneakers while watching him in The Last Dance that he even saw the irony in it. For Armstrong, it wasn't about competition when it came to sneakers, because Jordan was the only one creating his own company with his. He felt that any help he could lend to that cause would benefit players as a whole.
Jordan had supported him on the sneaker side earlier in his career, after all. While Michael Jordan was absent from the NBA in 1994 during his first retirement, Armstrong was selected for that year's All-Star Game. He showed up wearing a player-exclusive pair of Jordan IXs, a sneaker only a handful of people in the world had access to back then.
"I didn't think twice about it," Armstrong says.
He didn't realize it then, but his pair was part of a historic set of shoes created for players to wear in the league that year when Jordan wasn't around to. Kendall Gill, Penny Hardaway, Harold Miner, Mitch Richmond, and Latrell Sprewell had similar pairs that season, making them the first players ever to have personalized Jordans outside of Jordan himself.
Armstrong's pair had the same base as the retail version of the white and black Jordan IX, with the special touch of his number 10 stitched on the back. He can't remember if Jordan or Nike asked him to wear the shoes, but he was happy to do it. Michael Jordan was part of the reason he'd made it to the All-Star Game, so why not reference him in some small way? To him, it didn't seem like a big deal, just a sign of respect and appreciation.
"It just seemed like a natural thing to do," Armstrong says.
Those quietly important sneakers are not lost on history. Armstrong is pretty certain he has them tucked away among his relics from his playing days.
"I have them somewhere," the NBA vet says. "I gotta find those shoes—I know I have them around."
Armstrong, currently an exec at sports management firm Wasserman, has a history of donning future footwear grails that stretches back even further. He played college ball at the University of Iowa, joining the Hawkeyes in 1985, right when the team was outfitted with the first round of Nike Dunks from the classic "Be True to Your School" series. Those black and yellow Dunks were reinterpreted for an extremely rare Wu-Tang collaboration version in 1999.
"I played in those shoes," Armstrong says. "I always think of that when I see the Wu."
He may not be mentioned alongside the NBA's sneaker superstars of the 1990s, but the three-time NBA champion was there for pivotal moments in sportswear history. He had Dunks way before they were a hype-drenched retro model. He was part of the Chicago Bulls team that united in wearing black sneakers in the postseason as a sign of camaraderie. He had player-exclusive Air Jordans before the idea of that kind of special makeup existed, and way before people were shelling out thousands of dollars for them on the secondary market.
Armstrong watched Air Jordan evolve from a single yearly sneaker to a full-on company. Then, ironically, he gave the young brand one of its first spotlight moments as he wore the Jumpman Team 1 while adding a rare dent to the armor of its namesake player. But wearing those sneakers never struck him as odd.
"It was like, you were helping your brother," Armstrong says.