NEW YORK -- John Wall. Everyone wants to talk to John Wall. That's the reason people are here in the visitor's locker room at Madison Square Garden on a frigid Monday night. John Wall this. John Wall that. His teammates are reduced to obstacles, to be stepped over and around like mounds of dirty laundry. If you're not here to talk to Wall, the team's otherworldly rookie, what are you actually here for? What's the point?
Hence, when I approach Hilton Armstrong with an extended tape recorder, his forehead crinkles. "You're here to talk to me?" he said. "Are you sure?"
Yes, I tell him. I am.
In the Year of the Superstar -- of LeBron and D-Wade teaming up; of the Carmelo Odyssey: Vol I; of Kobe's search for a third-straight title, there is something riveting about the secret plights of men like Armstrong, forgotten end-of-the-bench nobodies desperate for a crumb to fall off of the buffet table. Armstrong is a 26-year-old backup center for the Wizards, one who rarely plays and, oddly, admits his limitations. When asked whether, with the proper opportunity, he can be an NBA star, Armstrong shook his head. "Nah, probably not," he said. "But I know I can be a contributing role player. I just know it."
Four years ago, when the New Orleans Hornets selected the UConn product with the 12th overall pick Armstrong says he was shocked. "Honestly, I didn't think I'd go nearly that high," said Armstrong who, as a Huskies senior, averaged a career-high 9.7 points a game and was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. "Took me totally by surprise. I mean, I never really showed much offense [at Peekskill (N.Y.) High] or college."
In other words, if you're looking for an NBA player to root for, one who, though lacking in the skills of Kobe and the swagger of Carmelo and the arrogance of LeBron and the credentials of Paul Pierce, is a genuinely nice guy -- here he is.
Armstrong has appeared in 34 games this season, averaging 2.1 points in 11.4 minutes per game. He has played a grand total of seven minutes in the last three, and fails to understand why coach Flip Saunders refuses to look his way. "It doesn't make sense to me," he said. "I work hard, I'm positive, I'm dedicated. What do I have to do?"
The thought hangs there, lingering until the next question is asked. Because the NBA -- more than any other league -- is a star's domain, and players like Armstrong fade into the shadows. They are, however, everywhere. Sitting at the end of benches, watching the dancers during timeouts, slapping low-fives as their teammates bound off the court, hoping that maybe, just maybe, the coach will notice ... something. What Hilton Armstrong is to the Wizards, Etan Thomas is to the Hawks and Ryan Hollins is to the Cavs: invisible.
When he entered the NBA, Armstrong had a vision. No, maybe he wasn't superstar material. But at 6-foot-11 and 235 pounds, he would clog lanes and block shots and rise above. But he has played on four teams in the last two years and it's taken its toll.
Armstrong's greatest weakness, to be blunt, is his game. While he can block a few shots and rebound fairly well, his offensive cupboard is bare, and his thin frame can only hold up so long against the NBA's goliaths. There is, of course, a long and storied history of long, lean post players enjoying dazzling careers. But it's far from easy. For every Dikembe Mutombo, there are 10 Hilton Armstrongs.
The Wizards reserve says much of his perspective changed two years ago, when his fiancée, Elan, gave birth to the couple's first child, a daughter also named Elan. The couple plan on marrying this June, a date that Armstrong says keeps him afloat during the darkest stretches. "Whenever we're on the road, I'm on the phone with my fiancée and daughter for hours," he said. "I'm not with them, but I'm always thinking about them.
"Thinking of my family."