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Not Just a Baby Face

It is his face, round and smooth, with eyes as wide and soft as a
child's, that gives the impression that B.J. Armstrong is fragile and
easily bruised. But if Armstrong were as sensitive as he looks, he
never could have withstood the questions that arose when he replaced
John Paxson as Michael Jordan's backcourt partner early in the
season. The Bulls struggled for awhile, and some critics pointed to
the most obvious difference -- Armstrong's increased playing time.
''That experience definitely made me a better player because I had
to find strength somewhere within me to take the criticism for what
it was worth and turn it into a challenge,'' he says. ''When you go
through some tough times and survive them, you come out stronger.''
Armstrong went on to finish the regular season as the team's
fourth leading scorer (12.3 points per game), and he saved some of
his finest moments for the playoffs. The biggest may have been the
three-pointer he drained against the New York Knicks in the final
1:17 of the fifth game of the Eastern Conference finals, which swung
the series in Chicago's favor for good. But the biggest contribution
Armstrong made in the postseason came on defense, helping to bottle
up Mookie Blaylock of the Atlanta Hawks, Mark Price of the Cleveland
Cavaliers, John Starks of New York and Kevin Johnson of the Phoenix
''Here's a headline for you: B.J. AGAINST KJ WAS A-OK,'' said
forward-center Stacey King during the '93 Finals. ''We knew coming
into the series that stopping KJ's penetration, or at least cutting
it down, was essential if we were going to win.''
The championship is all the sweeter for Armstrong because of those
bitter moments early this season, which he survived with the help of
assistant coach Jim Cleamons and veteran teammate Trent Tucker.
''There's a saying: That which does not kill us makes us stronger,''
Tucker says. ''B.J. learned the meaning of that this year. He's grown
up a lot in the last eight or nine months.''
More than anything, though, Armstrong credits his success to the
amount of playing time he received as a starter. ''This year was the
first time I was ever asked to go out and guard someone like Mark
Price for 30 minutes,'' he says. ''In the past my job was to come in
as a reserve and create havoc during certain stretches of the game,
but this year it was to do a solid defensive job from beginning to
end. The more that was asked of me, I think, the better I became.''
Armstrong and the rest of the Bulls expect Armstrong's improvement
to continue, although he knows that his innocent looks will always
belie his inner strength. ''Maybe I wouldn't be tested so much by
other teams if I had a nastier look,'' he says, ''but I'll never have
a Charles Barkley kind of face. People have always gotten the wrong
impression by looking at my face.''
Maybe now his critics will realize that the place to look for
insights into Armstrong is not his face but his hand -- the one with
the three rings. -- P.T.