Kevin Armstrong likes to tell people he’s already won the lottery twice in his life. The first was being adopted. The second was being raised by Jack and Dena Armstrong.
“Definitely the coolest parents,” Kevin said from his San Diego home. “It was a great situation to grow up in, and I wouldn’t change it for anything. They’re amazing.”
Jack Armstrong has been the voice of the Toronto Raptors for two decades. To fans, he’s a lovable everyman, recognizable by his gravelly Brooklyn twang and his signature calls.
A crisp pass prompts a “Hellooo!” A big block: “Get that garbage outta here!”
Away from the mic, the 55-year-old and his wife Dena are parents of three adopted sons. Kevin is 22, Brian, 21, and Tim, 20.
“I feel like people kind of have this picture of him like ‘Ooh Jack Armstrong. Sportscaster. Coolest man in the world,“’ Kevin said. “But he’s a regular guy, he puts on his pants one leg at a time, tucks his T-shirt into his pyjama pants. He’s a clown, but he’s also the best guy I know, and I couldn’t imagine having anyone else show me through this crazy world.”
Jack and his three brothers were born to Irish immigrants. His dad died when he was seven. His mom worked at a school cafeteria and raised the family alone.
Jack and Dena met at Niagara University. At 26, he was the youngest basketball coach in NCAA Division 1. She was the women’s soccer coach. They were married in the university chapel.
After failed pregnancy attempts, and a round of fertility tests that took a physical toll – Dena became violently ill after one – they decided to explore adoption. On a recruiting trip to New York, Jack had dinner with Ed Sands, a former coaching colleague at Fordham. Sands suggested adoption, and jotted down the Texas agency he and his wife had used to adopt their two children.
“When the agency asked us ‘What kind of children would you like?’ we were like ‘What do you mean? We’ll take what you got,“’ Jack said.
“When we filled out our questionnaire, we checked all the boxes, because we didn’t care,” Dena added. “They called us and said ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t mind being in our minority program?’ We said ‘Yeah sure, we’ll go in that program.’ I was close to 40 at that point. We said ‘We’ll take any child you want to give us.“’ Minority children traditionally spend more time in the system before they’re adopted.
Kevin is biracial. Jack and Dena flew to Texas, accompanied by Dena’s three sisters and a niece and nephew, for his birth.
Brian and Tim are African American. Jack and Dena adopted Brian when he was 11 months old. He’d been living in foster care with transitional parents. The same foster parents reached out to the Armstrongs a few months later about Tim, saying “‘Hey, we’ve got the cutest little guy, and he would be perfect for you guys,“’ Jack recalled. “We’re like ‘We’ve already got two in diapers. . . Ah, what the hell, we’ll go for it.“’ Jack Armstrong talked about his unique family on a recent afternoon at Scotiabank Arena. It was several hours before the Raptors tipped off against Melbourne United in a pre-season game, and the arena was still quiet. He cherishes those pre-game hours at the gym, which he calls “my office.”
Armstrong, who’s been approached to be a spokesperson for a Canadian adoption agency, talked about the complex issues that come with transracial adoption. He and Dena know it’s frowned upon by some adoption professionals.
According to Adopt Ontario, which supports transracial adoption, African Canadians make up eight per cent of the population of Toronto, but children of African descent make up 41 per cent of all the kids in care at Children’s Aid Society of Toronto.
Adoption Ontario’s website lists a Bill of Rights for transracially adopted kids that include rights such as: “Every child is entitled to parents who know that she will experience life differently than they do.”
“Love is love,” is how Armstrong sees it. “I couldn’t love a biological son or daughter any more than I love my kids. And that’s love. I love my kids, they’re my kids. There are the highs and there are the lows, and everything in between, and every parent can relate to that, every parent goes through it. But it’s an amazing gift to have, and it’s an amazing gift to give.”
Yes, their unique family has garnered some quizzical glances. Maybe the odd frown. It’s happened walking into baseball stadiums, Jack’s pale hands clutching onto two sons, the third perched upon his shoulders. It’s happened when he’s chased a rambunctious son through an airport.
“You’ll have a person walking by thinking you’re trying to abduct the kid, you know?” he said.
After a Raptors game, one of Armstrong’s sons – he couldn’t recall which one – walked down the stairs of the then-Air Canada Centre to wait for him. When the usher tried to send him back up the stairs, the son explained he was waiting for his dad.
“Who’s your dad?” the usher asked.
“Jack Armstrong,” the boy answered.
“Sure, and I’m the Easter Bunny,” the usher scoffed.
The way Armstrong sees it: “Our whole life has been that dynamic, and you can either choose to insulate yourself from it, or invite the world in.”
He’s sat his sons down for the “DWB talk. Driving while black. How to speak to a police officer, and how to carry yourself,” Armstrong said. “The same things that Delon Wright, and Fred VanVleet and Danny Green and Kyle Lowry have lived, my boys live. I’ve tried to as best as I can, having grown up in the city, having been a basketball guy who in the majority of my businesses dealt with African American folks, be a good a role model and try to help them navigate those challenges, and those life experiences, and be there for them, and support them.”
The family grew up in Lewiston, N.Y., where Jack and Dena still lived. They all played hockey, soccer and basketball. They always had dogs. It was chaos, Jack said. But good chaos.
The boys are now scattered across the U.S. Kevin moved to San Diego after graduating from Loyola University in Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in communications. When his girlfriend finishes college, the two plan to travel and teach English in southeast Asia.
Brian is a senior (political science) at Vanderbilt in Nashville.
“Brian is very into politics, doesn’t necessarily agree with a lot of us on a lot of things,” Kevin said with a warm laugh. “But he knows what he wants and he’s very strong in his opinions.”
Tim is a sophomore (photography) at Savannah College of Art & Design in Savannah, Georgia.
“Tim is a free spirit and an old soul,” Dena said. “He plays records on a record player, he drives a 1951 (yellow Pontiac Chieftain), he dresses however he likes to dress.”
The boys, Kevin said, have grown into “their own individual men.”
“They definitely let us develop each in our own way,” he said of his parents. “They understand that we’re not biologically theirs so there’s going to be some differences between us and them. Some people would said ‘Oh you’re so like your dad, your dad does this too,’ or ‘You have your dad’s temper.’ We’re not like that like. And they’re very understanding of the fact that we’re each going to develop into our own type of men, and they are really cool letting us develop our own thought processes, our own perspectives, not pushing anything on us.”
Jack calls the past 22 years a remarkable journey. When people tell him he and Dena did an “incredible thing” in providing three babies a loving home, he quickly corrects them.
“I’m like ‘No, it’s the other way around. They made our lives totally complete. That void we were feeling because we couldn’t have children has been completely filled by the beauty and the chaos and the fun and the challenges of what parenthood is.’ “We’ve gone from being a couple to being a family. It makes the whole thing whole. It’s been an amazing experience.”