Chris Armstrong was 6 years old when he joined his first basketball team.
His parents proudly display their photo of little Chris wearing his Chicago Bulls jersey and holding a basketball tightly with a huge grin on his face.
“After that, we knew he loved playing basketball,” said his mother Marlene Armstrong. “We even tried soccer and baseball, but always came back to basketball.”
Now 21, Chris still lives for his favorite sport, which has had a positive impact on every aspect of his life. And 2020 was looking like one of the best years of his athletic career — he helped lead the West Licking Special Olympics (WLSO) basketball team to the state title at Bowling Green State University.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic struck.
Although Chris isn’t sure when he’ll be able to rejoin his team, he’s still working on his game — with the help of technology — to stay connected to basketball every day.
‘We wanted him to be part of a team’
Chris’ journey with basketball started because his family wanted him to experience the many benefits of playing a sport.
“In sports, you learn to get along and play with other people. We wanted him to be part of a team,” Marlene said. “Sports imitate life and you’ve got to be able to get along with different people.”
After playing in rec leagues and attending many basketball camps, Chris’ interest picked up in fifth grade.
He tried out for basketball every year in middle school and high school. Although he didn’t make the team, during his senior year at Granville High School he was brought on as an assistant coach and played with the team on Senior Night.
He didn’t stop there, as he prepared for a year-long internship through Project SEARCH, Chris began playing with WLSO’s school-ages team.
Not only did he prove himself as a player, but as a team leader.
“He’s known among his teammates as someone who is really willing to help the younger players develop their skills,” Marlene said. “Some of the other mothers came up to me and they really thanked Chris for keeping their players inspired. He took players under his wing and encouraged them. That’s something he’s really passionate about, giving back to others.”
In 2019, Chris organized a trip to Canton to participate in a try out for the NBA G League Team, the Canton Charge.
There were about 100 players participating in the try out and Chris made it about 70 percent of the way through. Then he was able to watch and learn from the remaining players, Marlene said.
“Even though I got cut, I wasn’t upset,” Chris said. “It was a good experience, not everyone has gone to an NBA G League try out. Not a lot of people have been able to do that.”
Word of Chris’ experience at the try out reached Bob Ghiloni, who was then the basketball coach at Denison University. He asked Marlene if Chris would be interested in volunteering with the team.
When he wasn’t working at the Granville Inn, Chris attended practices and games with the Big Red basketball team.
He still keeps in touch with some of the players and they’ve showed up at his Special Olympics basketball games.
Chris said he enjoyed learning about the team’s core values, which gave him valuable insights to bring back to his Special Olympics teammates.
“The core value lessons are really great,” he said. “We are a team. We are not pointing fingers, yelling, screaming….That can bring a team down.”
Although the Special Olympics state championships were over before the pandemic began, Chris still experienced a significant amount of changes all at once.
His experience with Denison and all Special Olympics events came to an end and he was laid off from his job.
But Chris maintained a positive outlook, Marlene said.
“I wasn’t really upset or anything when it first hit, when the NBA got suspended, I remained calm. We are going to get through this,” he said. “I wasn’t just sitting around all day. I had more free time to work on skills.”
Chris was used to working out and playing basketball at the Y, but he turned to a cell phone app called Homecourt, which uses artificial intelligence to track basketball shots, makes and misses.
Using the app, Chris was able to do drills on his own and participate in virtual workouts with players from all over the world. He also has had the opportunity to coach younger players through workouts.
“It’s a really good app to see your progress, he said. “You can chat with people and form teams. Even with people you don’t know and make new friends from another country and another state.”
Chris has also been able to use technology to keep track of developments in the NBA and communicate with fans from all over the world about how the association was handling COVID-19 changes.
Through Instagram-Live, he’s been able to participate in more drills, including some with well known coaches and players.
In the spring, he participated in an Instagram Live with LA Lakers coach Phil Handy, who virtually coached him through some ball handling drills.
“I did the workout really well,” Chris said. “He’s a good coach to work out with.”
Marlene said she’s enjoyed seeing Chris take so much initiative.
“From day one he’s had a very positive attitude about everything,” she said. “What I started to notice was, he created a routine for himself.”
‘I’m not really distanced”
Not only has Chris kept himself in shape, but he’s been in touch with his Special Olympics teammates, hoping it will be safe to play together again soon.
They’ve gone on several trail walks, played cornhole and have kept in touch virtually.
“I’m not really distanced from the team,” he said.
He’s planning to find a new job and is actively working with Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities to find the right fit.
He’s hoping to start working out at the gym more, resume his volunteer work with Denison and be able to continue playing with his teammates for WLSO.
It can be frustrating to wait, but Chris is committed to staying calm and focusing on keeping all athletes safe.
“I keep saying, ‘Wash your hands, please wear a mask, I’ll see you guys soon,’” he said.
It’s been exciting to see Chris continue to grow as a leader during a difficult time and Marlene said that makes her hopeful.
“We hope that his future always involves basketball,” she said. “He is so knowledgeable.”
Chris said there is no doubt in his mind that it will.
“This sport definitely brings everyone together,” he said.
Photos provided by the Armstrong family.