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McKinley Armstrong, 81

McKinley Armstrong, 81; D.C. high school basketball coach

In his career, Mr. Armstrong coached at several high schools.
In his career, Mr. Armstrong coached at several high schools. (Family Photo)
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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 19, 2010

McKinley Armstrong, 81, the coach and athletic director who led the storied McKinley Tech High School basketball team to three D.C. Interhigh championships from 1968 through 1971, died of prostate cancer Feb. 11 at Washington Hospital Center.

Mr. Armstrong formed and coached a team known as "the Magnificent Seven" when the McKinley Tech Trainers battled for dominance on the city's high school courts. Scores of players from his teams went on to college, two were drafted by the NBA and two others by the NFL. Many others entered the military, government or business worlds.

"If it weren't for him, I don't know what would have happened to me," said Micheal Tucker, who was team captain as a senior after he was cut from the squad the previous year. "If I had somebody to emulate, it would be Mr. Armstrong. He was a very good coach, but a better man and a better husband. He was an all-around man."

Quotable to a fault, the coach popped up in local newspaper sports columns with regularity.

Of the 5-foot-6, 120-pound William "Cricket" Williams, Mr. Armstrong said: "Cricket to us is like a battery in an auto. If your battery is dead, so is your car. But when Cricket is rolling, so are we."

But he would not criticize a player publicly, brushing off sportswriters who asked why certain starters were benched or suspended. When they returned to the roster, he showed a generation of young men how to let bygones be bygones.

"Mr. Armstrong kept me occupied and practicing. I had to, because if I didn't, he wasn't going to play me," Randolph "Apple" Milam said. "I didn't have anybody to guide me, and stay on top of me, like he did."

Born in Winston-Salem, N.C., McKinley J.H. Armstrong won a football scholarship to North Carolina Central University, a historically black school in Durham, where he also played drums in the marching band and pledged the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity.

After graduation, he served in the Army during the Korean War and then began teaching. He was hired in 1953 at the small, segregated West Southern Pines High School in Southern Pines, N.C., where he also wrote the official school song, coached football and basketball, and taught almost every subject. One student recalled that he even taught his classes how to balance a checkbook. He took the boys' basketball team to the state finals three times, winning the title in 1959.

Mr. Armstrong moved to Front Royal, Va., in 1959, when Criser High School was built to keep African Americans out of Warren County High School during Virginia's "massive resistance" to court desegregation rulings. At Criser, he transformed the sports teams into respected contenders in the Shenandoah Valley.

By 1965, Mr. Armstrong moved to McKinley Tech and started shaping his athletic legacy.

Kevin Tatum, now a sportswriter at the Philadelphia Inquirer, was then a 5-foot-6 sophomore who had been cut twice from the junior varsity team. By luck, he ended up in Mr. Armstrong's classroom, where the coach, struggling with a team whose record was 8-9, spotted him.


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