Mark Armstrong was a little boy, perhaps no more than five years old, when he learned that his father, Mark, Sr., was a fine basketball player at St. Peter’s Prep and later Rhode Island College.
“My mom would tell me stories about how good he was,” Mark Armstrong said of his father, who played a key role in the 1983 Prep team that won the NJSIAA Parochial A North championship. “He had the nickname of ‘Skywalker.’ She said he could jump out of the gym.”
When the time came for the younger Armstrong to learn about the game of basketball, he didn’t have to look far for a tutor.
“My father was my main trainer,” Mark Armstrong said. “Especially in sixth and seventh grade, when I started to get better, my father taught me so much. I really took off. I worked on my jump shot, the pull-up jumper, my ball handling, everything. We also did a lot of strength and conditioning things. I got my stronger and I could see that I was getting better.”
The lessons between father and son didn’t end on the court.
“Dad told me that I could use basketball to be a better person,” Armstrong said. “He taught me how to be humble.”
When the time came to choose a high school, the younger Armstrong didn’t think twice. He was going to attend his father’s alma mater.
“I thought about some other schools, but I was very comfortable at Prep,” Armstrong said.
He attended the school’s Higher Achievement Program (HAP), which has been a staple at the school during the summer months for aspiring grade school students.
“That definitely got me ready for high school,” Armstrong said.
It was while he attended the HAP program that Armstrong caught the eye of St. Peter’s Prep head coach Alex Mirabel.
“I knew who he was,” Mirabel said. “You could see right away that he was a player. He had good sense of the game and was very skilled. He could score the basketball.”
So when Armstrong entered the halls at Grand and Warren, he was thinking he would be a part of the sub-varsity.
“I didn’t think I would play varsity,” Armstrong said.
As it turned out, Armstrong not only made the Marauders’ varsity squad right away as a freshman, but he became a vital component to the team.
“He’s the most skilled freshman we’ve ever had,” said Mirabel, who also coached 1,000-point scorers Brandon Thiele (now playing basketball at Army West Point) and 2017-18 Hudson Reporter Male Athlete of the Year Shayne Simon (currently playing football at Notre Dame). Both Thiele and Simon started as freshmen, but in the eyes of Mirabel, Armstrong is a better player.
“I had a good feeling that he could play,” Mirabel said. “Sometimes I forget that he’s still a 14-year-old freshman. He’s very poised and doesn’t play like a freshman. He’s not selfish at all and plays well off his teammates. He’s rebounding, running the floor and playing defense. He picks things up very quickly. He’s a special kind of kid.”
Mirabel is also impressed with the elder Armstrong.
“I’ve never met a dad like him,” Mirabel said. “He’s very aware of his son’s game. His father helps out a lot. As long as Mark is in a gym doing something, his dad is good with that. He’s not an aggressive dad.”
Recently, the younger Armstrong has emerged as one of the top all-around players in Hudson County. It started when he made a layup with just two seconds left to give the Marauders a stunning 45-44 victory over seven-time defending Hudson County champion Hudson Catholic, the Marauders’ first win over the Hawks after 14 straight losses dating back to 2010.
Armstrong’s solid play continued when he scored 23 points against Kearny, scored 24 vs. Dickinson, scored 16 against Union City and had a season-high 25 against Bayonne, all four games Marauder victories.
And for his efforts, Armstrong has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.
Armstrong said that he learned about having poise and composure at a very young age.
“I think I was in third grade and I remember Dad telling me to be poised and not get rattled,” Armstrong said. “That has stayed with me.”
Armstrong said that he had no idea what his scoring average was for the season. It currently stands at 18 points per game, easily the top scoring mark in the history of Prep.
“I actually didn’t know,” Armstrong said. “It just means that the hard work I put in has paid off. I’m a little surprised with how well I’ve done, but I still have to get better. I knew I could play, but I didn’t know it would be this well.”
Neither did Mirabel.
“I never knew he could play like this,” Mirabel said. “He wants to be the best freshman in the county and maybe right now he is. He’s very competitive. After the Hudson Catholic game, we knew he had a lot of potential to be a special player for us. He wants the ball and it’s special to see.”
Armstrong is bringing back memories of two great Prep freshmen, namely Keith Lumpkin and Kevin Walker, both of whom started as freshmen for the Marauders when St. Peter’s won the Hudson County Tournament championship, the first of three straight county titles. Both Lumpkin, who went on to play football at Rutgers, and Walker, who had a brilliant college basketball career at Caldwell College, earned Hudson Reporter All-Area honors as freshmen. Armstrong is well on his way.
“I remember those kids,” Mirabel said of Lumpkin and Walker. “Mark definitely has the potential to be like them. He’s a very humble kid who works very hard and wants to be good. We’re keeping him humble. We don’t want him to get too high. But if he keeps up his progress, I think he could be a [NCAA] Division I player.”
Armstrong has already passed the major test – the one that comes from his old man.
“Dad says that I’m a little better than he was at this age,” Armstrong said. “We used to play a lot against each other, but now, I just blow right by him.”
Spoken like a true son. – Jim Hague
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com