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Albert "Guss" Armstead operates the Sacramento Pro Development Summer Basketball and runs a business as a trainer.
Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer

His court is always in session



 

It's a Wednesday morning at the Capital Christian High School gym, and an intense basketball game is under way. The mix of talented players represents all levels of the basketball world: some high schoolers, players recently out of college, overseas veterans, NBA players and a few playground legends still chasing that dream.

Most players say they come to Capital Christian in search of a good game, but the man who organizes these impromptu contests is the main attraction.

When Albert "Guss" Armstead, then an assistant coach at Sacramento State in 1986, beganng the gym on campus for pickup games featuring the likes of Kenny Smith, Otis Thorpe and LaSalle Thompson, he didn't envision becoming one of the more influential figures in Sacramento basketball.

Armstead, 40, said the Sacramento Pro Development Summer Basketball League he runs at Capital Christian was born out of the need to give some structure to that high-caliber recreation basketball.

"I was still playing when I realized you can't play unorganized," Armstead said.

Capital Christian High School sophomore-to-be Darius Logan, right, receives a few pointers from the Kings' Bobby Jackson.
Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer
Former Del Campo High School and UCLA standout Matt Barnes hopes to make an NBA roster.
Sacramento Bee/Brian Baer

Things have changed since then. Agents send their clients to him. High school players line up to tap his basketball knowledge. Foreign teams supplement Armstead's income when they call to see if he knows a player who might fill a need on their rosters. "I act more like a consultant," Armstead said. "If a team needs a guy, they know I have access to guys."

That's especially true among players from the Sacramento area, many of whom Armstead has known for years. He has connections around the globe that began by developing relationships while at Sac State in the late 1980s.

He also is a renowned trainer through his business, To The Hoop. He has built a reputation as someone who can push even the most successful athletes to their physical limits. The pros pay as much as $500 a month for Armstead's services, while preps get a discount of $250.

"He makes you run a lot," said Kings guard Bobby Jackson. "Guss knows what he's doing. He's the Sacramento guru of basketball."

Armstead's reputation has players from across the country coming to the Sacramento in hopes of moving on to play professionally. Mike Wilks, a reserve guard with the Minnesota Timberwolves and a Milwaukee native, first heard about Armstead and his twice-a-day workouts while playing at Rice. He was told of Armstead's work with Kevin Ollie and Troy Hudson, undrafted players who are now on NBA rosters.

After not being selected in the 2001 NBA draft, Wilks spent time in the National Basketball Development League. Wilks went to camp with the Kings in 2001, then Milwaukee in 2002. The Atlanta Hawks picked him from the Huntsville Flight of the NBDL last December. After a series of 10-day contracts, Wilks landed with the Timberwolves, who signed him through the rest of the season.

Wilks credits Armstead's workouts and skills training with improving his game to the point he could stick with a playoff team. "While other people are out vacationing, I'm getting up early, working out twice a day, getting out on the track," Wilks said. Wilks said he shares a spiritual kinship with Armstead, whose encouraging words motivated the player during the failed pro tryouts. That Armstead knows how to whip players into form is a bonus. "Where I'm from in Milwaukee, there aren't a lot of places to work out or people who know what they're doing," Wilks said.


Armstead, a native of Lompoc, moved to Sacramento in 1984 to play basketball at Sac State. He was an assistant coach for the Hornets from 1986 to 1988. What began as organized pickup games evolved into the development league around 1990. For 10 years, games were played at the Salvation Army gym in Oak Park before the league moved to bigger quarters at Natomas High, then Capital Christian. Each team has a sponsor that kicks in about $1,500 to field a team. The Kings usually donate about $2,500. Armstead said he usually loses money on the summer league after paying for the gym and officials. With six teams this summer, the league was self-supporting.

This year's pro-am version, which started June 9 and concluded Wednesday night, featured an eclectic mix of players. Jackson is an NBA star, having graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. Former Christian Brothers High and Cal standout Monty Buckley, a 1991 graduate, is one of several players who have known Armstead since they were in high school. Buckley has established a successful career abroad, playing in England last season.

"Guss, he's amazing," Buckley said. "Whatever you put in, you get better." Armstead can challenge athletes, no matter the level of their games. He also emphasizes a family atmosphere in his training sessions.

"Every day the routine is different," said former Center High star Renee Wright, who just finished her freshman season at Cal. "But it's the most rigorous routine he can think of."

Armstead said when Del Campo's Krista Foster committed to Cal, the happiness went beyond him and her family. Several players he works with called to pass along congratulations to Foster, one of Armstead's pupils.

But when things go badly, Armstead and those he works with also are there, as Wright learned after tearing her anterior cruciate knee ligament before her senior year. Armstead was pivotal in helping Wright recover by developing drills she could do while not standing, such as dribbling drills in a chair.

"We're all definitely a family," Wright said. "He really has a family atmosphere, and everyone's so close. You have so many people who you can share you're experiences with."

When players happen to be in town, agents and friends direct them to Armstead if they're interested in keeping their skills sharp. Tremaine Fowlkes of the Los Angeles Clippers initially learned about Armstead some three years ago. He now splits time between his family in Sacramento and Los Angeles.

"Everybody was up at the Salvation Army, and I just worked out there," Fowlkes said. "I only work out with Guss in Sacramento. That's all I really need is him (in Sacramento)." Fowlkes is such a believer that the only time he doesn't work with Armstead is when he is in Los Angeles at the Clippers' facilities.

Capital Christian sophomore-to-be Darius Logan is the latest of many young preps to learn under Armstead. Logan was matched against Jackson in his second Pro-Am game and was schooled at the point-guard position like no Golden Empire League rival could.

"I didn't think he was quick, but he was quick," Logan said. "He's very strong and fast." Logan said it was a good experience, which he will carry with him into next season. "It'll make you more aggressive," Logan said

Former Del Campo and UCLA standout Matt Barnes is back this summer, trying to realize his NBA dream, and he thinks Armstead can help him get to that point. While the Pro-Am games were fun, workouts with the demanding Armstead are more challenging.

"Guss is a real good guy," Barnes said. "He'll have anybody in and work with him. He knows a lot of people in the NBA."

For his part, Armstead wouldn't want things any other way. He has been able to make a living through basketball.

"I haven't worked a day in my life," Armstead said, reclining while sitting in the bleachers. "And my wife is a professional shopper at Nordstrom." .

Guss's guys:

Some of the players who have sought advice and/or trained with Guss Armstead:

Anthony Brown -- Capital Christian High School
Monty Buckley -- Christian Brothers High School
Cal Isaac Fontaine -- Jesuit High School, Washington State
DeMarcus Nelson -- Sheldon High School
Phil Ricci -- Galt High School, Oregon State
Jerome James -- Seattle Supersonics
Matt Barnes -- Del Campo High School, UCLA
Bobby Jackson -- Sacramento Kings
Troy Hudson -- Minnesota Timberwolves
Mike Wilks -- Minnesota Timerbwolves
Kevin Ollie -- Seattle Supersonics

About the Writer ---------------------------
The Bee's Jason Jones can be reached at or jejones

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