Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Greg Heiar's name.
Malcolm Armstead had just finished playing in a basketball game in Italy the other day and when it was over fans started to congregate around him. Armstead couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it was obvious they were asking for his jersey.
Finally, someone said something Armstead, who is in training camp as a rookie with the KRKA Novo Mesto team in the Slovenia-Telemach professional League, could understand.
“One guy said, ‘You’re the player who played in the Final Four in America,’ ‘’ Armstead said. “We remember you.”
The moral to this story is that you can be in a different country, on a different continent, in virtually a different world. But Final Four is a universal language.
“I don’t think it’s really hit me yet that we did all of that at Wichita State,’’ said Armstead, whose season as a player at WSU (he transferred from Oregon after his junior season there) resulted in a Final Four. Not a bad percentage, huh.
Now, though, Armstead is in a far-away land in central Europe. He lives in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia with a population of about 280,000. He still lives and breathes basketball, there’s just not as many familiar faces to live and breathe it with.
“The biggest adjustment is just the time,’’ said Armstead, who has been in Slovenia since Aug. 14. “It’s seven hours ahead here and that is different. But I feel like I can go anywhere in the world and make it my home. I’m enjoying it. You just have to have an open mind.’’
Armstead averaged 10.7 for the 30-9 Shockers in 2012-13 and was at his best in some of the biggest games. He led WSU in assists and steals and though his field goal percentage (39.4) wasn’t high, it seems like he made every important shot he took. Armstead averaged 15.5 points in the Shockers’ first four NCAA games against Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State.
But he made only 1 of 10 shots in the national semifinal loss to Louisville. It was one of the few times all season when he wasn’t hitting clutch shots.
The disappointment of that loss was immense, but Armstead is still waiting for the experience of a Final Four season to make its impact.
“I understand how big it was and people tell me all the time that I don’t have an understanding of how well I played last season,’’ Armstead said. “But there’s still kind of a surreal feeling when it comes to everything. I still don’t think it’s hit me.’’
Armstead said he worked out for some NBA teams during the summer, but that he wasn’t interested in playing in the developmental league. He pursued more financially-rewarding offers in Europe and settled on Slovenia, where he has only two American teammates.
His team has been playing exhibition games across central Europe, he said.
“I saw Ramon Galloway, the guard who played for La Salle that we beat in the NCAA Tournament,’’ Armstead said. “We just played against his team Sunday. I’ve played against Taquan Dean, who played at Louisville a couple of years ago. And against Scottie Reynolds, who was at Villanova. I see some people I know over here.’’
Mostly, though, Armstead stays in his apartment and plays basketball. There’s not much night life in Ljubljana, he said.
“That’s really a plus for me anyway,’’ Armstead said. “I don’t really go to clubs in the first place, but I’m here to play basketball and to try and meet people who can help me advance. So I just want to stay focused on basketball and try to stack up my money.’’
Armstead says he stays in touch with Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, but that there’s a different discourse now to their conversations.
“He tells me to make sure I’m saving my money and doing the right things with it,’’ Armstead said. “He doesn’t want me blowing it.’’
Armstead also talks frequently to WSU assistant Greg Heiar, his former coach at Chipola (Fla.) Community College.
Armstead says he has a two-year guaranteed contract to play in Slovenia and that he wants to play basketball professionally as long as he can.
“You dream of playing pro basketball as a kid but you never really know where you’re going to end up or at what level,’’ Armstead said. “Now that I’m actually here, this is my job now. It’s how I make money, my income. So every day you have to be mentally focused and prepared for whatever might be.’’
There isn’t a day that goes by, though, that Armstead doesn’t remember the Shockers’ magical season. It’s more like a dream than a tangible memory. Not enough time has passed to make it real.
“I think about my teammates a lot,’’ he said. “Everything happens for a reason. My time at Wichita State was great and I’ll always be a Shocker. But it’s time for me now to move on with my life. What God has for me, I don’t know. But I know He will continue to open doors and push me through them.’’