Exclusive: NBA’s Rex Kalamian visits Armenia
After two seasons with the Clippers again, then last season in Sacramento, Kalamian was asked by Casey to come work for him in Detroit last year. The team has had a less than brilliant season, but Kalamian insists on the positive: “Our goal is to develop our young talents. We’ve done a great job signing great young players. [We have] full support from ownership, management, coaches.
A coach in cities like Los Angeles, Toronto and now Detroit, Kalamian has often found himself in places with lots of Armenians. “It’s always fun to connect with the Armenian community in every city I’ve been to, but especially in Los Angeles and Toronto,” he says. “And even last month we went back to Toronto to play the Raptors. Someone in the stands shouted “Inch bes es, Rex?”…I hear people shouting Armenian words at me all the time.”
Kalamian was coaching for the LA Clippers when COVID hit. “I spent 75 days in the bubble, and it was also a lifetime experience,” he says, referring to the 2020 NBA bubble, the isolation zone created at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, for protect players from COVID during the latter part of the season as well as the playoffs that year.
Having moved from LA to Sacramento to Detroit since the pandemic began, he mentions that “things have definitely changed because of COVID. Recently it has calmed down a bit; the number of people infected in the NBA has decreased recently. There was a time during the holidays when our team [the Pistons] has been decimated by COVID disease. It changed the way we prepare. We had more Zoom meetings, sometimes canceled workouts and [we have to] being very aware of the time we spend in nearby areas. And it’s hard because we have training sessions, cinema sessions, locker rooms. We have a great medical team and they are doing a great job of keeping everyone healthy.
Ironically, COVID also gave Kalamian the opportunity to fill in for Coach Casey when the latter had to miss the Jan. 10 game against Utah “a really cool time,” Kalamian says. “The reaction of the players after the game, I really enjoyed the moment so much, and I appreciated the players, how special they made the moment for me.” Kalamian also remarked, “It was a great opportunity and an experience that I will remember for a very long time. Coaching those 5 games gave me, showed me that I’m prepared and capable of being an NBA head coach. Waiting for an opportunity, hopefully, that will present itself for me.
Coaching for the Homeland
But first, a very different opportunity presented itself to Kalamian – to be invited to coach the Armenian national team.
“I’ve been in contact with them for a few years actually,” Kalamian says. “Due to planning and COVID, we had to postpone any type of official talks or announcements. Our dialogue has continued over the past 2-3 years, and it seemed like the right time with Armenia taking part in the FIBA Minor European Tournament this summer, to finally go to Yerevan and coach this team, and try to start building a foundation there. for what we would like Armenian basketball to be. He added: “It also means youth, U16, U18 teams, because they are the future of Armenian basketball – boys and girls.”
Kalamian mentions that the Armenian community’s response to the news has been enthusiastic: “The number of people who contacted me, some just to congratulate me and say thank you. And some who wanted to get involved and be useful. I think basketball is a growing sport in Armenia. And what we’re trying to do is bring more attention to it. Everyone we can involve is positive, not just for the sport but for the whole country. There’s some excitement around it. We hope our team can come together and win this tournament and generate more interest.
Basketball in Armenia is growing, Kalamian said: “In Armenia now they have a professional league, there are new gymnasiums and new grounds, it’s a very exciting time. And there are many Armenians around the world who have reached out to me, and they all want to help our country. People want to get involved and I think that’s very cool. He added: “It’s probably time for us to come together under the circumstances.”
Kalamian’s vision doesn’t just include the men’s national team and its tournament this summer. As for the current state of the sport of basketball in Armenia, he says: “The program today, there is a structure. They have an Armenian basketball federation. They are very structured and organized. They have a vision of how to develop basketball from youth level to national team level. I plan to help build that and continue the vision that they have, to work together not only to train players and develop players, but also to help develop coaches. My commitment to Armenia is not just one summer, it is, I hope, long term. I also see myself doing camps and clinics there in the future. And there are so many stages of growth ahead of us, it’s an exciting time.
Heroes near home
Kalamian’s parents were born in the Bronx at a time when this New York neighborhood was still home to a large community of Armenian immigrants, genocide survivors and other refugees from Ottoman Turkey. His grandmother, from the Amasia/Sepastia region, helped raise him. Growing up in Southern California, Kalamian has been involved in Armenian athletics in the past. “When I was probably 20, AGBU contacted me to participate in the Pan-Armenian Games in Yerevan. It was the last time I was in Armenia. It’s very special to represent your homeland.”
Kalamian shared that “My grandmother survived the genocide as a teenager. She literally ran for her life and had to hide and live in an orphanage for a short time before finally immigrating to New York by ship via Ellis Island, as a teenager living in New York and not knowing English, I now think very frequently of my grandmother and the things she had to go through, the loss of her mother, her father , his family, his brothers and sisters in the genocide and his will to survive. This is what makes us strong as a community, we are strong because of what our ancestors had to endure. And I think that has permeated our generation today. Resilience. Some people tell me ‘who is your hero?’ It’s easy, I say, my grandmother. Because when she told me the stories, it’s mind-boggling. I think what she also instilled in me was respect, I think it’s safe, resilience and hard work are things I carry with me.
He added that his mother, Aghavni, although born in the Bronx, also did not know English as a child.
“It’s very deep; these stories are very deep,” he concluded.