After The Ottoman Empire tried to wipe out the Armenian race in 1915 by committing the Armenian Genocide, not many people know about the Armenian culture, its history or where Armenia is on a map. They killed 1.5 of the 2 million Armenians living in Armenia by mass shootings, while many others died from dehydration, starvation, exposure, and disease during mass deportations and marches in the deserts just for being Armenian and the only Christians in the Caucasus region. The American government won’t acknowledge the atrocities committed, and the Turkish government denies it to this day.
Rex Kalamian is the only Armenian to make it to the NBA thus far.
Kalamian is the head assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors and could be heading somewhere new for the upcoming season due to front-office changes. Before these past three years in Toronto, his 24-year long journey in the NBA has taken him from coast-to-coast, just like his grandmother’s journey had taken her.
“My grandmother, Yeghkenen Mahakian escaped the genocide, but her family did not get out,” Kalamian recalled his grandmothers’ story of survival that she told him when he was 14. “Her family was all taken from her and killed, but she was able to escape. She actually ran and left the house because they were coming after them.”
The Armenian Genocide was committed by the Turkish Ottoman Empire beginning on April 24, 1915. Kalamian’s grandmother was only 13-years-old.
Yeghkenen Mahakian is one of the survivors. “They [Ottoman Empire] marched her father away from home, she lost her sisters and mother, so she had to leave the house and run. A family took her and let her stay with them for a while,” Kalamian shared. “But as time passed, that family said it was not safe for her to stay there any longer, so they took her to an orphanage for young Armenian girls.” Through mail, the orphanage was able to contact Mahakian’s relatives in New York, who sent money to get her on a boat to Ellis Island.
Kalamian never learned how to speak Armenian, but his Grandmother Yeghkenen learned enough English to be able to speak with her grandchildren and extended family and share her experience.
He was around 18 years old when she passed away. “I remember the day that we sat down and she described everything to me firsthand so I can understand,” he said. “I try as much as I can to keep her memory alive and keep her story alive because there are so many Armenian people that have so many stories like these.”
Kalamian is not only keeping his grandmother’s story alive but all Armenians’ by making a name for himself in the NBA.
Rex Kalamian was born and raised outside of Downtown Los Angeles and attended East Los Angeles College, which is where his career as an assistant coach took off. After two years off, he got an opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers in 1993 and stayed there for 10-years. His journey then took him as a scout for a short stint with the Philadelphia 76ers, before reclaiming an assistant coaching position with the Denver Nuggets. He stayed on the west coast the next year (2005-07) where he first worked with Dwane Casey in Minnesota. After working with the Sacramento Kings (2007-09) is when he spent six seasons in Oklahoma City. This is where Kalamian got introduced to two factors that would continue for him during his career: the addictive feeling winning brings and being stopped by LeBron James.
During his period with the Thunder, “we made 13 playoffs appearances and we won eight of them, so we were 8-5 in 13 playoff series,” he recalled. Kalamian went to the NBA Finals, made three Western Conference Finals appearances and helped coach two All-Star Games while with Thunder. That was a lot of winning, and he was getting used to it.
Kalamian helped develop three MVPs: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden, who he thinks will win the award this year after averaging 30.4 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds this season with the Houston Rockets. He also mentioned having a hand in developing the players that don’t get talked about as much like Serge Ibaka, Steven Adams, Andre Roberson and Reggie Jackson. But this squad fell to Miami’s big three in the 2012 NBA Finals, which was the first time Kalamian fell to James in the playoffs.
With all of his experience and success, Kalamian believes player development is the key to success in the NBA. “It comes down to the organization that you’re on to support the players and to put a foundation in place, and a culture that permeates winning and getting better every day,” he said as he related The Thunder and The Raptors organizations that he’s been a part of.
“Developing a player isn’t just talking about their skills and they’re shooting ability and the fundamentals – it’s developing them as far as people,” Kalamian mentions of his role as an assistant coach. “I’m almost 20-25 years older than some of these players and it’s important that not only I coach them in basketball, but that I help them on things that are coming their way, things that are about to happen to them in their professional careers or pitfalls that young players can make in the NBA.”
You don’t just get hired and show up and coach the players, and Kalamian makes it clear there is much more into building a coach-player-relationship than people know. “I think it’s important to want to develop a players skill,” he noted, “but you have to first almost develop their trust and their respect. And then once that’s formed, that’s when true player development begins.”
Building a relationship with every player is different. On the Toronto Raptors, DeMar DeRozan has been open about his depression and raising awareness for mental health. Kalamian knows that some people want to discuss their personal life and others may want to keep it private. “I think like anything in life, the more someone gets comfortable with you the more they’re willing to share,” he said.
“Building trust in players is not something that is immediate, you don’t just become their coach and they trust you, it’s built up over now there’s a lot of sweat equity and a lot of unseen hours that go into a relationship between a coach and a player.”
Kalamian refers to sweat equity as the time on the floor with his players working, with them in the summertime and offseason, and showing them that he’s willing to be there for them at all time.
Kalamian and DeRozan would go to the BioSteel Center to shoot every night on an off-day or the night before a game. “I do that with him all season long and that’s part of the growth of our relationship,” he said proudly. “I’ve been with him now for three years, but he’s like a son to me and not only do we shoot, but we talk about life half the time. Then we shoot and we’ll just sit down.”
These are the moments that Kalamian believes is important as a coach to have emotional poise. “There will be times where you’re going to get excited and you’re going to jump on your team or a specific player, or that you’re going to need to direct them with your voice in a loud manner,” he explained. There are a lot of pressure moments and there’s a lot of times where coaches can’t be as emotional.
During the fifth possession of game three in round one against the Washington Wizards, Markieff Morris, and OG Anunoby got in a tangled up, which led to Raptors center Serge Ibaka getting involved and confronting Morris. Raptors backcourt All-Stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry restrained Wizards guard John Wall, who was ready to fight. Raptors Head Coach Dwane Casey and Assistant Coach Rex Kalamian ran on the court. Kalamian pushed Ibaka back towards the bench while speaking to him.
Kalamian and Ibaka first started their player-coach-relationship in Oklahoma City. “I think it’s important and ideal for a guy that I know is very, very emotional in Serge Ibaka I tried to remain calm with him as much as I can,” Kalamian admitted. Over a 10-year relationship, the two have established trust and respect for one another. “I’m able to coach him as hard as I want sometimes and then able to tell him some tough things that you need to tell him at times.”
But as a coach, how do you hide your emotions and react after falling to LeBron James for the third year in a row? Losing game one in overtime and game three by a buzzer beater, which both were momentum games and the Raptors were unable to pull them out is not easy to move on from.
Kalamian felt very discouraged. “I thought we probably could have done a better job of stopping that from coming at us,” he said about the one-foot fade-away game three buzzer-beater by James. “But great players make great plays, and he’s [James] a great player. He showed again why he’s the best player in the world, and he made an unbelievable shot. I’ve seen him take that shot a few times since then in this Boston series and he’s missed it, and that upsets me even more,” he admitted while laughing.
Getting swept by the Cavaliers left a quiet, subdued environment in the Raptors locker room after game four at the Quicken Loans Arena, especially falling at the hands of LeBron for the third year in the row.
“I think it’s hard to quickly look back on your season and see the gains that you made,” Kalamian explained. “It takes some time to have to step away from the loss of the season to really understand how many good things our organization was able to do, and then individually how many good things our individual players were able to do.”
With the development of the younger players and the way they stepped up playing big minutes in the regular season and the playoffs, it’s only going to enhance what they will accomplish in the league going forward, but it’s it’s hard to recognize that immediately after a loss like that.
The series loss was disheartening to Kalamian on another level. “It’s frustrating personally because he knocked me out of the playoffs four different times now in the past 6 years,” he confessed, “I’m tired of seeing him, I’m tired of facing him.” Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a lot of teams that have been successful against him. “I think that our Oklahoma City team was built in a manner that the next year or the year after we may have been able to beat him,” he recalled.
He thinks that the Thunder team at the time needed a little more seasoning, just like this current Raptors team. Both squads had guys to defend and throw at James, but the Raptors still need time to grow and become more versatile.
“At some point, this team [toronto] is going to be able to overtake a LeBron James team,” he believes, “which is taking more time than we anticipated.”
Throughout the losses and the disappointing end to the Raptor’s this past season, Coach Kalamian’s philosophy never wavers: maintaining positive energy during the long season.
“There are a lot of unfortunates, what I call dog days, where you come in after losses or your team is in a slump and you’ve lost your three games that week in a row, and you really have to try to remain as positive as possible,” he said. “That’s what I try to do as an assistant coach, bring a lot of positive energy to the team and into the gym.”
It’s not an easy thing to do, but when the players need that extra energy boost in moments when the team is down, they look at their coaching staff and need their uplifting spirits and ability to see what’s coming ahead.
With changes being made in the front office, Kalamian still feels that the organization is in an excellent spot. “At the end of the day, we were still number one in the east and we won 59 games,” he stated proudly.
“We have to keep telling ourselves and reminding ourselves that we had a tremendous amount of success, even though that didn’t transfer over into the playoffs – necessarily into the second round – this team has established itself and these young players have established themselves.”
With a squad where the young guys believe in themselves and each other, and veterans who still have a number of years left in this league supporting the youth movement, the organization is stable and will continue to thrive.
Rex Kalamian will continue to win on the court and in life as he spreads positivity with his team and shares his story. The Raptors and Kalamian are right at the door, they just have to break through it.