Rex Kalamian

Rex Kalamian Turns Laser Focus on NBA’s LA Clippers


By Michael Melkonian

Special to the Mirror-Spectator

LOS ANGELES — The National Basketball Association (NBA) is one of the most popular sporting leagues in the world; in the United States, the NBA is on its way to eclipsing the National Football League (NFL). Its growing popularity leads to some of the greatest coaching minds in sports vying for a shot to lead a team in the league. With only 30 NBA teams, there are 30 head coaching slots in contention along with staff positions, making it an exclusive club — and Rex Kalamian has earned his highly coveted spot as an assistant coach.

Rex Kalamian and Kevin Durant at the NBA All-Star Game

His intense passion for the sport, his strategic mind, and unmitigated dedication have led him to take part in some of the sport’s most monumental events, including coaching a game in the NBA Finals and the fan favorite NBA All-Star games.

Kalamian is a second-generation Armenian-American, born and raised in Los Angeles to parents born in the Bronx. His grandmother, Yevkine Yermanian, was from Amasya and Sapastia, in Western Armenia (now Turkey), who survived the Genocide — unfortunately, her father, mother, and the rest of her siblings didn’t. Yermanian ran away from the village and was taken in by a Turkish family, who then placed her in the Armenian orphanage for girls. At the age of 18, Kalamian’s grandmother left the orphanage and managed to get onto a boat to Ellis Island, where she started her new life and a family.

Kalamian is married and he and his family live in Los Angeles.

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Early Love of Basketball

Kalamian’s passion for basketball took hold when he was a child. He has played the game religiously since he was in the fifth grade and loved every minute. “As a kid, I didn’t do what most other kids would do which is to watch cartoons all day,” Kalamian said. “I watched mostly basketball.”

The moment which led to Kalmian’s transformative love for the game was during the 1980 NBA finals, in which the Los Angeles Lakers and its rookie player, Magic Johnson, managed to win the championship against the talented Philadelphia 76ers team led by its star player Julius Erving.

“I was mesmerized with basketball and the NBA after the Lakers won their championship in 1980. From that point forward, I set my sights on doing something in the field of basketball,” Kalamian said.

Kalamian continued playing basketball through his school years, including high school, followed by playing for two seasons at East Los Angeles College before being sidelined with an injury.  Instead of sitting out that year, he took a staff job as a graduate assistant where he attended the coach’s meetings, watched game footage, evaluated and created plays.  Kalamian discovered working on the coaching side to be more gratifying than playing.  Realizing he could have a career in coaching, he continued to work at the college for two years, working long hours for very little pay while learning a lot. This experience led to a job working as a scout for the Los Angeles Clippers where Kalamian evaluated game and player videos, helped the coaching staff on the practice floor with rebounding and assisting with whatever they needed, and worked on special projects.

Kalamian with his head coach, Scott Brooks during his stint with the Oklahoma City Thunder

Kalamian’s work ethic caught the attention of head coach Bill Fitch, who promoted him to assistant coach in 1995, and thus launched his coaching career.

“It was a great feeling knowing that I was going to be coaching full time in the NBA,” Kalamian said.

Rising in the Ranks

Being an assistant coach however came with important responsibilities and expectations, including creating a game plan for every opponent and updating those plans as the game of basketball progressed and changed. “I enjoy the x’s and o’s [fundamentals] of coaching the game of basketball,” Kalamian said. “I also enjoy the game planning and embracing the challenge of having to switch up your system for every team.”

Kalamian worked as an assistant coach for the L.A. Clippers until 2003, then moved to the Philadelphia 76ers, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves and the Sacramento Kings. In 2009, Kalamian joined an up-and-coming Oklahoma City Thunder team, helping propel them to the NBA Finals and earning a spot as coach in the 2012 and 2014 NBA All Star Game.

“We had a special team that NBA Finals year with incredible talent, led by Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden, and Serge Ibaka,” Kalamian said. “Unfortunately, we just were too young that year and didn’t have enough experience to get us over the top.”

Kalamian was candid in his description on what it was like to gameplan for Lebron James during those NBA Finals. “You have to give so many different looks defensively because he’s so smart and is one of the best passers I’ve ever seen and it takes a total team effort to slow him down and try to confuse him. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do it in a seven-game series.”

Kalamian also mentioned the leadership of five-time NBA champion Derek Fisher, who played for the Thunder for three seasons, as one of the factors leading to their success. “Fisher was one of the best leaders I’ve seen in a locker room,” Kalamian said. “His message to the players after games was always positive and helped inspire the locker room in every situation. Fisher also brought a massive amount of NBA experience with him and always preparing the locker room on the difficulty and physicality of playoff basketball.”

Toronto Beckons

After his success with the Thunder, Kalamian moved on to be an assistant coach for the Toronto Raptors from 2015 to 2018, helping to lead the team to multiple playoff runs, including an Eastern Conference Finals appearance. Based on his performance, he was selected as a coach for the 2018 NBA All Star Game.

Kalamian then left the championship contending organization of the Raptors, who then went on to win the NBA championship the following season, to a Clippers team that many thought were in rebuilding mode. When asked why he moved from a successful Raptors team to the Clippers, Kalamian listed his two main incentives: Doc Rivers and Steve Ballmer.

“The opportunity to work under Doc Rivers, one of the best coaches in the NBA, was a big pull for me,” Kalamian said. “To also work for a great owner with a cutting-edge organization surrounded by incredible management also swayed me to rejoin the Clippers.”

Not surprisingly, Kalamian added that Rivers might just be the coach that stands out to him the most for leadership and management qualities.

“Doc is right up there with the best coaches when it comes to leading his team and preparing them to play every night,” Kalamian said. “It’s not something I can really put a finger on, he’s just a master communicator and knows how to motivate his players.”

Kalamian’s first season with the Clippers exceeded all expectations, as he helped lead a team many had counted out into the playoffs in the tough Western Conference and even managed to win two away games in the playoff series against the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors. This past season marked Kalamian’s 23rd year of coaching in the NBA, a remarkable achievement. Kalamian credits his dedication and hard work for his success.

“To be an NBA coach requires you to have an impeccable work ethic,” Kalamian stated. “The NBA season might be from October to June for players, but as a coach the season lasts for twelve months a year. A good coach must also always bring positive energy into a gym every day. Not every day is a great day in the NBA, especially when coming off tough losses, so to bring that positive energy to a locker room is essential for me and every assistant coach.”

Kalamian said he thought coaching in the NBA Finals, the NBA All Star Game, and helping mentor players who later became superstar level talent were his greatest achievements.

“Getting to the NBA Finals has been one of the highpoints of my career so far,” Kalamian said. “Winning the Finals would have been the pinnacle of my coaching career but nevertheless being able to coach in that scenario was special. Being able to also coach future hall of famers like Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant, and James Harden were also special moments in my career, which I hope to top off eventually with an NBA championship.”

For Kalamian, the next big step for him would be a head coach position in the NBA, but for the time being, Kalamian likes to take it day by day.

“Every day of the season, I’m focusing on our next game and when that’s over, I’ll look at the next day and the next game”, Kalamain said.  “You always have to play for what’s in front of you and not get too far ahead of yourself. The best thing I can do is prepare myself to be the best assistant coach I can be and possibly be a head coach someday.”

The veteran coach is now gearing up for his 24th season in the NBA as an assistant coach with the Clippers. With the addition in the offseason of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George to the team, the Clippers are considered the best team in the league, which makes Kalamian one step closer to completing his life goal of winning an NBA Championship.

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