Detroit Pistons assistant coach Rex Kalamian yells from the sideline during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks, Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2021, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

DETROIT — Rex Kalamian, the assistant coach of the Detroit Pistons, has been in the news lately.

The Los Angeles native has been an assistant coach in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for 28 years, but won his first game as an acting head coach with the Detroit Pistons on January 10 while head coach Dwane Casey was absent due to COVID protocols (he ended up testing negative). The win against the Utah Jazz was a career landmark for Kalamian, the first time he could say he took home a professional game ball. In fact, he was only the second Armenian-American in history to do so, following legendary college basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian’s short pro stint with the San Antonio Spurs in the early 1990s.

Detroit’s ABC affiliate, WXYZ-Channel 7 shared a video inside the locker room after the game; in a show of celebration, the team showered Kalamian with water as he entered to discuss the win. The visibly flattered coach immediately shifted to praising the players, who had been having a less than stellar season, saying “we should be throwing water on you guys.”

As if that weren’t enough for Armenian-American sports fans and in particular Detroit area residents of Armenian descent, just a week later, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that Kalamian had agreed to be head coach of the Armenian National Men’s Basketball team, competing in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) European Championship for Small Countries, which will take place in Malta from June 28 to July 3 this year.

It was a surprise to basketball fans, but less so to insiders who know the coach well; Kalamian has been in talks with the Armenian Basketball Federation for a few years now, but scheduling issues and the like have prevented the coach from joining Team Armenia.

With so much buzz in air, Kalamian agreed to sit down for an exclusive interview during which he shared his thoughts on his career and the opportunity to coach for his ancestral homeland.

Being doused after first win as acting head coach (WXYZ Channel 7-Detroit)

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

A Hardworking Career

Kalamian grew up in Los Angeles, where he played basketball in high school and for two years at East LA College. An injury prevented him from continuing, and he started coaching instead. “I was very young, 20-22, and I caught the vibe of it,” Kalamian says.

Continuing with his coaching career, he hooked up with the LA Clippers and started as a video coach. His first mentor was the Clippers’ head coach, Bill Fitch, who was recently inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. “He taught me a lot about the NBA game, the work ethic, preparation. I’ve worked for about 10-12 different head coaches and I’ve taken a little bit from each coach that I’ve worked for and created by own philosophy. It changes because the league changes year to year. We are always search as coaches for the better way of doing things and a different way of teaching”

After nine years with the Clippers, Kalamian transferred to the Denver Nuggets, and then the Minnesota Timberwolves. That’s where he first worked under head coach Dwane Casey; Casey tapped him again as assistant coach nearly a decade later for the Toronto Raptors and now this season for the Detroit Pistons. In between, Kalamian spent time in Sacramento and then with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which he describes as “just an unbelievable six years of learning and teaching and growing and being in an organization that was all about positivity and growth.”

With now-legendary players like Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, the team advanced to the NBA Finals in 2012. Although they lost to the Miami Heat, it was the first time the team had gotten to the finals since moving from Seattle (where they were known as the Supersonics) to Oklahoma City.

In 2015, Kalamian moved to Toronto to work under Casey, and they made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. He states that the club had “great ownership, great management,” and that it was “really a positive time for me living in Toronto and working for the Raptors; working with Doc Rivers, another future hall of fame coach.”

After two seasons with the Clippers again and then last season in Sacramento, this past year Kalamian was asked by Casey to come work for him in Detroit. The team has had a less-than-stellar season, but Kalamian stresses the positive: “Our focus is on developing our young talent. We’ve done a great job of securing great young players. [We have] full support of ownership, management, coaches.”

Rex Kalamian Coaching the Detroit Pistons (The Detroit News)

Coaching in cities like Los Angeles, Toronto, and now Detroit, Kalamian has often ended up in places with a lot of Armenians. “It’s always fun connecting with the Armenian community in any city I’ve been in, but specifically in Los Angeles and Toronto,” he says. “And even last month we went back to Toronto to play the Raptors. Someone in the stands yelled “Inch bes es, Rex?”….I hear people scream 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 that was a lifetime experience as well,” he says, referring to the 2020 NBA Bubble, the isolation zone created at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., to protect players from COVID during the latter part of the season as well as the playoffs that year.

Having moved from the LA to Sacramento to Detroit since the pandemic started, he mentions that “things have certainly changed because of COVID. Recently it has subsided a bit; the number of people infected in the NBA has lessened recently. There was a time around the holidays when our team [the Pistons] was decimated with COVID illness. It’s changed how we prepare. We’ve had more Zoom meetings, sometimes cancelled practices and [we have to] be very cognizant of the amount of time we spend in close areas. And it’s hard because we have practices, film sessions, locker rooms. We have a great medical team and they do a great job of keeping everyone healthy.”

Ironically, COVID also gave Kalamian his opportunity to step in for coach Casey when the latter had to miss the January 10 game “against Utah, a very cool moment,” Kalamian says. “The players’ reaction after the game, I really appreciated 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’ll remember for a very long time. Coaching these 5 games has given me, shown me that I’m prepared and capable of being a head coach in the NBA. Waiting for an opportunity hopefully that will arise for me.”


Coaching for the Homeland


But first, a very different opportunity has arisen for Kalamian — being asked to coach the Armenian national team.

“I’ve been in contact with them for a few years actually,” Kalamian says. “Because of scheduling and COVID we’ve had to put off any type of formal talks or announcement. Our dialogue continued for the past 2-3 years, and this felt like the right time with Armenia competing in the Small European Tournament of FIBA this summer, to finally go to Yerevan and coach this team, and try to start to establish a foundation there for what we would like Armenian basketball to be.” He added, “It means also the youth, the under 16, the under 18 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 amount of people that have reached out to me, some to just congratulate and say thank you. And some who have wanted to get involved and be helpful. I think basketball is a growing sport in Armenia. And what we’re trying to do is bring more attention to it. Anybody we can get involved is a positive, not only for the sport but for the entire country. There’s a certain excitement surrounding this. We hope our team can come together and win this tournament and gain more interest.”

Basketball in Armenia is growing, Kalamian said: “In Armenia they have a professional league there now, there are new gyms and new courts, it’s a very exciting time. And there are many Armenians around the world that have reached out to me, and they all want to help our country. People want to get involved and I think it’s very cool.” He added, “It’s probably time for us to all come together under the circumstances.”

Kalamian’s vision doesn’t just include the national men’s team and its tournament this summer, though. As to 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 grow basketball from the youth level all the way to the national team level. I plan on helping to build that, and continuing with the vision that they have, working together to not only build players and develop players but also to help develop coaches. My commitment to Armenia is not just one summer, it’s hopefully long term. I can see myself doing camps and clinics there in the future as well. And there are so many growth stages ahead of us, it’s an exciting time.”

Rex Kalamian on the Court (NBA website)

Hero Close to Home

Kalamian’s parents were born in the Bronx at a time when that borough of New York still hosted a large Armenian immigrant community, survivors of the Genocide and other refugees from Ottoman Turkey. His grandmother, who hailed from the Amasia/Sepastia region, helped raise him. Growing up in Southern California, Kalamian has been involved with Armenian athletics in the past. “At probably the age of 20, the AGBU reached out to me about competing in the Pan Armenian games in Yerevan. That 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 she eventually immigrated to New York by ship through Ellis Island, as a teenager living in New York and not knowing any English. I think about my grandmother now very frequently and the things she had to endure, losing her mother and father and family, and brothers and sisters in the Genocide, and her will to survive. That’s what makes us strong as a community, we’re strong because of what our ancestors had to endure. And I think it permeated down to our generation today. Resilience. Some people say to me ‘who’s your hero?’ That’s an easy one, I say, my grandmother. Because when she told me the stories, it’s mind boggling. I think what she’s instilled in me also is respect, I think for sure resilience, and hard work. Those are things that I carry with me.”

He added that his mother, Aghavni, though born in the Bronx, also did not know English as a child.

“It’s very deep; these stories are very deep,” he concluded.


Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: