Clippers Assistant Rex Kalamian Reflects on His Heritage for Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day

On Wednesday night, the Los Angeles Clippers will look to stave off playoff elimination in Game 5 against the Golden State Warriors. But for Clippers assistant coach Rex Kalamian, April 24 comes with an entirely different meaning. This year marks the 104th anniversary of Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day, which commemorates the persecution of Armenians in and their expulsion from Turkey that began in 1915.

Rex’s grandmother survived the Armenian Genocide when she was 12. Now, her grandson stands as the only person of Armenian descent currently in the NBA.

Before the Clippers flew to Oakland to face the Warriors with their season on the line, Rex opened up to CloseUp360, reflecting on his Armenian heritage and what it means to him and his family to be an Armenian in the NBA.

This is the story of the Kalamian family, in Rex’s own words, edited for clarity and length.

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Rex Kalamian joined Doc Rivers' coaching staff in Los Angeles last June. (Amir Ebrahimi)

I have a 17-year-old son and I tell him all the time, “You have no idea what it means to live a difficult life. You have no idea what, not only our own ancestors, but just Armenian people in general have gone through.”

The culture has been through a lot of heartache. When you look at Armenia from 1915 to now, it's just a little over a hundred years, but we had to endure a lot. And I think that when you have to do that, it makes you humble as a group, makes you appreciative. That's what I find most in Armenian people that I meet—warm, kind and genuine, humble and appreciative.

I think indirectly we're tougher because of it. I don't think we allow things to bother us as much as a family. My grandmother, Yevkine Yermanian, was a tough individual to have gone through what she went through. So I think that transcends through into my mother and into my own family, myself and my brother. It's probably made us very respectful for what we do have, understanding where our ancestors came from. It's quite humbling.

I was born and raised in Los Angeles—went to high school at Mark Keppel High School in the city of Alhambra. And I grew up in East Los Angeles in Monterey Park. My parents were born and raised in the Bronx until they moved out here to Los Angeles.

But my grandmother was born in Armenia in 1903. She grew up in a village called Amasya, bordering Turkey and Armenia. I was old enough to be able to discuss this with her before she passed away in 1990, but from my understanding, she grew up on Armenian land that has maybe since been taken over by the Turkish.

She left Armenia during the Genocide. Her mother and her father, and her brothers and sisters, were all killed during the Genocide when she was just 12 years old. It happened over a period of two or three days where the Turkish Army came in and took the men first. They targeted educators and politicians, and then came back and tried to get people that were business owners and such. They were trying to just kill the Armenian nationality.

More than a million people were executed.

They took her father first, and then came back for her mother, brothers and sisters, and they slowly executed everybody. My grandmother ran, and was taken in by a Turkish family and they placed her in the Armenian orphanage for girls.

I really don't know how she escaped. I've asked my mother numerous times, like, “Did she ever tell you how she got away?” It was something she really didn't like to talk about. But I had spoken to my grandma about it before she passed and I remembered just these brief details.

She lived in an orphanage for a few years until she made her way by boat to New York, where she lived with a distant relative. She came to America at the age of 18. She was very young and she had her family—my mother. Then eventually, when my mother got to be 18 or 20, she moved to Los Angeles where I was born and raised.

What's funny is, my grandmother never knew her real birthday. She didn't know her month or date, but she knew she was born in 1903.

It's a trip when you think about it. It's a really courageous story when you think about a young girl that saw her mother, father, and three brothers and sisters all perish. That she escapes, goes to an orphanage, survives, figures out how to get to New York where she landed at Ellis Island, and then is able to find a distant relative. I don't even know how she came to find out that she had a distant relative in New York. She gets here and doesn't know any English.

It's a story of survival. It’s crazy.

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Rex's grandmother escaped the Armenian Genocide when she was 12. (Amir Ebrahimi)

Growing up in Los Angeles, we had a court down the street from my house that I grew up in that I used to go to all the time. I used it really as an outlet for myself to be able to go to the park, and be able to shoot and be able to play basketball. It just kind of stuck with me. I probably started basketball at the age of six or seven and I never really stopped. And then in high school, I played four years and I played two years at East Los Angeles College.

The Armenian community doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on athletics. They've had more emphasis on business and things like that, and a little less on sports-related careers. But I think that's definitely changed over the last 20 years. There are so many more Armenian youth who are more interested in sports and getting more involved.

My mother and father were both born and raised in New York, so they were accustomed to sports and they pushed me to actually play sports. So they welcomed the possibility of me playing in school. Then obviously once I got out of school, getting into basketball as a career was never something where they tried to discourage me from doing it.

I started thinking about coaching as a profession probably right after I got out of high school and I was in college. I didn't know at what level. I was still feeling it out, and I was very fortunate to be able to get a job at ELAC right after I finished playing. Two years after that happened, I got a job in the NBA with the Los Angeles Clippers, believe it or not, in 1992.

Going to the NBA Finals in 2012 was really cool. I was with the Oklahoma City Thunder at the time, and we went and played the Miami Heat. Really, really fun. Unfortunately, we didn't win, but it was a great experience, and until I win a championship it's probably going to rank up there with one of the best moments of my career. I think being able to now coach in three All-Star Games was really cool, something fun to do.

Then along the way in my career, I think for me personally, it's also the friendships that I made with not only the players that I've worked with and that I've helped develop along the way, but it's just the other coaches and all the other people that I've met in the NBA who really have become good friends of mine now. It's like a fraternity, you know? When you're in the NBA, these guys become lifelong friends.

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Rex broke into the NBA in 1992 as a scout for the Clippers. (Amir Ebrahimi)

When I went to Armenia over 20 years ago, I went for a basketball-related event. I was still playing in college, as a matter of fact. I went with a team called AGBU Valley. We played other Armenian teams from around the world. They were from Russia, from Turkey, from France, all over the world. I think there were about 20 teams that ended up competing.

Visiting Armenia was very thought-provoking because I felt like this is where my ancestors are from. This area of the city, this country is where my ancestors are from. It's very built up now, but there are still parts of the country that, when you escape the city, are very rural. And there are still villages, basically. There are still small towns. It was interesting to see and it left me wanting to go back again. I'm really anxious to go back and see how much the city has been built up, how much the country has been built up and to see the progress that Armenia in general has made. Yerevan is a thriving city now.

I hope to go back in the near future, hopefully this summer, to help them organize their men's national basketball team. They've got it lined up and they've been playing tournaments—they just need some structure, they need some coaching. So I'm thinking about trying to get there and do that this summer if I can, if my schedule permits. The Basketball Federation of Armenia has reached out to me and asked me if I would come back and help for a summer for a short period of time.

That's when I got the idea of helping them because they didn't have a national men's team, like we have USA Basketball or like all these countries in Europe have a national team. When I got there, I saw there were a lot of young Armenian kids that were big, long—not as big as Giannis Antetokounmpo, but a lot like Giannis at a young age where they were just a little bit gawky, a little bit long and lanky. I thought to myself, Wow, there's a lot of size here and there's some interest in the sport.

I think that if someone were to come here and help grow it, and get people involved, that they could have a pretty cool national team someday. And that's kind of where I came up with the idea. Now, they're finally just starting a team and they've been competing, I think, for a little less than five years now.

There are very few sports personalities that are Armenian or that are professional athletes or coaches. Andre Agassi has a little bit in him. I know there are a couple of soccer players that are very well known as professional athletes. For me personally, I'm just honored and humbled to be able to not only work in the NBA for as long as I have, but to represent the Armenian culture and the people, and especially the people that are excited that I'm there.

I travel to a lot of places and a lot of young Armenian boys and girls approach me and tell me how much they love the sport, and how they want to make it a career and how exciting it is that I'm in the NBA. A lot of those kids are seeking advice about how they can get involved in a career of basketball. It's pretty cool that I could help them and can offer advice, and they can look up to me and know that it's possible. There's obviously a huge population trying to get into professional sports. It's very competitive. So anything I can do to help them, I try.

In the profession that I'm in, there's a high supply of people looking to break into the industry of professional sports. So how you're different and what you're willing to do, that has to be what separates you from other people who are trying to achieve the same goals and same job, same opportunities. And I think for myself, I've always been able to fall back on my work ethic, and I think that is directly attributed to my grandmother and my heritage. I've been given a great work ethic and been shown a great work ethic through my parents and my grandmother.

My father has passed, but my mother is very proud of me. She watches all the games of any team that I'm on, so she pays attention to it and she doesn't miss a game, which is kind of cool. It gives her something to do at her age. It gives her something to lock into and watch. Every other night, there's going to be a game. I think she enjoys it. I've been on seven different teams, so she's had to follow a bunch of different teams and by now, she understands the game of basketball, for sure.

I'm sure there are so many Armenian people that have stories like that, but I can only imagine the trauma that my grandmother went through at such a young age, seeing all of that happen in front of her. And for me, and I've said it before: that's why I don't have very many bad days because I think about the stuff that she went through.

Anything that could happen to me pales in comparison to what that woman went through. And if she hadn't fought and survived and found her way to the United States of America, I wouldn't be here.

So for me, it's an unbelievable story.

 

Magdalena Munao is a Multimedia Producer for CloseUp360. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.