As the early morning traffic snarls its way along Front Street in downtown Toronto, Rex Kalamian’s mind is already laser focused on what will take place twelve hours from now. It’s game day for the Toronto Raptors. Inside the Air Canada Center, Kalamian is carefully crafting a game plan for tonight’s matchup: analyzing video, coordinating defensive strategy, and pairing up his players with the opposing team. It’s a familiar routine he has repeated 82 times a season for the past 24 years. And yet, for Kalamian, the excitement of the game never wanes. “The action of the sport is like no other to me,” he says. “It’s something you just can’t get from other sports.”
Fast-paced and forward-thinking, even as a young boy, Kalamian knew then his passion for the sport he played every day was more than a youthful diversion. “It always just fit my personality,” he says. When he was not on a basketball court, Kalamian was watching games on TV, developing a deep knowledge of the sport. Today, he is widely respected as one of the most experienced and hardest-working coaches in the NBA. As the Raptors’ lead assistant coach and defensive coordinator, Kalamian plays a strategic role helping to manage the game while analyzing the team of uniquely talented players from every possible angle in order to help them constantly improve. In each case, he is always trying to stay one step ahead of the curve.
During his impressive tenure in the league, Kalamian has held just about every coaching position. The common thread that drives him is investing in others and helping them realize their full potential. A keen eye for recognizing and developing talent, he is credited for helping shape the early success of NBA stars Kevin Durrant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook over the course of seven seasons with the Oklahoma City Thunder. “Being part of their development was one of the most rewarding experiences in my coaching career,” he says. In 2012, with Kalamian’s expert guidance, the Thunder made it all the way to the NBA Final Championship Series. Kalamian has since participated in two all-star games and served as head coach for the 2014 BBVA Compass Rising Starts Challenge during All-Star Weekend in New Orleans.
As glamorous as the TV cameras and award ceremonies may be, the day-to-day life of an NBA coach involves countless unseen hours preparing for each game, along with a highly demanding travel schedule that often involves being on the road for more than ten days at a time. “A lot of days spent away from my kids and family,” Kalamian admits, is a daily struggle for him. “Even with home games it sometimes feels like the road because you are so wrapped up in the preparation for that game.”
Taking shortcuts, however, is just not in Kalamian’s DNA. He attributes his willingness to apply himself fully to any task to his mother, Rosalie Kalamian. “My mother always instilled in me hard work and respect—those are a couple of my core values today,” he says. “I only know one way to do anything and that is through hard work. Whatever you do, you have to work extremely hard and you have to be committed to it.” During his first year in the NBA, Kalamian says he immediately felt it was where he belonged, and he was determined to make it work. “Success is not an accident. You have to work at it. I firmly believe that.”
Kalamian tells aspiring athletes that in order to be their best, they must put time and work into their sport. “It is the unseen hours of athletes that eventually turn average players into really good players, and really good players into great players. Be coachable and open to advice on how to improve. Bring a work ethic to practice everyday that your teammates can emulate and follow. I watched Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook live this everyday year after year, for six years. This is what drove them to both become MVPs. Hard work, discipline, commitment, focus, and a competitive spirit that is unmatched in professional sports.”
Over the past 24 years, Kalamian has helped coach seven different teams including the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sacramento Kings, Minnesota Timberwolves, Denver Nuggets, Philadelphia 76ers and the LA Clippers where he spent nine seasons. No matter what city he finds himself in, he knows he will always receive a special reception from a select group of fans who have proudly dubbed Kalamian as the ‘only Armenian in the NBA.’
“When people say that, I am always very humbled, to be honest, and very proud because I understand how small the Armenian community is. Especially within the sporting world, there are not a ton of Armenian athletes or coaches in professional sports, so I appreciate those people who do follow the teams that I have been with and I am proud to be able to say I am one of the few Armenians to be successful in professional sports.”
Home to Canada’s largest Armenian community, Toronto has welcomed Kalamian with open arms. He is a regular guest at numerous events hosted by AGBU Toronto, the Armenian Church, and various charities. “I am fortunate that people in the community have reached out to me. They have been wonderful here.”
That attachment to the Armenian community was not always so strong. As a boy growing up in Monterey Park, California, Kalamian was raised in an Armenian household but led an otherwise typical American lifestyle in a multicultural neighborhood. He remembers listening to his grandmother’s stories about life in Armenia, and would regularly attend Armenian picnics and church-related charity events in nearby Glendale. However, apart from a few cousins, Kalamian did not have many Armenian friends and never felt embedded in the Armenian community. Unbeknownst to Kalamian at the time, it would be basketball that would help connect him to his culture.
After a successful collegiate career as captain of the East Los Angeles College Basketball team, where he led the South Coast Conference in three-point shooting percentage during the 1989-90 season, Kalamian then graduated from Cal Poly Pomona with a degree in business management. He continued to draw attention for his skills on the court while playing competitive basketball with the Los Angeles Valley Community College team. After being profiled in the community college newspaper, Kalamian received an invitation to play on the AGBU Men’s Basketball team. When the season was over, he agreed and says he was surprised to find himself on a team made up of all Armenian basketball players. “That was definitely new to me at first,” he recalls. But Kalamian soon became part of a new family. “I was able to really connect with the other players on the team off the court as well, attending functions with their families and being immersed in their traditions. That opened doors for me,” he says.
At the same time on the court, the team kept winning, not only games at home but also national and international tournaments. When Kalamian and his teammates were invited to play basketball at the Pan-Armenian Olympics in Yerevan, Kalamian’s attachment to his Armenian heritage grew even stronger. “That was definitely one of the highlights of my life, going there and seeing where my grandparents were from,” he says. The team won the tournament but Kalamian came home with much more than a medal.
Nearly three decades later, Kalamian is now thinking about how best to pass on that heritage to his son Mason. He is planning to sign him up for the local AGBU basketball team. “It is really important to me that he understands Armenian culture and having him play on the same AGBU team I played on will be very helpful. It provided me with such a positive experience and helped connect me with a lot of very good Armenian friends whom I am still close with today after thirty years.”
I only know one way to do anything and that is through hard work...Success is not an accident. You have to work at it. I firmly believe that
In a league where the average coaching career rarely extends beyond a handful of seasons, Kalamian’s enduring success is a testament not just to his coaching expertise but also to his character. While Kalamian says he hopes Toronto will not be his last stop in the NBA, he is hoping to free up his schedule to work in another city much farther from home, but much closer to his heart. He has tentatively accepted to lead Armenia’s national U20 Men’s Basketball team as head coach in Yerevan. “There’s a lot of talent there that deserves recognition. Hopefully one day they will be able to complete in the Olympics,” he adds. “It may take a few years but an Olympic team would bring a lot of national pride to Armenia.” Already likely contemplating how to achieve that goal, as always, Kalamian’s mind is one step ahead of the game.
Banner photo by Jaime Hogge