Rex Kalamian faces uphill task of bringing Armenian basketball to international relevance

Posted on March. 9. 2022

It’s a frigid night in Michigan on January 10, 2022, and Detroit Pistons assistant Rex Kalamian is pacing through the halls of Little Caesars Arena with a grin. 

As Kalamian enters the Pistons locker room, players immediately mob him in celebration and dump water over his head. 

Kalamian and the Pistons aren’t NBA champions. They are nowhere near playoff contention. They have simply won a regular season game. But it’s a memorable night for Kalamian, who after 28 years as an assistant in the league, earned his first career win as a head coach. 

“I wish it was champagne,” Kalamian told the Weekly. “I’d rather win a championship and get doused with champagne than water, but it’s really satisfying, and it shows the love and care of our team and I really appreciate that.”

Kalamian was filling in for head coach Dwane Casey, who was out due to COVID-19 protocols. In the role of acting head coach, Kalamian led the struggling Pistons to an impressive comeback victory over the powerhouse Utah Jazz.

“It’s been a difficult season for us but that certainly was a high point for me personally and really throughout my career.”

Despite the Pistons’ struggles, 2022 has been a year of personal highs for Kalamian, who was officially named the head coach of the Armenian national basketball team shortly after his milestone victory.

Kalamian is faced with the daunting task of trying to rebuild the Armenian national team from scratch. The federation has long been plagued with lack of funding and has been forced to withdraw from international tournaments recently due to financial constraints. 

Armenia withdrew from the qualification tournament for the 2022 FIBA Eurobasket competition despite advancing in the first round. The team also chose not to participate in the 2021 FIBA European Championship for Small Countries.  

But Kalamian brings vast NBA experience and a track record of helping rebuild basketball organizations from the ground up. In 2009, he was an assistant for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who had won a meager 19 games in the prior season. In his first year as an assistant, the Thunder won 50 games and became an NBA powerhouse for the next several years with stars like Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. 

“I really saw the right way to grow, develop and sustain a basketball program,” Kalamian said. “I took that with me. I was there for six years, and I have taken those experiences with me and they have kind of been embedded in who I am as a coach. I’m going to attack the Armenian national team the same way we tackled the Oklahoma City youth in 2009 — with a growth development mindset and teaching the young players the game. Not just the players, but the coaches as well.”

Since 1995, Kalamian has worked as an assistant for seven different NBA squads. Along with Durant, Westbrook and Harden, Kalamian has coached a bevy of other future Hall of Famers like Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Garnett, Kawhi Leonard, Demar Derozan and Paul George. He plans to exercise some of the lessons he learned from these stars to help benefit the Armenian national basketball team.

“The great ones like Harden, like Durant and Garnett, have a work ethic that allows them to be great. Their work ethic, the unseen hours they put in — when the lights are off in the summertime, early mornings, late nights, before the television cameras flip on, that’s what makes them great.”

The first step toward greatness, however, is constructing a competitive roster. Kalamian plans to hold a training camp in the Los Angeles area following the end of the NBA season to scout all Armenian players living in the United States to complete his roster.

Then, in June he plans to hold a two-week training camp in Yerevan in preparation for the 2022 FIBA European Championship for Small Countries in Malta. Armenia was drawn into a group with San Marino and Gibraltar for the tournament. Azerbaijan, Andorra and Malta will also participate. 

While performing well in the tournament is important for the growth of Armenian basketball, Kalamian believes that the key to long-term growth starts with the youth.

“We’d like to eventually build our brand, build our country, federation and team so that not only is the team represented very well and we’re moving up in the FIBA rankings but also where the youth are starting to progress – where we can get 9, 10, 11, 12, 15 year olds start to improve so we can add them to the national team.”

Armenia is ranked 93rd in the latest FIBA world rankings, but Kalamian believes with the right infrastructure, coaching and development, the team can be a top 15 or top 20 squad in the near future. He cited other successful countries like Slovenia as evidence that it’s possible for a small country like Armenia to perform well on the international stage.

Kalamian is undoubtedly experiencing the highs of his career. The proud Armenian, who is bringing nearly three decades’ worth of knowledge and experience to the Armenian national basketball team, says representing his homeland on the international stage is the utmost honor. 

“I’m very proud about what the definition of an Armenian person represents,” reflected Kalamian, whose grandmother is a Genocide survivor, “When you think of Armenian people as a whole you think of a resilient group of people, a respectful group of people and a hardworking nation, and that’s what I’m trying to represent.”

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