LOS ANGELES, Calif.—The Clippers catered to Los Angeles’ Armenian fans Tuesday with a themed event they called Armenian Heritage Night. The evening marked the second consecutive season that the NBA franchise has paid tribute to the million-plus Armenians who reside in greater Los Angeles County.
“I’m very proud of my nationality and heritage,” said Clippers assistant coach Rex Kalamian in an interview with the Armenian Weekly. Kalamian is the only known NBA figure, either as a coach or player, who is of Armenian heritage. He explained that basketball has always helped him connect with his culture and observed that there are a lot of Armenians who are invested in the sport. “There is huge interest within the culture, and we’re trying to build more recognition. I’m proud to be the only representative in the NBA right now. I’m fortunate and humbled to be in this position, and with the love and affection that I receive from the community.”
Before the game against the Indiana Pacers tipped off, 22 dancers from Patille Dance Studio performed to Ara Gevorkian’s song “Ov Hayots Ashkhar” while dressed in traditional Armenian attire (daraz). “We chose that specific song because we wanted to represent the Armenian culture in a powerful way,” said dance instructor Patille Albarian. “Gevorkian’s music and transitional instruments are traditional, yet incredible.”
Shortly afterward, 30 students from Mesrobian School’s choir performed the American national anthem in unison. “It was an absolutely wonderful experience to be a part of the Clippers’ cultural performances,” said Mesrobian School principal and graduate David Ghooogasian. “Some people call America a melting pot, but I view it more as a mosaic, and Armenians are definitely a part of that beautiful mosaic. It makes me very proud to see the kids and culture being honored the way they were.”
In between the festivities, DJ Dense played the song “Dukhov” during warmups. The word dukhov, combining the Russian word “dukh” (spirit) and the Armenian ending “ov” (with) was one of the main slogans of Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, led by current prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan (who wore the term emblazoned on a now-infamous hat).
— Manouk Akopyan (@Manouk_Akopyan) March 20, 2019
Several other mentions of Armenian Heritage Night were made over the public address system and on the jumbotron as well. During halftime, youth basketball teams from the Homenetmen Glendale Ararat Chapter took over on the hardwood and played a quick game, just as they did last year, as proud family members cheered on. Mika Petrosian was one of the ten kids on the court. During the five-minute scrimmage, Petrosian made both of his attempts. “It was a great moment to have Armenians being honored,” said Petrosian. “It was an exciting experience and felt great playing on the court. I had more confidence because I had a chance to play last year, too.”
After halftime, the Clippers held off the Pacers to win 115-109 and capped off the evening by providing fans who purchased tickets through the promotion with a commemorative Armenian Heritage Night hat. It featured a patch of the Armenian flag on the right side, and the red, blue and orange tricolor pattern on the bottom of the brim.
“We’re excited to grow Armenian Heritage Night more and more over the coming years,” said Matt Paye, Clippers’ vice president of marketing. “It’s important that we represent and speak to every part of our fan base, just like all of our fans support us. We’re proud that the Clippers are one way that such a vibrant L.A. community can come together.”
The Clippers are not the only Los Angeles sports franchise that markets to the Armenian population in the city. The Dodgers, Kings and Galaxy and the former Major League Soccer franchise Chivas USA have all held their own variation of an Armenian Heritage Night in previous years. The LA Kings have even leveraged defenseman Zach Bogosian’s heritage multiple times throughout the years by strategically scheduling heritage night on the same day he was playing for the opposing team.
“It is an honor for the Armenian community to be recognized the way it was,” said Carl Bardakian, a US representative to the Basketball Federation of Armenia from 2009 to 2015. “It demonstrates how the Armenian community is an integral part of Los Angeles.”
Every year, the Clippers celebrate dozens of cultures and countries at home games with heritage night designations. Over the final few regular season games alone, the team will host Japanese Heritage Day and Iranian American Heritage Night. Hosting heritage night promotions is a common marketing practice across all major sports franchises because it helps unite communities, all while providing teams with an extra push to sell tickets. It’s a strategy that the Boston Celtics have used in the past too with Greek, Jewish and Asian Heritage Nights. However, the Celtics have not yet honored the sizable Boston-based Armenian community with its own heritage night.
“We work hard to represent the real Los Angeles, and part of that means representing true Angelenos,” said Paye. “We feel that it’s our responsibility to support the city as much as its people support us. It’s not about building our brand. It’s about knowing and giving back to our fans, and giving them a platform to be themselves.”
There is no question an Armenian will one day succeed as a player in the NBA
The Clippers are also giving Kalamian, who many believe will one day become a head coach in the league, a platform to further hone his craft under ex-Celtics coach Doc Rivers. This is Kalamian’s second tenure with the Clippers and 25th year overall as a coach in the NBA. He began his Clippers career as an assistant in the scouting department in 1992 and also worked internally in other capacities before transitioning into an assistant coach from 1995 to 2003. He then moved on to work as an assistant coach for the Nuggets, Wolves, Kings, Thunder and Raptors.
Some of Kalamian’s best work was in Oklahoma City, where he helped develop and shape three future MVPs in Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden from 2009 to 2015. If Kalamian’s efforts with the Clippers lead to a head coaching job in the future, he wouldn’t be the first Armenian to do so, however. Legendary UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian had a short stint leading the San Antonio Spurs in 1992, but he was relieved of his duties after just 20 games.
Although several Armenians have played various divisions of NCAA basketball over the years, they have fallen short of making it to the NBA. Kalamian, a former college player who has also played in the Armenian Olympics in Yerevan, feels that an Armenian playing under the bright lights of the league is not a matter of if, but when. The defensive specialist coach told the Weekly he has plans to play an active role in shaping the future of the country’s basketball program. “To be honest, it’s a venture that I’ve been interested in for a long time. There is no question an Armenian will one day succeed as a player in the NBA,” said Kalamian. “The men’s national team is on the rise. There are a lot of big, young, raw, talented kids out there. There are a lot of small countries who have players in the NBA, and I think we can definitely be one of them. Armenia is an untapped ground.”