Michael Hagopian was born to play basketball. “My dad put a ball in my hands when I was really young,” he fondly recalled during an interview with the Armenian Weekly late last summer. “They had to tell me not to steal the ball from other kids and let them all shoot. I had to hold back a little bit.”
It was an early lesson in teamwork for the little boy who grew up playing biddy basketball and one-on-one with his older brother in their Watertown backyard. “Eric never took it easy on him,” said their father Dikran, who described his youngest son as the smallest player on every team he joined. “But that’s how he learned how to fight for himself. Mike learning how to lose and learning how to compete against kids who were better than him is what I think set the stage.”
Born and raised in Watertown, Mass., Hagopian dedicated his entire childhood to the game. Instead of attending birthday parties and sleepovers, Hagopian would shoot baskets outside before bedtime, travel to weekend tournaments with his father and master dribbling with his left hand. “My dad told me I wouldn’t get anywhere if I didn’t know how to dribble with my left. He was right,” said Hagopian.
Over the years, Hagopian’s skills would evolve, despite his stature. At 5-foot-3, he would start playing varsity in his freshman year at Watertown High School, where he was named the city’s 2011-2012 Rookie of the Year. He would eventually don a number ten Rams jersey at Suffolk University in Boston, Mass. That’s where Hagopian made history as the university’s all-time leading three-point scorer, posting 236 three-point field goals under the mentorship of coach Jeff Juron. “He was over-matched at times physically on the court, but he was very skilled and played with poise beyond his years,” commented Juron on Hagopian’s level of maturity.
Hagopian’s coachability, focus and self-discipline are evident on and off the court. Not much has changed since his childhood. This past summer, he could be found at a local gym until closing time for his second workout of the day, practicing every shot inside and outside the arc and improving his agility and vertical jump with a resistance band that he would strap onto a metal bar. He’s a machine.
At 22 years old and 6-foot-2-inches, Hagopian is now making a name for himself in the homeland and the birthplace of his mother Anne. He’s halfway through a one-year contract, running the offense as point guard of Urartu Vbet, a Vanadzor-based basketball club that belongs to both the A-League in Armenia (the top men’s official basketball league in the country) and the Eurasian League. This is not Hagopian’s first time on an overseas roster. In 2017 and 2018, he spent back-to-back summers playing for Armenia in the International Basketball Federation (FIBA). He also participated in last summer’s Pan-Armenian Games. On Urartu Vbet, he was recently named the league’s best guard of the season. “He had a mission, and it paid off,” said Dikran. “There are always sacrifices when it comes to something that you love,” he continued.
This week, the game delivered a tragic lesson on the fragility of life for Hagopian who, like millions of adoring fans around the world, has been gutted by the sudden loss of NBA great and Los Angeles Laker Kobe Bryant; the basketball star, along with eight others including his 13 year-old daughter Gianna and Armenian pilot Ara Zobayan, died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, California on Sunday morning. “I was just sitting in silence for so long. I could not believe it. It was too much,” said Hagopian during a FaceTime interview as he recalled the heartbreaking moments he first learned about the news from back home.
“I respect greatness no matter what.”
Despite living in the land of the Boston Celtics, Hagopian was always a fan of Bryant. “I respect greatness no matter what,” said Hagopian on the decades-long rivalry. “He’s always been a role model for me.” Hagopian had just returned from participating in the Armenia A-League All-Star games, where Bryant’s Oscar-winning short film “Dear Basketball” was featured and translated into Armenian. Then on Thursday against BC Gyumri, both teams took eight and 24-second violations in Bryant’s memory. Hagopian, like many other talented athletes with big dreams, has always adopted Bryant’s ‘Mamba Mentality’ and made a habit out of being the first one at practice, just like the late basketball star. “You pushed me to work harder,” he later wrote in his social media tribute (@m_hagopian10). “Legendary work ethic…motivated me day in and day out.”
Much like the NBA legend’s commitment to family values, Hagopian says he is thankful for the incalculable amount of time his family has invested in his dream and his career. “My family sacrificed a lot for me, so hopefully I can give back to them and my country.”