How Basketball Came To Be My Armenian-American Identity

By Angela Koussian (Guest Contributor)

Two years ago Kobe Bryant became the campaign ad for Turkish Airlines’ direct flights from Los Angeles to Istanbul. As Armenians, some of us felt uncomfortable and disappointed that one of our favorite athletes would support such an endorsement. Some of us even went as far as ditching the purple and gold jerseys and giving up tickets to games entirely. It was a fresh wound, the kind we would get as kids, a scrape after we would spend hours playing basketball outside. The kind our moms would tell us in Armenian, medznasneh geh mornas, which translates to “when you grow up you will forget it happened.”

Despite still being a Kobe fan myself, you might be asking what sports has to do with my identity? Well, I never knew an Armenia that existed to me as strongly as I did while playing basketball. I was the young girl who had mastered a jump shot before I even learned how to make sourj (Armenian coffee). Turns out I would need both of these skills to properly socialize into my Armenian culture.

As a kid, I played basketball both for my public school and a city youth league. I grew up in South Bay, a town of beach cities located in Los Angeles with a small, and I mean small, population of Armenians. It was through my agoump (Armenian Center) that I found out about an all-Armenian basketball league. This organization is known around the world as Homenetmen. It might have been the third team that I joined, but it was the first time I was able to have a balance between my love of basketball (a passion shared by all backgrounds) and my culture (shared only among those on my team). I called this my “sub culture win-win,” the birth of my Armenian-American identity.

Each team was named after Armenian historic sites such as Ararat, Massis, Ani, Sassoun and Arakatz. Often times, the other communities had too many players on their roster so they would break in to 2-3 teams. This is because they lived in regions where there were a larger population of Armenians such as Glendale, Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley. A game of Ararat 2 vs Massis 1 would be going on, but there was always one Arakatz. We were the team that had to play with six, five or four players throughout the whole game. Through our wins and losses, we learned about the importance of communication.

It isn’t uncommon to see a mutual interest in any activity between siblings and parents, especially in a tight knit Armenian family. My older brother played basketball, so naturally I wanted to too. I don’t have any sisters, and being a part of this team felt like I gained many Armenian sisters. We would come up with plays that were named after Armenian foods, like bahmya (okra stew) which I remember wasn’t a favorite food among many of us. I couldn’t talk about bahmya with my American friends, even if I did compare it to the Armenian equivalent of broccoli.

In the years I spent playing basketball with Armenians, I heard many kids on the court say that their “dream is to be the next Kobe.” Certainly Armenians are not like Kobe.  Growing up, we weren’t told that basketball could be a career.  Instead, our priorities included getting good grades, taking care of our parents, siblings and grandparents, and participating in activities that kept Armenian tradition alive. But, what I never lost hope in was to see an Armenian in the NBA. I want to see someone like me who pursued their love of basketball while still maintaining the benefits of an Armenian lifestyle.

From tennis to football and basketball, we have provided important –ian’s to the world of sports. In 2012, Bleacher Report took notice of this and ranked the 10 Most Influential Armenians in Sports History. Three of these figures include David Nalbandian, Steve Sarkisian and Jerry Tarkanian.

David Nalbandian is the Argentinian Armenian who is known to be in the top 50 best tennis players in the world. But, what really connects us to him is his personal story where “his Armenian grandfather built a cement court in his backyard, where David learned to play against his two older brothers.” Little did a five-year-old Nalbandian know that his future would influence other Armenians to start playing tennis.

Steve Sarkisian, of Irish and Armenian descent, was coincidentally born and raised in South Bay, in the same small community of Armenians where I lived for most of my life. He played football and baseball in college for El Camino College and Bringham Young University. Later, he played professionally for the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. Sarkisian is now making his mark as the current head coach for University of Southern California football team.

Jerry Tarkanian or more commonly known as “Tark the Shark,” has his coaching success in the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Tarkanian has coached basketball for the University of Las Vegas, Nevada and California State University, Long Beach. He also turned down a position as the head coach for the Los Angeles Lakers in 1979 and served as a temporary coach for the San Antonio Spurs in the 1992-93 season. Tarkanian faced both controversy and harassment for violation accusations that caused him to resign, but he used basketball to look past it all.

So, it really might be just a matter of time until we have a Koko, Kevork or Karapet who will live out the dream.

Kobe’s contract with Turkish Airlines is supposed to be coming to a close this year and it seems like we have already moved on. The hurt has passed as I have seen many Armenians attend games again.

And my mother was right that my scars have healed from falling during practices in our unstable agoump parking lot. But I never forgot about what those memories taught me, much like the stories of our famous Armenian sports legends. Ultimately, it was the bond between my sisterhood and brotherhood of Homenetmen basketball players that strengthened my understanding of what it means to be Armenian.

Angela Koussian was born and raised in Los Angeles, having Armenian parents who migrated to the United States from Lebanon. She is a writer and content producer for Artest Media Group and Courtsideaccess.com.  Angela holds a Master’s of Public Policy from Pepperdine University and Bachelor’s degrees in Peace Studies and French from Chapman University. Her call of action is to encourage the use of sports as a tool for community relations, philanthropy, diplomacy, and the empowerment of women and children. 

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