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Will Andre Mkrtchyan Spight take Armenia to the Olympics?

When you first meet Dre, your breath slows from his calmness. 

His pace is meditative. His smirking smile is affable. His voice is benevolent. 

When he steps onto a maple hardwood court, that all dissolves. 

His crossover dribble is electric. His stare is menacing. His trash talk is elevating. 

At 27 years old, professional basketball player Andre Mkrtchyan Spight is taking Armenian basketball upon his shoulders. He’s playing one-on-one with the rest of the world.  

Andre Mkrtchyan Spight on MIASEEN Magazine
Andre Mkrtchyan Spight on the cover of September's MIASEEN Magazine. Photo by Ervin Hadani. Styled by Alique Derderian.

In July of 2022, Dre led the Armenian National Basketball team to a tournament win at the FIBA European Championship for Small Countries, beating Malta in the final 84-68 after beginning the game down a daunting 15-2. Dre averaged 22 points per game throughout the tournament.

The Armenian guard has laced up in the NBA G-League, and has soared up the courts for professional teams in France, Spain, and Poland. 

The sly tattoo of Kobe Bryant's sheath logo on his left wrist, which he had done “for a solid deal” in Yerevan, is a clue to strangers that his success did not happen overnight.  

There was never a world-class Instagram trainer by Dre’s side. No corporate sports agency grooming him. No backroom connections to general managers and NBA executives. 

No, Dre's calmness began as a kid, playing multiple games a day for multiple teams. 

And it began with his mother driving him there.

Hostile Environments

It is an usually brisk September morning when Dre walks into our MIASEEN Studio.

Photographer Ervin Hadani and his assistant Elen are making vanity adjustments to their lights and orange backdrop as they look up to say hi. Our producer Alique Derderian finishes steaming the straight-fitting navy slacks she has styled for Dre. Our interns Reneé and Michelle place down the doubled-checked microphones and audio recorder for our subsequent interview with Dre. Hip hop hums from the JBL speakers.

Dre tells us he has never done a photoshoot like this. 

When some men do a photoshoot, they are embarrassed before they even step in front of the lens. Men can often be rigid in their shoulder posture and leg stances, and be all too aware of gazing eyeballs behind the flashes. It is a vulnerable place to be. Before the first lens shutters, some men have their peripherals set on the exit sign. 

Not Dre. 

Saying he's a "natural model" isn't the point. I watch Dre step onto the paper backdrop and face his chin towards Ervin; I am enamored with his mindset that he can’t - and won’t - fail. He is down to try things out. He wants to put his personality into the shoot. He wants to win.

We blast Westside Gunn, Drake, and 21 Savage throughout the studio as we all mouth the words together. Ervin and Alique's vision comes to life as Dre glows more and more in each shot. As I run my interview questions back in my head, I realize I understated his immense self-confidence.  

Dre peers up after checking his phone. 

"My mom works around the corner. Is that cool if she rolls through?"

Andre Mkrtchyan Spight with his mother
Dre with his mother Anahit at MIASEEN Studios. Photographer Ervin Hadani placed an applebox under Anahit's feet to give her the right height for the shot.

If Dre is the player, Anahit is the owner of the team. 

Anahit Spight raised Dre as a single mother. She made sure he played in Homenetmen basketball, where he sliced and diced his way to fame in the Los Angeles Armenian basketball community. 

Anahit beams when she tells me Dre learned to speak most of his Armenian from his teenage travels visiting family in Armenia. She proudly laughs that Dre practically served as a translator for his teammates during their run at the FIBA European Championships. She stands cross-armed next to me, admirably observing Dre adjust his arm placement at Ervin’s direction.  

Dre later tells me during our interview all of what his mom gave for him to be successful.

Andre Mkrtchyan Spight
Dre's mother Anahit raised him as a single parent, driving him to multiple basketball games in day, weekend after weekend.

It's not atypical for competitive youth basketball players to play for a number of teams at once in various leagues, each serving their specific purpose to the player's development and exposure to scouts and coaches.

That constant pressure of competition is no easy feat for a young kid growing up. 

Neither is it for a mother driving her son to each of these games, traveling not just across the county or state, but also the country. 

While Anahit made sure Dre could handle his business on the court, it was up to him to weather the storm.

Dre describes the playing intensity of the gyms he would walk into, "When I go out there (to play) into The Valley or into other states, you know, like it's kill or be killed." 

Playing with and against Armenians certainly comes with its baggage of pride and grit, but Dre was exposed to playing with kids and teams of all backgrounds. 

"I kind of just got accustomed to playing with whatever style. And then I realized that they have to adjust to me; I don't have to adjust to them. That's when it like really clicked for me, that you just have to have that confidence that they got to adjust to you."
Armenian Basketball Players
Dre prides himself in his mental toughness just as much as his basketball talent. Shot at MIASEEN Studios.

His calmness developed in these tough gyms. It wasn't just opposing players who would talk trash to him. 

Even in youth leagues, parents, coaches, and fans are notorious for letting opposing teams know they aren't welcome. YouTube will show you the worst of it. It takes immense mental self-control to block it from affecting your game. A Kobe tattoo helps as a glancing reminder, but there is more to the internal fortitude.  

With his mother in the stands, his values and focus were always in check. Instead of these hostile environments growing into bubbling animosity, it turned into fuel. 

Anahit and Dre were an inseparable pair, and each held up their own ends of the bargain. Mother and son.

Dre tells me words never phase them. He locks into my eyes with conviction. He isn’t afraid to bite back. I believe him.

1% Better

I'm not a very good basketball player myself.

I love the culture around the sport, I have a group of buddies I play pickup games with, and I always stream my Golden State Warriors any chance I get. I've produced shoots that have featured Damian Lillard and Kyle Kuzma, though their skills have never rubbed off on me, nor my Armenian culture on them.  

The one thing I'm good at, however, is trash talking. My airballs are equalized by empty words on what I'm going to do to my opponent on the next run down the court. It's all in good fun. 

Dre’s smile broadens as he pitches into the conversation.

"I honestly can't play to the best of my ability if you're not mad. Like if I'm playing against you, and we're both laughing, I'm going to suck. But if I get under your skin and you start getting mad and you're really trying to ruffle my feathers, that's when I can bring out my full bag of tricks."

He emphasizes it is all in the competitive spirit as he chuckles. He develops a deeper bond with the opponents he jaws off with, with “good game” hugs just a little bit tighter after the final buzzer rings.

Dre went on to play Division I college ball at Arizona State University and University of Northern Colorado. 

"When I went to Arizona State, we played against the University of Arizona, and (the fans) would have signs of us, our Instagrams up there with our moms, and saying crazy stuff about our mothers and everything. Some spitting on us when we walked back. I got into it with a fan one time, but that's another story for another day."

These experiences sharpened his blade.

Andre Mkrtchyan Spight NBA Denver Nuggets Armenian Basketball Player
Dre playing for the Denver Nuggets G-League team.

In college, Dre began to hone his workouts around his different basketball skill sets. Mid-range jumper. Quick passes. Handles. The works. 

His goal remains to stay disciplined and get 1% better. He regularly does multiple workouts in a day.

He developed into a reliable scorer and playmaking facilitator, being able to take a team on his own, or fool his opponents into thinking so in order to set up his teammate with a slick assist. 

After leaving Northern Colorado, Dre was picked up by the Denver Nuggets G-League affiliate for the famous NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, where he was able to get playing time. 

However, the Nuggets were focused on developing other player assets that season, so Dre packed up and took his talents overseas to Europe.

He describes the taxing journey of professional basketball players, "A career in Europe: it's up and down because you only signed one-year contracts. You're not signing like a two or three year deal. Most of the time to advance to that next level, you just keep signing one year deals."

He teaches us that it's not unusual for American players to forgo finishing a season with a team to join another, often with sights of leveling up leagues and teams with an eye on the NBA.

"It's very difficult because when you go to a new team, they know that you're trying to get your stats to get out of there. And they don't really care about that, you know what I mean? They want to build a culture there because next year they're going to have that same core of domestic players there.

But the Americans are not going to be there. So, it's kind of a weird mix and sometimes it's very agitating for the Americans and the Europeans over there. Sometimes it just doesn't click or it's forced to click. 

Just a lot of jealousy when an American comes in and the Europeans over there just, you know, just kind of don't like our game or our style. And sometimes even the coaches don't really like us, but they have to sign us to win games. And that's just how it goes.

So there's been times where I'm on the bench the whole third quarter and I feel like the coach is just trying to win the game without the American best player, without their scoring." 

Dre keeps his head down and pushes through. 

Armenians Playing Basketball
Andre Mkrtchyan Spight: the face of Armenian basketball.

Summer is an important transitional period for players: a time for workouts with teams to display their skills and phone calls with executives to portray their character. Dre is in the midst of it, doing training sessions with professional teams and calculating different deals with potential next teams. He's in the gym nearly every day. 

All preparing for when the opportunity hits. And preparing to get Armenia to the Olympics.

"I'm going to do my best to get Armenia to the Olympics."

In 2016, the Armenian National Basketball Team announced it would play in its first official FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball) tournament, entering into the 2016 European Championship for Small Countries. 

A group was selected for the inaugural team, including Dre, who was still playing college basketball. I was curious what it was like off-the-court assembling such a team with little practice time heading into a monumental tournament.

In 2016, the Armenian National Basketball Team announced it would play in its first official FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball) tournament, entering into the 2016 European Championship for Small Countries. 

A group was selected for the inaugural team, including Dre, who was still playing college basketball. I was curious what it was like off-the-court assembling such a team with little practice time heading into a monumental tournament. 

"It was very fun. And sometimes, you know, it's very awkward. Like the Americans would be sitting at one table and, you know, the Russian Armenians would be sitting at another table. I would always try to have everybody just stick together and eat together and do everything together."

Against all odds, Armenia ran the table and beat tournament host Andorra 79-71 in the finals. Dre won the Finals MVP award by leading Armenia's scoring with 27 points.

A lot has changed since 2016.

Players have come and gone. Armenian sports still searches for a boost in financial and governmental support. Fandom often solemnly derives from a core group of supporters.

That is all changing with the arrival of Detroit Pistons NBA assistant coach Rex Kalamian as the national team’s head coach.  

"He brought so many things, honestly. He put everybody in perspective, like we all need to work. Everybody needs to do something, from the players, the coaches, from the 

organization, the whole country. We need to be behind the basketball team. We need towels, we need water, we need this money for that. It was very professional.

We were getting massages. We felt like an NBA team. We had NBA sets. We had NBA film. We had NBA coaches. We had NBA treatment. We had everything lined up. We had plays the same way as the NBA has, even shoot-around."

Rex Kalamian Coaching Armenian National Basketball Team
Armenian National Team coach Rex Kalamian (far right) is an assistant coach for the NBA's Detroit Pistons. Courtesy of FIBA.

It isn’t all for vanity. The 2022 FIBA European Championship for Small Countries was Rex Kalamian's first tournament coaching.

He brought an American style of basketball to the team, filled with spot-up three point shooting and spreading the court, sacrilegious for the European style of clogging up the key underneath the hoop. 

That style of play is what helped Armenia crawl back when they were down to Malta in the finals 15-2. Swish. Swish. Swish.

Rex’s leadership and basketball IQ was a pillar to their championship win, and his commitment is a solid indicator of future wins both for the organization and its players. At the start of the 2022-2023 NBA season, Rex and the Detroit Pistons staff hired Armenian National Team player Matthew Madonian to a Video Coordinating position, a budding starting point for some of the NBA’s prestigious coaches. Armenian Heritage nights are growing to more and more NBA team’s beyond just the typical California teams, with most teams circling their date of choice around when Rex’s Detroit Pistons comes to the town.

Rex’s presence has changed the confidence around and within the Armenia National Team, especially on what they believe they can achieve.

Dre is the only remaining player from that 2016 roster, and is focused on bringing more and more players from around the world to compete for a spot. Each battle makes the team better. 

"Yes, we need to go to the Olympics, because we will go to the Olympics."

It is something that has never been done before. Because of the European organization of international basketball teams, Armenia fights for qualifying spots against basketball juggernauts such as Germany, Slovenia, and Spain. Armenia’s placement in European sporting federations came after Armenia’s 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, for geopolitical reasons to be explained in another article. 

Armenia Winning Championship FIBA Basketball Tournament
Armenia after beating Malta 84-68 in the Final of the 2022 FIBA European Championship for Small Countries.

There are multiple ways for Armenia to secure a spot in the 2024 Olympics in Paris or in Dre’s hometown at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics, when he will be at the tailend of his career.

Armenia are unable to qualify for the 2024 Olympics via the first path of exceptional placement in the 2023 FIBA World Cup, as they were ineligibility to compete for qualification due to their country/team size and player availability. This route, however, is incredibly difficult to qualify through, even the most established nations. Qualification for the 2027 FIBA World Cup is looking brighter. 

After seven of the 24 Olympic spots are filled from FIBA World Cup results, Armenia must qualify for FIBA Olympic Pre-Qualifying Tournaments, and win through these rounds to earn a place as one of 16 European teams to be entered into the final FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament. This final tournament is split into smaller sub-tournaments, where the remaining winners cement their place at the Olympics. Stay with me here.

This is the path Armenia must face to make it to the Olympics. You may think it is impossible, but crazier things have occurred in sports. Though this one could take the cake. Regardless of what you believe is possible, feasible, or hallucinogenic, Dre and the teammates take it one game at a time, taking small bites out of the whale.

"I'm going to do my best to get Armenia to the Olympics." He becomes earnest, "It's just such a great feeling. Like to win those championships and knowing that it's not about me, it's not about him, her, or the organization. It's about our country and how good we feel after we win."

I ask him what we need to see from our community to leap to that next echelon.

"I see the way is less hate and more support. If I support your platform and you support my platform, then boom. Right? I played in Arizona and Colorado. They don't know what an Armenian is. So for us to be here in this community, I feel like we need to do less hating and more supporting."
Andre Mkrtchyan Spight Basketball Player Photoshoot GQ Style
Can Dre turn the Olympics for Armenian Basketball from fantasy to reality?

I press the red record button to end our interview. Gushes of excitement pump through my veins. It is clearly and empirically insane to think Armenian basketball could make it to the Olympics, but is it? Yes. Yes, it is. Why should that mean we don’t fight for it?

How do we come together to support such an invigorating prospect, led by brave and dedicated individuals? Maybe we’re the crazy ones for not realizing our potential for the rest of the world to respect us. Because there is more energy and sophisticated organization being put into Armenian basketball. 

The competition in Armenia’s domestic leagues is growing, attracting international talent from America and Europe to the Caucasus Basketball League, which features national team star Albert Tatevosyan. In Los Angeles, the talent in the pro-am Armenian American Basketball League is soaring, attracting former D-I stars and giving professional repetitions to Armenian players. 

One focus of the AABA is to create a pipeline of talent for more American-Armenian college players and strengthen the talent going to the Armenian National Team. Dre won the AABA Finals for Hrazdan in the Spring 2022 season, and fellow Armenian National Team teammate Gabriel Ajemian played for the Armens in the Fall 2022 season, winning the Finals MVP in their championship victory by locking in a double-double with 27 points and 15 rebounds.

There are true foundational blocks being built. More high school players in the Armenian school system are being noticed by college scouts. With only five players taking the basketball court, even just one player hitting it big takes us one step closer to the Olympics.

Andre Mkrtchyan Spight Basketball Player Photoshoot GQ Style
Photo by Ervin Hadani. Styled by Alique Derderian.

But every team needs its star. Every community needs a player to inspire them. Every nation needs a figure who will stop at nothing to win. 

I’m staring the future of Armenian basketball right in the face, and I know by the time Dre leaves the court, we are going to be in a better place as a nation.

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