In a pristine gym off Vanowen Street in Canoga Park, there’s a group of Armenian high school basketball players practicing at 6:30 p.m. each night. Their story is so unique that their quest to win a championship this season might be worthy of a documentary.
Avand Dorian, Matthew Sahnazoglu and twins Ryan and Michael Martirossian have been attending Armenian General Benevolent Union since they were 3.
“It’s like a family and so welcoming,” Dorian said. “It feels like you get to play basketball with your brothers every day. You’re comfortable to give and take criticism to anybody.”
Add 6-foot-6 Arpiar Harmandian, who arrived as a freshman, and you have five seniors who can practically read each other’s minds. Last year they were 21-0 during the regular reason. This season, AGBU’s goal is to win a Southern Section Division 2A championship.
“The toughest opponent is ourselves in practice,” said Dorian, who’s 6-4 and the team’s leading scorer.
The players know each other’s tendencies, likes and dislikes so well that coach Nareg Kopooshian has to devise new plays at the last minute to confuse the defense.
“They’ve known the system since they were little kids,” he said. “They know what I expect. Even on days they don’t have to be here, they ask when they can come. They live in the gym with me.”
Their team chemistry is everything a coach dreams about.
“So many people come up, ‘How do you have such good chemistry?’ ” Dorian said. “We don’t notice it, but to other teams, we’re flowing.”
Dorian is the most intriguing character. He has a 4.7 grade average and never stops smiling.
“Even at the free-throw line, he gives us one of his smiles, and we know all is good,” Kopooshian said.
At a noisy restaurant recently, Dorian just fell asleep. “He sleeps anywhere,” Sahnazoglu said. “If he’s tired, he’s gone.”
Dorian’s personality is so friendly, humbling and welcoming that he’d fit in on any team. He’s the player AGBU goes to when the game is on the line, whether needing an inside shot or three-pointer. He’d love to walk on at USC or UCLA, and there’s no doubt Andy Enfield or Mick Cronin will fall in love on sight. He loves taking charges.
Most of all, Dorian has loved basketball since his days walking around the campus as a 3-year-old.
“It’s the best environment we could have,” he said. “When we were 3, 4 and 5, we’d come to watch the basketball games. We were so impressed. Those were our role models. We wanted to be like them. We’ve all grown up and it’s us now. We want to make the kids below us proud.”
In an era where high schools are forming all-star teams, AGBU is largely composed of Armenian teenagers who have played together for years. They live mostly in the San Fernando Valley, in Tarzana, Northridge and as far as Studio City. Their coach will speak Armenian in the huddle or on the court if they need to keep secret a particular play.
Armenians in the San Fernando Valley will likely come out en force for their game of the year on Dec. 9 when Encino Holy Martyrs hosts AGBU. They haven’t played in years. At a time when wars and politics have been affecting the Armenian community, it will be a game to unite.
“It’s such a privilege and honor to represent our community,” Dorian said.
Whenever this coming season ends, the friends since preschool will head follow different paths in life. That’s why the 2022-23 season will be so enduring and memorable.
“This is something I’ll tell my grandkids about,” Dorian said. “We love basketball so much, but what makes it special is the people we’re playing with. I get to win with my brothers, I get to lose with my brothers.”
The high school with some 200 students was in Division 5 three years ago. Last season it lost by five points to Long Beach Millikan in the 3A playoffs and now moves up to 2A after going 46-13 the last three seasons.
“We weren’t expecting to be in this division,” Dorian said. “We were surprised. But we welcome the challenge. We can’t wait for the season to begin.”
These best friends are not afraid to let their chemistry be the magic that leads to success this season and beyond.