By Aaron Carlson
This summer I had the chance to go to Armenia to play basketball in the first Pan-Armenian World Games. Ed Erganian, Ara Karkazian, Haig Saghdejian, and I were chosen from Fresno’s Homenetmen Sassoun Chapter. Players on teams representing the cities of Los Angeles, Glendale, San Diego, San Francisco and Fresno were assigned by the Armenian Council General in Los Angeles. Our teams consisted of an all-star team from California’s Homenetmen. In our travel group there were about 150 athletes and coaches comprised of two men’s and one women’s basketball teams, one men’s and two women’s volleyball teams and several individual track and field competitors.
The Pan-Armenian Games were held in Yerevan, Armenia starting on August 28, 1999 and ending on Sept. 5, 1999. The games were organized by the government of Armenia and athletes of Armenian descent were eligible. There were athletes from all over the world that participated in the games. Athletes received medals in basketball, soccer, volleyball, tennis, track and field, along with chess. This event was a very popular event in Armenia. At the opening ceremony there were more than 25,000 people on hand to watch. Throughout the city there were posters advertising the games in every store window. Both the opening and closing ceremonies, along with some of the games, were broadcast on local television.
Our team placed sixth out of 24 teams. We also received a reward and trophy for sportsmanship and team play at the closing ceremony. The Armenian General Benevolent Union of team from Los Angeles won the basketball championship. The women’s basketball team from Los Angeles placed second.
Even though I went to Armenia to play basketball, I realized basketball would not be the only objective. This was my first trip out of the country and it was an experience that I will never forget. From the time that we arrived in Yerevan to the time we had to leave, we were treated like superstars. The bus from the airport to the Hotel Armenia was escorted by police. When we went out to eat, we got special treatment from the service staff. We never went hungry and the ice cream was to die for. Because of the strength of the American dollar, we ate like kings.
The biggest thrill of the trip was signing autographs for the local kids. During each game I would chew a piece of gum and then pass out the rest to the kids that would come to watch us play. After the game they would bring the gum wrappers back for me to sign. The same group of kids would come to watch all of our games and their teacher came to us to ask if we could play basketball with them. The last day of the trip we went to their school to play basketball with them. Afterward we took them out for ice cream and Coca-Cola.
It was hard to schedule sightseeing, because of our games, but we were able to go on a few trips. The trip to the Armenian Genocide Museum and Monument was the most interesting and moving experience. We went on tours of the battle site at Sardarabad, Garni, a first century BC sun temple, and Geghart, a monastery carved out of a mountain. The churches were actually built out of a mountain and there is a lot of detailed art work on the walls – it was just amazing. No trip to Armenia would have been complete without going to Etchmiadzin. The grave of the Catholicos, H.H. Karekin Sarkissian, who recently passed away, is located just outside the front entrance of the church. It was moving to see the fresh dirt instead of a permanent headstone. I have read about these places in history books, and going to see them in person meant that much more to me. There was so much history there it was hard to comprehend it all at once.
I went to play basketball, but came back with a whole lot more. I got to see a new country and make new friends. Even though we did not bring home the gold medal, the consensus was that the trip was a positive one. As I reflect back on the trip and the things that I saw, I will always remember them. You only get one chance to play in the First Pan-Armenian Games and I was part of it. Maybe in two years, I will be asked to go play in the second Pan-Armenian Games. It would be interesting to see how much the country has changed and how much it has stayed the same.