Anto Balian follows in father’s footsteps as Armenian hoop star

It’s almost 11:30 p.m., and the sound of a bouncing basketball near the garage of the Balian family home in Glendale is as common as a barking dog. Except none of the neighbors have called police to complain.

“Not yet,” 6-foot-2 junior guard Anto Balian of Pilibos High said gratefully.

Maybe it’s because the houses on both sides of the Balian home have occupants of Armenian descent and know the 16-year-old practicing from 9 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. in the front and back yards is simply doing his basketball homework.

“He just works real hard at his craft,” said his father, Sarkis, who’s also the basketball coach and athletic director at Pilibos. “He puts in a lot of work on his own.”

California is home to the largest Armenian population of any state, at 250,733, according to the 2020 census. Los Angeles is the epicenter of culture and activities, where three Armenian schools — Pilibos, Holy Martyrs and AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian — are every bit competing in sports with the intensity of a rivalry matchup similar to when Catholic or Jewish schools play before sold-out crowds.

Sarkis was a star guard at Holy Martyrs during his high school days. He has spent the last 28 years at Pilibos, which is a K-12 school in Little Armenia near Hollywood. He coached his oldest son, Kevork, who graduated three years ago. Now Anto is the focus. Sarkis’ name is legendary in the Armenian basketball community, so don’t doubt how much support and following Anto could end up receiving as he continues to develop.

Junior guard Anto Balian, left, and Pilibos coach Sarkis Balian, his father.

(Craig Weston)

Los Angeles’ many diverse ethnic communities are known to come out in force to root for one of their own. Think back to the days Kobe Paras arrived from the Philippines to play basketball for Cathedral High. Filipinos were filling gyms in 2014-15 for his senior year to record videos of his dunks, offering high-fives to friends in the bleachers and lining up for autographs.

Anto has been attending Pilibos since preschool. So many of his high school friends have played together since they learned how to walk, talk and get dirty in the sandbox.

“You’re more than friends,” Anto said. “You know them like your parents. It becomes a family, especially in the Armenian community, where everyone knows each other.”

To see the determination on his face as he maneuvers toward the basket on a drive or grabs a rebound is a hint of his passion. He’s already a member of the Armenian national team that came to Los Angeles last summer to play two games against France at Cal State Northridge. He could join the team in February in Armenia depending on his availability during the Southern Section playoffs.

He played many sports growing up, but his father’s basketball background was always going to lead Anto on a path to explore the sport.

This season he’s averaging 31.2 points a game. His physicality, strength and ability to finish drives or draw fouls helps keep his scoring average going up. He can make three-pointers and his work ethic is unyielding, which means constant improvement is going to keep happening. He had 33 points last week in a game against Sierra Canyon.

He said he wants to play Division 1 basketball and has received interest from such schools as the University of San Diego, coached by Steve Lavin. He received an offer this week from Biola. He stepped out of his Pilibos comfort zone by playing club basketball and participating in the Nike EYBL, challenging himself on the court and forcing himself to meet new people. It’s an important journey for someone so closely tied to a single school to explore life outside of his community.

“It’s teaching me what I have to look forward to in the coming years,” he said.

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