First published in the Jan. 7 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
It’s Vicky Oganyan’s last game playing for the Glendale Community College women’s basketball team. The noise in the gym was deafening. The men’s baseball and basketball teams were in the stands cheering for GCC in the Southern California Regional second round playoff game. Assistant athletic director Chris Cicuto was handing out pizzas.
GCC, ranked No. 5, was taking on 12th-seeded Cypress College. GCC, riding a 10-game winning streak, trailed in the first three quarters.
In that moment, Oganyan, who also coaches the John Burroughs High School girls’ team and is the assistant coach for GCC, shifted into “Vicky time” — time for the 40-year-old athlete, all 5 feet, 4 inches of her, to take over.
With six minutes to go, GCC trailed 59-50 — and swish. Oganyan helped pull her team to within three points, with only 26 seconds to go. Teammate Jesni Cooper then made three free throws to send the game into overtime.
At 68-68, 5-foot-2-inch Cypress guard Patricia Lantin wrestled a key offensive rebound and passed to teammate Tanya Carbajal, who drained a game-winning 19-foot jumper. Game over. Heartbreak. Tears.
The season is over. So is Oganyan’s playing career. As she headed to the locker room, she couldn’t speak with anyone.
“At some point, the end is coming,” she said three days later, while out to breakfast with friends. “To me, it’s so devastating. But to an outsider, it’s just a basketball game … but it was like someone died.”
“Is she OK?” a waitress asked one of her friends.
“She’s fine,” one of them responded. “No one died. She just lost a basketball game.”
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
Oganyan grew up in a small apartment with her parents and brother in Glendale, spending her weekends shooting hoops with her brother on a nearby church’s courts. Her parents didn’t have much money and spent much of their time outdoors. More often, there’d be no rims attached to the backboard.
She can’t remember the first time she picked up a basketball, but she always knew she wanted to be on the court.
“I’m not sure how to explain it,” she said. “Playing the game brought a lot of joy.”
She grew up watching the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s, during the peak of Michael Jordan’s best years, when his team won a staggering six NBA championships in an eight-year span.
Most of her time was spent on park blacktops, shying away from competitive basketball until her freshman year at Glendale High School. She wasn’t sure if she was going to make the team.
For Oganyan, she was just excited to be playing the game she loves. “I was just happy to be at practice and to be around basketball,” she said.
After her freshman year, she began to blossom. She went from scrounging for playing time, to not coming off the court. During her senior year, she averaged 17 points per game and was recognized as an all-area first team honoree, shining in the fourth quarter often. That’s how “Vicky time” was born.
After that high school season ended, like every promising athlete, the question burned. What’s next? She had a 3.4 grade-point average and interest from several schools. She tried out for the team at Cal State Northridge, impressing then-head coach Chris Abrams. Local junior colleges were actively recruiting her.
But her parents had other ideas. They insisted that she get a well-paying job, leaving basketball in the past. The coaches continued to call. Her parents wouldn’t budge.
“If it was up to me, I’d be playing,” she said. “It’s my parents who are not letting me play.”
She knew she could play at the next level, but then life had other plans. Oganyan’s mother, Marina, was diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer in 2000, during her freshman year at Northridge. She left basketball behind to tend to her mother.
THE BALANCING ACT BEGINS
While caring for her mother, Oganyan began coaching, first the JV team at Glendale High School and an assistant coach at Valencia High School. When she graduated from CSUN at 22, she began teaching biology at Burroughs.
At 24, she nabbed the head girls’ basketball coaching job at Burroughs. Then, in 2016, she became an assistant coach at GCC.
Since then, she’s been to the postseason 17 times for Burroughs Bears, had 16 winning seasons and collected six league championships. So far this season, the Bears’ record is 10-7, and they are 5-0 in league play.
While she was coaching, something was missing. Oganyan continued to think about playing again.
“I loved it so much that it brought back the emotional feeling of wanting to be on the court,” she said. “Being reminded of it … and the opportunity to play — that brought me back.”
At age 40 while serving as the assistant coach, she returned to the GCC to play for the team that recruited her 20 years earlier.
In her freshman and sophomore seasons, she notched a 4.0 GPA and earned all-conference academic honors. Her freshman season, the team had an outstanding 27-3 record under head coach Joel Weiss.
She did this all while teaching, coaching and playing full time. She hardly slept and admitted she didn’t want to put all her effort into her assignments. However, she knew there was more to taking classes beyond qualifying to play basketball.
“I couldn’t just take a seat,” she said. “I got to get an A because, first of all, what kind of role model would I be? Being in a position where people are looking up to you, I can’t get any Cs.”
She played with her former players and wanted to set an example, like the coach she’s always been.
THE TOUGH TIMES
After that final game, Cicuto was there to console her. The assistant athletic director mentioned how important she was to the team and the school.
“You did it, Vicky,” Cicuto said.
A team with high expectations lost in the first round of the playoffs. It happens.
“She’s almost like a local legend,” he said. “Whenever you say Coach Vicky, everyone knows who that is.”
Most of the crowd, he said, was there to see her — her importance to the campus amplified amid almost a yearlong shutdown after the pandemic. GCC, he said, needed Oganyan.
“I tell people this all the time,” Cicuto said. “That women’s basketball team she was a part of brought joy to a campus that needed it the most.”
Cicuto met Oganyan about six years ago, when the program needed to find an assistant coach to work alongside newly hired coach Weiss. At first, Cicuto was concerned. He wasn’t sure if Oganyan would be able to find the time.
“She just has this passion for the game,” he said. “I could tell right away.”
Oganyan would be there as soon as classes were done. “She’d be so dialed in,” he added, leading to a friendship that goes beyond basketball.
“She’s just a real person,” Cicuto said. “I can come to her with concerns, questions about the sports or athletes and she’ll just be as straightforward as possible. … She loves the kids. She’s going to call it how she sees it.”
After more than two decades of coaching, Oganyan had a message for her 17-year-old self — the young woman who graduated from high school, found coaching and returned to play basketball at 40: “Follow your passion.”
Seeing her mother succumb to a six-year battle with cancer put things in perspective.
“What’s the point of all that,” she asked, “if you’re just going to do stuff to just make money or have a higher status?
“I’ll tell the kids today: ‘What is your rush? Slow down. Enjoy your experience,’” she added. “It led to the experience that I had. If I had played out of high school, I wouldn’t have had that same experience. The last two years have been the best time of my life. What’s wrong with that?”