Canada's Kevin Pangos finally arrives in the NBA after circuitous six-year route

·6 min read

The first time Canadian Kevin Pangos walked onto the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor in his No. 6 Cavaliers jersey, his dad Bill was back at his Cleveland hotel room battling a nasty bout of food poisoning.

Pangos had arrived at the NBA — finally — after a circuitous six years, four teams and three different European countries. His signing was trumpeted by Canadian basketball fans who admired his perseverance.

His dad Bill and mom Patty flew from Toronto to be at an Oct. 8 pre-season game versus Indiana.

"Oh, my goodness, missing Kevin's first home game was tough, not being at the gymnasium," Bill said recently.

Pangos became a 28-year-old NBA rookie when he signed a two-year deal (one year is guaranteed) with Cleveland last month, finally living the dream he'd had since he was five.

The Cavs open the regular season Wednesday in Memphis, and Pangos is one of a record 22 Canadians on NBA rosters on opening night including players on two-way deals.

While missing that exhibition game was disappointing, Bill knows there'll be plenty more.

"Always grateful, never settling," he said, echoing his son's favourite saying.

And there have already been many basketball moments to celebrate. Kevin's career didn't start the day he signed on the dotted NBA line.

"The other day, somebody made a comment to us that he's finally made it to the pros," Bill said. "More and more people are understanding that the gap is closing between the NBA and the rest of the world as seen at the Olympics and the World Championships. And so I kind of said, 'Wait a sec, he's played pro basketball for six years.'

"He's been playing at the highest level besides the NBA, so he's been in very stressful situations, key moments of key games and playoff games, made the Final Four when he was in Lithuania."

He gained invaluable life experiences along the way.

"Living in Europe and moving from city to city, there obviously is a lot of growth and personal development," Bill said. "So we were proud of the fact that he was playing basketball, and enjoying himself and enjoying playing the sport and enjoying his lifestyle with his family. And then, ultimately his goal was always to make the NBA obviously."

Pangos averaged 13.5 points and 6.6 assists last season with Zenit Saint Petersburg, earning All-EuroLeague honours. Before that he played for FC Barcelona, Zalgiris Kaunas in Lithuania and Gran Canaria in Spain.

But every morning he spent overseas, he would scour the NBA box scores from the previous night, he recently told Cleveland.com.

"Every single day it's what I thought about," Pangos said. "It's been a dream of mine since I was a kid. I just wanted to play with the best players in the world. It's what everyone wants to do — play at the highest level."

Growing up in Holland Landing, some 60 kilometres north of Toronto, Pangos played youth hockey, but wasn't interested in following in the footsteps of an uncle who played in the NHL or cousin who was drafted by the Washington Capitals.

Besides, his immediate family fostered a basketball passion. Bill played for the U of T, and then coached York University's women's team for 26 years, retiring in 2013. Patty played at McMaster University. Kevin's sister Kayla played for Bill at York.

Pangos had an excellent college career at Gonzaga, tying the school record with nine three-pointers in just his second game. The six-foot-two guard sill holds the school record of 313 three-pointers.

He left for Europe after going undrafted, and is philosophical about the six years that followed.

"I'm a firm believer that everything happens for a reason," he told reporters on a recent video call. "I was overseas for six years, and that wasn't necessarily a fluke. I obviously ideally would have liked to be in the NBA from Day 1 out of college, or Year 2, Year 3, Year 4 — every single year, I would have liked to be in the NBA, ideally.

"I just tried to control what I could control and know that the spot I was in, I was there for a reason, I hadn't quite earned it yet. So, throughout those six years, there was a lot of growing I had to do on and off the floor I think. And I think that allowed me to get to the point I am today."

Patty and Bill said Kevin turned down numerous lucrative offers to sign with Cleveland.

"All you want your kids to do is follow their dreams and be happy. So, for me, that moment when he signed the contract, it's what he's worked toward for all this time," Patty said.

"But from a basketball standpoint, his experience was great over in Europe. We've watched his basketball growth over the six years, and it's been tremendous, and so now it's just the next step of having North America see him and his progression, and the opportunities he'll hopefully get at Cleveland to play."

Patty and Bill are also happy to have Kevin back on the same side of the ocean finally, and in the same time zone for the first time in 10 years. More good news: the U.S. is lifting land border restrictions to vaccinated travellers next month. Both retired, the Pangos said there'll be plenty of cross-border trips to Cleveland.

They had to fly for the pre-season game, and plans that weekend included helping Kevin and his wife Kate — they have a two-year-old daughter named Olivia and Kate is due with their second child any day — hang curtains in their rental home.

Pangos averaged 5.8 points, 3.5 assists and 16.1 minutes in the four pre-season games he played. Slotted in behind Darius Garland and Ricky Rubio, it remains to be seen how much he'll play in the regular season.

Regardless, Wednesday night will be a moment to remember.

"There's tons of emotions," Pangos said. "I don't know if I'm going to sleep the night before the first game, but it's going to be amazing and I'm going to try to soak it all in. Regardless of what’s going on I’m just going to appreciate the moment because I know how difficult it was to get here."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 20, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected version of an earlier story. There are 22 Canadians in the NBA, including players on two-way contracts.

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