Outside Shots: For Kevin Pangos, Coronavirus Isn’t the First Obstacle He’s Faced in Basketball

The basketball world is starting to reawaken from the coronavirus shutdown. The NBA is eyeing a restart in late July. And while the EuroLeague has cancelled the remainder of its schedule, Spain’s Liga ACB is on track to return on June 17.

Perhaps no one is more eager for the comeback of Spanish hoops than Kevin Pangos, a five-year European pro who starred in college at Gonzaga University and whose family is close with that of NBA veteran and fellow Canadian Kelly Olynyk. CloseUp360 caught up with Kevin to understand what life under lockdown was like in one of the countries in Europe that was hit hardest by COVID-19, and why his delay has, in some ways, been more agonizing than most.

The following is Kevin’s account of the pandemic, his friendship with Kelly and more, edited for clarity and length.

I woke up on March 12 in my apartment in Barcelona to a notification on my phone that I didn’t think was true. It just popped up on my screen in the morning, and sure enough, I opened it up and I was wide awake after that because it definitely got me up.

The NBA has suspended its season due to the coronavirus.

For something of that level and that scale to completely stop the season, I knew it couldn't have been just some small thing, so I didn't believe it was true. I looked into it more and, sure enough, it was true, so I was just kind of in shock. Because there's things that people might talk about, like, “Hey, what if something like this happened? What if?”

But for something like that to actually happen, it doesn't even seem real.

I think a lot of the people out here, including my teammates, were thinking the same. If the NBA is going to do that, then other leagues are going to follow, especially once experts got more informed about the seriousness of this virus. And so, I think everyone here, myself included, kind of figured that we were next and we were gonna shut down. And shortly after is when they cancelled it for us as well.

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Kevin Pangos is in his second season with FC Barcelona Basquet in Spain. (V. Salgado/FC Barcelona)

Basketball was pretty much always the thing for me. When I was younger growing up in Canada, I really enjoyed hockey and really enjoyed soccer, so I played a lot of different sports growing up.

But all along, basketball was the one I wanted to pursue. I knew at a young age that I wanted to try and play it professionally. It was the sport that I could play non-stop and never really got tired of, so I knew that was the one for me. In Canada, everyone's playing hockey, so it was definitely something that I picked up at a young age and I enjoyed, but it just never stuck as my favorite and the one that I wanted to pursue.

My parents knew Kelly Olynyk’s parents way back because he's Canadian as well. Our parents were in the basketball world in Canada, so they knew each other. His mom was a referee, his dad coached and my dad is a university basketball coach as well, so our families knew each other. Once we were in our teens, at some point, Kelly and I came across and met each other. We were in the same training camps, but he was a little older than me.

As basketball became more serious in my life, I got a lot of interest from colleges in the U.S., but I didn't get a ton of offers. I was not super highly recruited. But Gonzaga and Michigan were the two schools that seemed the most interested in me. One of the Canadian national team coaches, Greg Francis, passed along my name to the coaching staff at Gonzaga, where Kelly went to play college basketball. Kelly and I both played for him, just at different times.

I didn't know a lot about Gonzaga other than March Madness. My mom would always pick the Zags in the tournament because she liked the name, and they always do pretty well.

Kelly was my host on my visit to campus in Spokane, Washington. I talked to him along the way, just about any questions I had. I don't even know if I would have gotten there without him, because I wouldn't really have known much about it or the coaches wouldn’t have known me. And then after that, I was just asking him and learning about the school a lot, so he was definitely a big factor in my decision to go there.

Kelly and I never really played on the same team or anything until I got to Gonzaga, so I never really hung out with him, just because he was older. But then, once I got to Gonzaga, we became good friends and became close, especially because we'd always be in the gym, working out in the evenings at the same time. I was around him all the time, and then we started playing on the national team together. So I got to know him a lot better after that. I became close with Domantas Sabonis as well, since he and I played together for two years at Gonzaga.

In 2015, I went undrafted, and then played in the NBA Las Vegas Summer League with the Dallas Mavericks, but I didn't get the kind of offers I was looking for. I was always open to playing overseas because I traveled a lot with the national team, and I didn't mind being away from home or anything like that. So I played one year in Spain with Gran Canaria, then two years in Lithuania with Zalgiris Kaunas.

My favorite moment playing in Europe so far I'd say, first off, was the EuroLeague Final Four with Zalgiris in 2018. Some people might not realize, especially across the pond in the States, but the Final Four out here is huge. It was a big competition, and for us to be able to make it was awesome. That was a really good experience.

Other than that, what’s stuck with me is just the memories of playing in some of these arenas here. The fans over here are intense. Playing for some of these sold-out crowds in these buildings where the fans are going crazy, it's a great experience and something that I really enjoy.

Now, I’m in my second year with Barcelona Basquet. I was okay with playing over here and we'll see what happens going forward.

Even though Kelly has been in the NBA and I’ve been in Europe, we're still close friends and we stay in touch. I'll touch base with him over the phone here and there. But always every summer, we catch up because we're always in the national team training camp. We'll hang out a lot there. We'll always go to sushi. That's his thing. Anybody who knows Kelly knows he loves sushi, so we'll go get all-you-can-eat sushi, wherever it is, Toronto or any city that we're in. There's a lot of them in Toronto, so any time we're there, he knows the good spots. I think the restaurants actually lose money on Kelly when he goes there. Most of the time, I think they're making money on all you can eat, but not with Kelly.

Kelly eats more than anybody else I know. I consider myself a pretty big eater, but I don't think I could keep up with him. If there's an eating competition, I’d take Kelly over anybody else I know. Let's put it that way. He eats a massive amount, especially sushi. I think he eats it every single day.

With Kelly, there's never a dull moment. He's one of a kind. He's got a big personality and he's hilarious and he's so outgoing.

I like following all the Zags, especially in the NBA. Every morning, I try to wake up and look at how the guys did, check their stat lines. Kelly did great in Boston, and in Miami he's adjusted really well. Seeing the way he's been able to play at that level has been awesome, especially seeing where he came from, all the work that he put in at Gonzaga. Every time we'd be in there, he'd be working, so it's good to see him succeeding.

Seeing Domas be an All-Star with the Pacers was huge, too. The opportunity that he got in Indiana and the way he's been beasting—some of the dunks he’s throwing down and just the way he’s playing—it’s great to see every time he’s out there.

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The first time I heard about the coronavirus was in mid-January. It was still mostly just in China, then slowly it kind of picked up some steam, at least in what I was seeing.

Once Italy was getting hit pretty hard, I really started taking notice. The moment that I took it the most serious was when the NBA canceled because I just know for a big league and organization to cancel like that with so much money at stake, I knew that they wouldn't cancel if they didn't feel the need to or they had. That was actually before the EuroLeague and Liga ACB canceled.

We had a meeting as a team in mid-March. The virus was picking up here in Spain after Italy. The team didn't know the extent of it and they said, “Let's go home for the weekend. We'll let everyone quarantine, we'll see what's going to go on and then we'll reassess back here on Monday.” Then while we were home that weekend, the government of Spain just locked everything down and it got to the point that it got to with how serious it was. From that point on, we were just staying here and quarantining. I try not to immerse myself too much in it because you can easily get caught up in the news and all the negative stuff.

It's been interesting here in Barcelona, to say the least, with everything that's been going on. They recently started loosening some stuff over here, so we're able to go outside. But it's been interesting being cooped up over here. My wife, Katie, and I have a seven-month-old daughter named Olivia. She's kept us busy, so that's been nice spending time with her. I have a basketball in here. Every time I'm holding it or something, Olivia’s eyes are like wide open, so it's been cool.

We were on strict lockdown in Spain for about six weeks. We couldn't leave except to go to the grocery store and any emergency obviously. Then, they loosened it to where people that couldn't work from home, that were essential workers, were able to work for a week.

Initially, we couldn't exercise the first week, so we were just going for walks as a family with our dog and our stroller. Even that was so refreshing, just being able to get outside. We live in an apartment in the city and we have an outside little terrace, so that's been okay. But being able to just walk around and get out was just so refreshing, to be able to get out there and move around.

We'd work out every day. The team actually was able to get stationary bikes from one of the local gyms here just to borrow, so we got that inside or we'd move it on the terrace, and then the team gave us programs to stay in shape. Especially when it was nice, we'd be on the terrace all day doing exercises or just hanging out there. And if not, just working inside with weights and mobility stuff, and then the cardio on the bike. I think I was able to stay in some decent shape, but I guess we'll see once I step back on the court.

Now, we're able to exercise outside, but only within certain hours. They have a whole schedule of who's able to go out when. In the morning, from 6 until 10 a.m., we're allowed to work out, and also from 8 to 11 at night. And then there's hours for the elderly, there's hours for families. It's a whole schedule.

We've gotten in a pretty good routine where we work out and then we spend a lot of time with our daughter. She keeps us really really busy, but it's been fun. And then we've been watching some shows and documentaries, including Money Heist and The Last Dance, and cooking. We’ve also done a lot of FaceTime with family and friends to stay social somewhat, so that's the routine. When I say we've been doing the same thing every day, I'm not really lying. You do the same routine every single day, but it's been fun.

Before the team facilities opened up again, I had just been shooting in my living room. That's it. I had been injured all season, so I hadn't even played a game. During one of the first practices in the season, when I got here, my toe bent all the way back. It took to heal longer than I was hoping.

I was getting really close to coming back and then this all happened. So now, I see the light at the end of the tunnel. I'm itching to get on the court. I can't wait. I was so excited to give it a shot and get out there and shoot. Before the quarantine, I was doing some set shooting on the court, but nothing crazy, and then shooting in my living room. So for me, it's going to be a great feeling getting back out there after almost eight months.

That’s why, when the shutdown happened, I was joking with some of my teammates, like, “Hey, welcome to my lifestyle, guys! Stationary bikes, shooting in place in your living room—that's all I've been doing for a while. So for me, it's gonna be a really good feeling to get back out there. I'm already visualizing it right now.

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Kevin's season with Barcelona was cut short by both a toe injury and the pandemic. (V. Salgado/FC Barcelona)

It's been really neat to see and be a part of the growth of Canadian basketball culture. The competition now is incredible, seeing how many guys are playing at such a high level and still how many young guys are coming up and doing really well.

I just remember when I was younger, there were maybe one or two Canadians in the NBA. And now, you can't even count with your hands. The number is getting higher and higher. On top of that, there are so many guys in the NCAA and others, like me, who are playing overseas professionally, that are playing really well at a high level. It's been amazing to see, and the competition from the national team's becoming big. I think that's the next step for us, is to hopefully make a statement internationally with the national team. But overall, with the guys and the talent coming up, it's amazing to see.

I was hoping to play for the Canadian national team in the Olympic qualifier in my home country. It's somewhere that Canada's really wanted to get to these past years and I was hoping to be part of that, but obviously the plans changed with this virus going on. But I think going forward, that's still my plan. I'm hoping to be part of that team, or at least get a shot at it, so we'll see once they figure out what's going to happen with the Olympics and the qualifiers.

Steve Nash, a fellow Canadian, was my favorite player growing up. It would be huge for me, Kelly and our countrymen to help Canada get back to the Olympics for the first time since Steve led the team there in 2000. I take a lot of pride in representing my country. It's where I grew up. Friends, family, everything—it's your whole upbringing. So for us to be able to make the Olympics would be huge. It would just show the level that Canada basketball is at.

And for myself, it would be an honor just to be able to represent my country at that level and be a part of that team that can hopefully not just make it there, but also possibly get on the podium. It's definitely been a dream of mine playing in the Olympics. Everyone knows what the Olympics is and what it represents, so to be on that stage and at that level would be huge.