Kazemi plans to be first Iranian to receive U.S. hoops scholarship
PHILADELPHIA -- One week ago, in an episode of U.S.-Iran relations that did not make anyone's evening news, the 18-year-old captain of the Iranian junior national team took a pass from an American teammate, drove to the basket and dunked with such authority that some Division I coaches in the gym began curiously examining his bio page in the Reebok All-American Camp's handbook.
Coaches from Seton Hall and Oklahoma State -- two of the first schools to offer him a scholarship -- looked on as well, perhaps realizing that the secret of Arsalan Kazemi was beginning to get out of the bag. He arrived in Houston in February, and plans to become, in 2009-10, the first Iranian to play college basketball in the U.S.
Kazemi's individual breakthrough, though, comes against a backdrop of tense international headlines. During the Reebok camp, news broke of his country's most recent ballistic missile tests, which were an overt threat to the U.S. and Israel as they face the possibility of engaging Iran in armed conflict over its nuclear program.
Kazemi hails from Isfahan, a central-Iranian city with a metropolitan-area population of 3.4 million. It is, incidentally, also the home of the country's only Uranium Conversion Facility, or UCF, which produces the hexafluoride for both nuclear energy and nuclear weapons. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's refusal to halt this enrichment process has been the primary source of conflict between Iran and the Bush Administration.
Kazemi, meanwhile, could not seem more detached from that global controversy. His father runs a factory in Isfahan -- one that produces candy. Kazemi is a basketball-crazed teenager who grew up watching NBA telecasts in Arabic (his favorite player is Tim Duncan) and loves the U.S. because it's rich in a resource that Iran is sorely lacking: conveniently accessible practice gyms.
To many of the coaches at the Reebok camp, Kazemi's skill set was more intriguing than his status as a potential pioneer from the Middle East. Those who had seen his first game -- and first dunk -- in Philly were remarking how quickly the 6-foot-7 forward could elevate, how smooth he was in the open floor and how much of a team-first approach he had.
He is proud to be a product of Iran, regardless of its status in the international community. "When I come here, some people from home told me not to say I was from Iran -- because maybe [the Americans] would get mad," he said. "But I'm not scared. Everywhere, I say I'm from Iran, and people are happy and want to help me. Everybody wants to know what happened between Iran and America."
That explanation would require a 50-year history of the hostility that preceded the current nuclear standoff. The story of how Iran's first scholarship-worthy basketball player ended up in the U.S. is far more manageable.
Anthony Ibrahim has a blown-up version of the photograph in his travel-agency office in Houston. It was taken at the 2007 West Asian games in Tehran, during an Under-17 matchup of Iran and Syria, at the exact moment Ibrahim knew he was seeing something special.
"Arsalan was on a 2-on-1 fastbreak," said Ibrahim, who was in the crowd, "and I still can't believe what he did. The guard threw the ball high on the right side -- not in the right position -- and Arsalan jumped from outside the block, caught it and dunked it. His hand is reaching high up on the backboard, and his hips are up on shoulders of the guy guarding him. It's a great picture."
The Lebanese-born Ibrahim was no ordinary fan. For a three-year stint, beginning in 2004, he had served as the color analyst for NBA broadcasts on the Arabic network Al-Hurra, a federally sponsored satellite channel that the Washington Post called the "centerpiece of a U.S. government campaign to spread democracy in the Middle East." Al-Hurra, which is based in Virginia and has been funded with $350 million of U.S. taxpayer money since '04, would use TNT video feeds of marquee NBA games, with Ibrahim serving, essentially, as its version of Doug Collins. That made Ibrahim a known voice to Iranian NBA fans such as Kazemi.