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Posted: Wednesday December 9, 2009 9:01AM
Luke Winn
Luke Winn>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Rice's Arsalan Kazemi breaks through, from Iran to Division I (cont.)

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Arsalan Kazemi
Kazemi has already endured two visa-application processes at the U.S. Embassy in Dubai.
Robert Seale/SI

On a shelf behind the desk in his office, Braun has the June 1, 2009, issue of Newsweek -- the one with Ahmadinejad on the cover, grimacing under the headline, EVERYTHING YOU THINK YOU KNOW ABOUT IRAN IS WRONG. There's irony in Iran's first college basketball player, a Muslim, playing for Braun, one of the eight Jewish head coaches in D-I, and he says coaching Kazemi could be "the ultimate public relations opportunity."

Ahmadinejad has, in anti-Israel speeches, called the Holocaust a "myth," and 12 countries, including the U.S., boycotted his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, in which he railed against the "Zionist regime." A spokesman for the American mission to the UN issued a statement then that said, "Mr. Ahmadinejad has once again chose to espouse hateful, offensive and anti-Semitic rhetoric."

The truth is that at the human -- rather than political -- level, Jews are treated with more civility in cosmopolitan Iran: It has the largest concentration of Jewish residents in the Muslim Middle East, with 25,000 living in the country and 1,200 in Esfahan. The Jewish tradition in Iran goes back to the sixth century B.C.: Rice president David Leebron, who like Braun is Jewish, toured Iran with an academic delegation in November 2008, and says, "Twice people made the point of telling our delegation about the historic role Iran played in sheltering the Babylonian Jews." And Kazemi made the point to tell Braun that while there are issues between Iran and Israel, "that you're Jewish is not a concern."

If Rice had any trepidation about Kazemi, it was only that he'd get stuck in Iran last summer. Kazemi had left the U.S. in June to visit his family, which he hadn't seen in a year and a half, and to train with the junior national team in Tehran in advance of its New Zealand trip. Then-Rice athletic director Chris del Conte went as far as to enlist the help of Edward Djerejian, the head of the school's James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and Bill Clinton's former ambassador to Israel, to make calls that eased Kazemi's F-1 visa re-application process in Dubai.

What the school couldn't have anticipated was that later that month, massive protests would erupt in Tehran over disputed presidential election results. The state shut down cell phone and Internet service to control the flow of information, and as images of violence leaked to the West via Twitter, attempts by Rice coaches to reach Kazemi failed. Worrisome days turned into weeks until Kazemi's iPhone came back to life. He sent an e-mail just before his team left for New Zealand, saying he was all right, and he'd see them in Houston on Aug. 4.

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Arsalan Kazemi
Senior guard Lawrence Ghoram (right) has schooled Kazemi on Rice's traditions.
Robert Seale/SI

When Kazemi flew back to the states, he was only detained for three hours at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. The delay caused him to miss his connecting flight, but still, it was progress. In his luggage, he had packed 10 navy-blue boxes of Kakh (or "Castle") Gaz, from the small candy company his father, Yousef, runs.

Arsalan Kazemi
Kazemi's father runs a candy factory that makes Gaz, a local delicacy in Esfahan.
Robert Seale/SI
Arsalan Kazemi
Kazemi turned down professional contract offers in Iran to play college ball in the U.S.
Robert Seale/SI

Gaz is Esfahan's confectionary specialty: pistachios in a nougat made with rosewater, egg whites, glucose and one ingredient, the sap of the angebin plant, that's found exclusively in the Zagros Mountains west of the city. The sap is listed on the side of Kakh Gaz's boxes as "herbalmanna." The Qur'an and Bible each tell of Israelites being blessed with the discovery of manna -- holy food, including angebin -- in their trek through the desert. It was sustenance for an arduous journey.

Kazemi's life as a groundbreaker has not been easy. Yearning for contact with home, he spends three to four hours per day on the phone and chatting by computer to Iran. ("I can only imagine what it's like for him to be away from his family, and someone he loves, for that long," Ghoram says.) Along with basketball responsibilities are classes -- at one of US News & World Report's top 20 universities -- taught in a language that's not his own. Plus, there's his devotion to Islam. When he began fasting for Ramadan in late September, the grind of basketball workouts made him so sick that team doctors persuaded him to eat. He passed up six-figure offers from Iranian clubs because he wants to play in the U.S. while pursuing an economics degree, and he desperately wants to succeed, knowing that his countrymen are watching. As Ibrahim says, "His teammates from the [junior] national team are all curious; if he makes it, then maybe they can, too."

For now Kazemi is alone with his tepid plate of chicken, in the lounge at Tudor Fieldhouse shortly after his collegiate debut. In two weeks he'll get the news that Shadi's student visa application has been denied in Dubai, and be reduced to tears, but here his focus wanders to the wall-mounted TVs, which are showing an NBA game on ESPN. Kazemi talks about how two days earlier he visited with Haddadi, a friend from national-program training camp, when the Grizzlies were in town. "It would be so good if he was on the Rockets," Kazemi says. "Because we both ... don't have anyone else here."

His thoughts soon shift to the first NBA game he attended; Rockets-Hawks, with Ibrahim's family, on Feb. 9, 2008. Kazemi says it was surreal; he looked on in such a dreamlike state that Ibrahim's 15-year-old daughter, Shirin, asked him, "Are you here?" Kazemi was, but the previous day, his first in America, he'd been in a Houston airport, having gone 24 hours without sleep and been pushed near his breaking point by immigration officials. "Thirty more minutes," Kazemi says, "and I would have told them, 'Just send me back. I don't want to go through with this anymore.'"

The coda to Esfandiary's article might have been reassuring during that six-hour ordeal: "We are at lift off to a beautiful new age," it said. "There is a new Hope in the world." Kazemi could see no beauty in the future then. It was intimidating and full of uncertainties. But he held his tongue, and they sent him out into that world.

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