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Posted: Wednesday December 9, 2009 9:01AM
Luke Winn

Rice's Arsalan Kazemi breaks through, from Iran to Division I

Story Highlights

Athletic and eager, Rice's Arsalan Kazemi ready to make mark on and off court

Kazemi's comfortable at Rice because of large local Middle Eastern community

Kazemi follows in the footsteps of Iranian visionary Fereidoun M. Esfandiary

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Arsalan Kazemi
In November, Arsalan Kazemi became the first Iranian to play Division I men's basketball in the U.S.
Robert Seale/SI

HOUSTON -- Fereidoun M. Esfandiary, the son of an Iranian diplomat, played on his country's first Olympic basketball team, in the 1948 Summer Games, and shortly thereafter became the first known Iranian basketball player to enroll in an American university. He arrived at Cal in early 1949, then transferred to UCLA and later, Los Angeles City College, though no record exists of him playing hoops in the U.S. It's unlikely that Iran's national team, which finished 14th out of 23 countries in London, winning just one game, against Ireland, and earning a forfeit against Hungary, had any NCAA-caliber prospects. Esfandiary worked at the United Nations in the '50s, but found his true calling in the '70s as a futurist author and guiding light of the transhumanist movement, with its wildly optimistic vision of the world to come. He even changed his name to FM-2030, a reference to his 100th year on what he believed would be an advanced planet.

F.M. Esfandiary
Fereidoun M. Esfandiary (shooting) played on Iran's first Olympic team, in 1948, and later became a transhumanist philosopher.
New York Public Library Archives

In the June 1981 issue of an obscure magazine called Future Life, Esfandiary wrote: "Around 2010 the world will be at a new orbit in history. We will translive all over this planet and the solar sphere -- at home everywhere. ... Disease and disability will nonexist. Death will be rare and accidental -- but not permanent." He wrote that 2010 would be an age of globalism replacing nationalism; of remote video, voice and data connection by "telespheres," and a "leisure ethic" supplanting competition.

In real life, on the brink of 2010, Esfandiary's head is cryogenically frozen in Scottsdale, Ariz., waiting for a scientific breakthrough that will bring him back to life and cure the pancreatic cancer that killed him in 2000. Competition is still very much with us, as is disease and disability, but 61 years after Esfandiary's Olympic appearance, at least, globalism has brought the first Iranian basketball player -- 19-year-old junior national team captain Arsalan Kazemi -- to the U.S. to play on a basketball scholarship. And there was Kazemi, in early November, setting his laptop on a balcony bleacher in Rice's Tudor Fieldhouse, connecting wirelessly to the Internet and turning on a Webcam so that his mother, Roya, 7,600 miles away in Esfahan, could watch him play with 12 Americans and two Nigerians in an intrasquad scrimmage. Telespheres, at least, came true, and one brought Houston to Esfahan.

When Esfandiary's Future Life article was published, U.S.-Iranian tensions were high in the aftermath of the 444-day embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, which ended in February 1981 and prompted the U.S. to impose economic sanctions against the country. On Nov. 12, President Barack Obama extended the sanctions for the 30th straight year, and on Nov. 13 in Tokyo, he and Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatomaya issued a statement on nuclear-weapons eradication that called for Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to come clean about his country's nuclear program.

That same day, Kazemi quietly made his mark in the history between the U.S. and Iran, when Rice coach Ben Braun put the 6-foot-7 freshman into the Owls' home opener against Sacramento State with 16:26 left in the first half and Rice leading 10-0. The scoreboard made no acknowledgement of the event, and the crowd of 1,631 was mostly silent. But looking on with cautious optimism were a handful of Kazemi's countrymen: one of his former junior national team coaches, who has an auto-parts business in Houston; an electrical engineering professor at Rice; and two brothers who own an upscale men's clothing store in Houston. (One of the brothers walked up to Kazemi in the pregame layup line to tell him, "Best of luck in the game. The reason we are here is to support you.")

Arsalan is a Turkish name that means lion, and Kazemi can sometimes appear sleepy on the floor, his expression blank and his head lolling -- then roar to life with a surprising aerial burst that nets him a rebound or dunk, or make a quick step into a passing lane for a steal. At July's FIBA Under-19 Championships in New Zealand (where the U.S. won gold and Iran went 1-4), Kazemi ranked first in steals (4.0 per game), second in rebounding (12.2) and eighth in points (16.6). At Rice, he's been playing 20.7 minutes per game off the bench, leading the 4-4 Owls in rebounding with a 7.1 game; he's also their fifth-leading scorer, with 8.0 points per game.

Arsalan Kazemi
Coming off the bench, Kazemi leads the Owls in rebounding at 7.1 per game.
Robert Seale/SI

Kazemi's first game was an acclimation process, though, as Sacramento State players undiplomatically rejected his first two shots, and he was scoreless in the opening half. But he awakened in the second, scoring 10 points to go with his four boards and two steals in Rice's 81-51 rout. His eye-opening moment came with 9:53 left, when he drove the lane and exploded from six feet out for what was going to be a spectacular dunk -- until a Hornets player stepped under him and committed a blocking foul. Anthony Ibrahim, the Lebanese man who helped Kazemi come to the U.S., gleefully jumped up from his seat near Rice's bench and yelled, "He knows it's time! Take the elevator UP!"

Kazemi's Dell wasn't Webcasting that stunted highlight -- he figured an unattended laptop wouldn't be safe in the crowd -- and so his postgame mission was to track down Rice's Egyptian-born director of basketball operations, Marco Morcos, who had Kazemi's iPhone locked in his office. Kazemi first asked for it calmly, but became antsy as Morcos made pit stops to chat with lingering fans, and finally said, "Coach Morcos, can I pleeease just have your keys?"

When Kazemi powers up his iPhone, at the Owls' postgame buffet, it rings within seconds, an international number appearing over a background photo of him, Roya, and his father, Yousef. It's 7:30 a.m. on Saturday in Esfahan, Iran's second-largest metropolis (population: 3.4 million), but his mother has been up all night. "When we have a game, my mom won't go to sleep," he says. He speaks to her in a rapid stream of Farsi, being critical about his slow start. Seconds after hanging up, he calls the former Iranian junior team coach to thank him for coming. After that he calls another Iranian number, for another debriefing, this time in softer tones. By the time he hangs up, his meal has already gone lukewarm, but for the first time, he smiles. "That was my girlfriend," he says. "She's going for her visa on the 25th."

When Kazemi arrived at Rice in August, he was resigned that Shadi, his girlfriend, would be stuck in Iran. But she, too, has become interested in college in the U.S., and he's since gone online and found a local ESL (English as a Second Language) school that would grant her an I-20, the document that would help her get a student visa, and on the path to taking the SAT. While Esfandiary had correctly predicted that you'd be able to "connect wherever you are" by 2010, for a lonely-hearted boy, there will never be a substitute for a real, live girlfriend.

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