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

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.

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.

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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Satellites were among the earliest telespheres, and Kazemi's journey to the NCAA began with Alhurra, a U.S.-government-sponsored network, beaming TV programming into his home when he was a teen. Early on Fridays (Iran's one-day weekend), Alhurra showed TNT's Thursday NBA game as a four-hour, tape-delayed production with original pregame and halftime shows. Kazemi, who was playing with the junior team of Zob Ahan, an Iranian Super League club, never misses a broadcast -- "and my parents had to watch with me," he says, "because I never let them watch anything else." Spurs center Tim Duncan, who like Kazemi is understated but deeply driven, was his favorite player. He also became familiar with a voice -- that of Alhurra's overcaffeinated, Lebanese-born color-commentator, who excitedly alternated between Arabic and English.

The color man was Ibrahim, a Houston travel agent who counts pro athletes and college teams as his clients. He took weekly flights to Washington to call the games from Alhurra's studio, where he was dubbed "the Arabic Doug Collins." Ibrahim is also an advocate for basketball in the Middle East, and in the summer of 2007, he attended the West Asian junior games in Tehran, where Kazemi made a play so stunning -- "A guard throws a lob way too high and to the right on a fast break," says Ibrahim, "and Arsalan somehow catches it with one hand and dunks it, with his hips on the shoulders of a defender" -- that Ibrahim cut out a newspaper photo of it to keep in his office. Having previously helped Lebanese players come to the U.S. (including Bassel Bawji, who played at Tulsa in '08-09 but then opted to return to Beirut), Ibrahim showed tape of Kazemi to college coaching contacts. Their reaction convinced him that Arsalan had Division I potential, and over a series of phone calls, he convinced Kazemi and his parents that the opportunity to play in the U.S. existed.

When Kazemi arrived at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Feb. 8, 2008, Ibrahim, who had yet to meet his Iranian import in person, was there waiting. But while the F-1 visa Kazemi obtained in Dubai, the closest U.S. Embassy to Iran, was acceptable, immigration officials are wary of him for a few reasons: his I-20 for a planned year of prep school is from the Patterson (N.C.) School, but his flight had terminated in Houston; the I-20 also was misdated; and after Arsalan told them that Ibrahim was his "coach," they found out -- by calling Ibrahim's cell phone -- that he's a travel agent. A tense, six-hour questioning process escalated to a point where an official asked Kazemi, flat-out, if he was a terrorist. Only after a series of last-ditch, information-gathering phone calls between Ibrahim and immigration were they satisfied enough to grant Kazemi passage.

Kazemi's early months in the U.S. were a whirlwind of travel. John Parker, a friend of Ibrahim's who runs the Team Arkansas AAU program, put Kazemi on his roster for two spring tournaments in Texas and that June took him to elite camps at Oklahoma State and Missouri; at the latter, Parker says the unknown Kazemi "put on an absolute dunkfest." Away from the court, Kazemi seemed perpetually attached to his laptop, for which he had a Verizon Internet card to keep in constant contact with home. Even when they went to a mall to kill time between camps, Kazemi refused to leave the computer in the car, providing Parker with a bizarre scene: "You know how a server in a restaurant carries a tray?" Parker says. "Arsalan just walked through the mall holding his computer like that, instant-messaging people in Iran with one hand!"

Kazemi's AAU and elite-camp performances earned him a spot at the Reebok All-America camp in Philadelphia in July, where he gained national exposure. That same summer, Iran's senior national team gained legitimacy by making its first Olympics appearance since 1948, after which the U.S. government granted permission -- outside of the economic sanctions -- for the Memphis Grizzles to offer a free-agent contract to 7-1 center Hamed Haddadi, who that fall became the first Iranian ever to play in the NBA. Kazemi had begun his senior year at Patterson by then. Rated a top-100 recruit by Scout.com, he was seriously pursued by three schools: Maryland, Rice and Seton Hall.

Kazemi took just one official recruiting visit, to Rice on Halloween weekend. There he witnessed one of the school's stranger traditions: The Baker 13, in which a group of students run through campus wearing only shoes and shaving cream. "He's not the only one who's ever thought it was crazy," says senior guard Lawrence Ghoram, who was Kazemi's host. "But he was laughing hysterically. I think it blew his mind."

For someone from a country where morality police prevent men and women from holding hands in public, it was a jarring sight. Kazemi did something shocking of his own that weekend, though: He emerged from a prayer session at the school's Muslim Students Association and committed to the Owls. They'd gone 3-27 the previous season under coach Willis Wilson, and would finish 10-22 last year, in Braun's first campaign after coming to Houston from Cal. But Rice was where Kazemi felt comfortable, in no small part because Ibrahim lives nearby amid one of the country's biggest Middle Eastern communities. Kazemi also liked Braun's track record with international players; felt a kinship with Morcos, who was also a groundbreaker as the first Egyptian on a D-I coaching staff; was attracted to Rice's academics; and had played pickup games at Tudor Fieldhouse on a number of occasions in the summer of 2008.

Kazemi also views the school through a whimsical lens. "Rice," he says, steering a guest toward an entrance to the physics department's Herzstein Hall this fall, "reminds me of Hogwarts. You know, from Harry Potter?" The heavy, wooden door Kazemi arrives at has seething metal serpents for handles, and opens into a dimly lit foyer with a stone staircase. "Just like Slytherin," Kazemi says, referring to the house of Hogwarts' nefarious young wizards.

He has never read Esfandiary, the immortalist, but Kazemi is well-versed in the mortalist works of J.K. Rowling. His mother gave him the Farsi translation of the first Potter book when he was 12, and he's read the entire series. Kazemi mentions that he and Daniel Radcliffe (who plays Harry in the film adaptations) were both born in 1990, and says, "I was reading a newspaper in Iran once that said [Radcliffe's] dream was to have enough money to buy a Ferrari or Porsche, just so he could crash it."

Knowing that things have tendency to get distorted at home (SI's search yielded no English sources supporting that "dream"), Kazemi is quick to add, while laughing, "I'm not sure if that was translated right or wrong."

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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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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.

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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