Rice's Arsalan Kazemi breaks through, from Iran to Division I
In the June 1981 issue of an obscure magazine called
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
That same day, Kazemi quietly made his mark in the history between the U.S. and Iran, when Rice coach
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.
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,
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,
When Kazemi arrived at Rice in August, he was resigned that
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
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
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.
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
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
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
He has never read Esfandiary, the immortalist, but Kazemi is well-versed in the mortalist works of
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."
On a shelf behind the desk in his office, Braun has the June 1, 2009, issue of
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
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
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.
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
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,
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.