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Bridging the Gap

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The delay has shrunk. It’s down to three hours now. That’s not too bad, since the first time, it was six-and-a-half hours. So, progress. Pretty soon, Arsalan Kazemi will be able to fly into Houston and proceed directly to baggage claim, rather than being detained. Security officials will no longer try to determine whether he has come to pick up enriched uranium or plans for secret entrances into the Pentagon.

What do you expect them to think? That’s what some might ask. Kazemi’s an Iranian, and we know all about what goes on over there. We have seen the videos and heard the speeches. The Ayatollah. The “Great Satan.” Kazemi’s Iranian, so he waits.

Kazemi is also a prized member of the Rice University basketball team, and you’ll find that he’s a pretty normal college kid. Except that he doesn’t play video games. “I quit them when I was 16 or 17,” he says. And he’s not too enamored with American music. “I get hyped with Iranian music.” Other than that, he wants to hang out with his teammates, his “14 brothers.” He likes Harry Potter. Watches movies. And he wants to win. Nothing wrong with that.

Just as it was in the 1970s, when U.S. citizens had their first encounters with people from the old Soviet Union and found that they were nothing like their autocratic leaders, so, too, are people learning that Kazemi may be Iranian, but he is not an Iranian government official. There’s a difference.

“We’re not what you think,” Kazemi says.

On the court, Kazemi is nothing like what you would imagine, either. Instead of adhering to the stereotype of Middle Eastern ballplayers — fundamentally sound, pass-happy, reticent — Kazemi is a spring-loaded forward who would just as soon dunk over someone as talk with his family after a game. He still needs a little of that court arrogance that’s so prevalent over here, but once he gets that, look out. It may sound crazy, but Kazemi might wind up in the NBA. It will take some work, but he’s on the league’s radar. “I could play in Europe or Iran, but that’s not my goal,” he says. “My goal is to play in the NBA. That’s why I came to Rice.”

Kazemi wouldn’t be the first Iranian in the Association. That distinction belongs to 7'2" Grizzlies backup center Hamed Haddadi. Kazemi is, however, the only Iranian playing for a Division I program. And after enduring the shock of a new culture, Kazemi has become the Owls’ centerpiece, leading them in scoring (16.3 ppg), rebounding (12.0 rpg) and field goal shooting (.560) through the first 21 games of the season. Kazemi has matured from a complementary player who disappeared at times last season to a more robust presence, and big things lie ahead.

“He’s proven again and again he can rebound at any level,” Rice coach Ben Braun says.

“He can put points on the board, too. When he improves his range and can knock down a jumper from the circle to the top of the key, he’ll be a legitimate threat. He can knock it down, but he’s hesitant and not confident. I ask him all the time to take it. He has that in his game.”

When you are known as “the Arabic Doug Collins,” as Anthony Ibrahim is, you tend to have a little influence in Middle Eastern basketball circles. So, when Ibrahim started courting Kazemi with an eye on bringing the springy teenager to the U.S. to play ball, Kazemi listened intently. If it was about basketball at all, Kazemi listened. He was a big fan of the weekly Friday night NBA broadcasts shown on Alhurra — an American-sponsored network that brings a more objective approach to news and culture to the Middle East. Ibrahim, who provided color commentary for the broadcasts (thus the reference to Collins, then a top-flight analyst), had seen Kazemi at the West Asian Games and was overwhelmed by the youngster’s ability.

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“He was exceptionally athletic on the floor,” Ibrahim says. “He stood out.”

Ibrahim lobbied Kazemi’s parents to let their son come to the United States, and they relented. The next step was getting Kazemi into the country. Since the U.S. had shuttered its embassy in Tehran in 1979, Ibrahim — who is a travel agent in Houston when he isn’t scouring the Middle East for hoops talent — had to obtain a visa in Dubai. Problem solved? Not quite. When Kazemi arrived in Houston, security officials refused at first to believe he had come to the U.S. for peaceful purposes. Why would he have flown into Houston if he were on his way to the Patterson School, which sits in the hills of western North Carolina, to play ball for a year? Why did he keep referring to Ibrahim, the travel agent, as his coach? Finally, one of them asked, “Are you a terrorist?” After six-and-a-half hours, many tense moments and enough phone calls to drain a month of minutes, Kazemi was free to go.

He encountered different challenges at Patterson. While he flourished on the basketball court enough to draw notice from several colleges, including Louisville and Syracuse, Kazemi had to learn a new language, adapt to a different culture, battle homesickness and transition from his bustling home city of Esfahan, population 1.6 million, to the serene, woody confines of Patterson.

“It was just him and trees,” Ibrahim says. “It was a very hard adjustment.”

As he became more comfortable, Kazemi began to narrow his focus. When he visited Rice, which just happens to be in Houston, Ibrahim’s base of operations, he felt at home and committed on the spot.

During Kazemi’s first weeks and months at Rice, he lived for phone calls to and from home, and he also began to emerge as an interior presence for the Owls, who are trying under Braun to escape Conference USA’s netherworld. Kazemi displayed a high-energy approach close to the basket and a growing toughness. He averaged 10.3 points and 9.1 rebounds as a freshman, and together with point guard Tamir Jackson, appeared to be the type of foundation on which the Owls could build. But Kazemi had to get physically tougher and more consistent, and to that end, Braun assigned a reserve to pound on Kazemi at practice every day.

“I get frustrated sometimes, but it’s not too bad,” Kazemi says. “It hurts, though.”

As Braun nurtures Kazemi’s inner beast, he also encourages the sophomore to step away from the basket at times and shoot the jumper. That will not only help Rice but also give Kazemi a chance to attract some NBA attention. The league is not that welcoming to 6'7" power forwards, but it does like hustling big men who can hit open shots. If Kazemi is looking for a role model in that regard, he should focus on Omri Casspi, the Israeli who earned a first-round selection by Sacramento in ’09 after blossoming from a run-of-the-mill interior player into a threat from long range.

As Kazemi works on his game, he continues to blaze a trail for other Iranians who might someday come to the U.S. to play ball. He insists he hasn’t heard any inflammatory taunts from opposing fans, a claim Braun seconds. And Kazemi sounds like a travel agent when describing his homeland — even if it does have only three regulation basketball arenas in the country.

“Iran is one of the most historical countries in the world,” Kazemi says. “The people are really friendly. You need to go there and find out for yourself. You think we have war, and the country is always fighting the government. But it’s a safe place. Go there and enjoy yourself.”

Who knows — maybe you’ll find some young ballplayers aching to be the next Arsalan Kazemi.