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US and Iran face off – at World Basketball Championships

The US and Iran set aside controversy over Iran’s nuclear program to play a World Basketball Championships match that featured NBA players including Hamed Haddadi of Iran.

By Staff writer / September 2, 2010

US's Lamar Odom, right, goes up for a shot as Iran's Hamed Ehadadi, left, defends during the preliminary round of the World Basketball Championship, Wednesday, Sept. 1, in Istanbul, Turkey.

Mark J. Terrill/AP

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Istanbul, Turkey

US and Iran faced off at the World Basketball Championships here on Wednesday night, electrifying Iranian fans and offering a rare opportunity for people of the two arch-enemy nations to meet face to face.

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It was the latest instance of sports diplomacy first used by both sides in the late 1990s to ease US-Iran hostility. But with relations growing increasingly tense, this game was more about basketball, mutual respect, and sportsmanship than about forging détente between governments.

“We love to be together, Iran and the US,” said Hossein, a young Iranian who had traveled from northeast Iran to lead chants for his team, a flag draped over his shoulders. “The people love and want to be together, but the governments – no.”

“It was an honor to play against your team,” said US coach Mike Krzyzewski, who competed in Iran in the early 1970s. “I’ve been to Iran … I have good friends who are [of] Iranian descent in the United States. So I have a good feeling for the Iranian people, and there’s no political aspect in my mind in the ballgame.”

Unlike previous sports matches, this basketball game garnered no high-level political attention. In fact, it may have been the most “normal” sporting face-off yet between America and Iran.

“I am very happy, because I play today against the best team in the world,” Iranian team captain Mahdi Kamrani said after the contest, in which Iran was beat 88-51. “I try [my] best, to play against the best…. For me it’s a normal game; maybe for fans it’s different. [But] it’s really basketball.”

Dallas Mavericks center Tyson Chandler repaid the compliment: “Iran fought very hard. It was a very good game. We showed a lot of respect for each other,” he said. “We should leave politics to the politicians…. We both played hard for our countries.”

88-51 drubbing didn't dampen Iranian enthusiasm

The result of the game between Team USA – Olympic champions in Beijing in 2008 – and Iran, a budding force making its debut at the World Basketball Championships, was probably never in doubt.

In the third minute of play, however, Iran briefly led the scoring – a moment of raucous exuberance for the Iranians that almost brought down the arena.

“We just want to beat them – always,” said Aryan Yusef, a civil engineer from Tehran daubed in face paint. “Everyone is watching in Iran! My father, my mother.…”

Indeed, Iranian fans – the dominant presence in the stands – waved flags and cheered until they were hoarse, despite the drubbing by the US team.

But for Mr. Yusef's friend, Saliya Mohebian, topping the scoreboard wasn't the only goal.

“We long for peace – we only want to be happy, and basketball can do that,” he said.

Basketball's cross-pollination between US, Iran

Off the court, the US and Iran are at loggerheads over Iran’s controversial nuclear program, with Washington orchestrating an increasingly wide array of sanctions and Tehran responding with war games and tough rhetoric.

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