On the parquet, 'Great Satan' plays for 'Axis of Evil'

During a time out, the Iranian basketball team huddles on the sidelines.

Amid the rising heat and scent of hard exertion, the Iranian coach tells the squad in English that he wants 30 points in the fourth quarter.

But from within the sweating cluster an excited American voice cuts in: "Let's win!" urges Texan Andre Pitts, who would lead the team to victory with 26 points. "Let's just win!"

In the quest to build a professional basketball league and bolster Iranian hoop skills, teams in the Islamic republic are paying top dollar ($15,000 a month or more) to lure players away from Europe and America, which is still sometimes called the "Great Satan." In the past two years, the number of Americans playing on parquet floors in the "Axis of Evil" has jumped from three to at least 18 in the 16-team league.

Along the way, something else has happened. The American players have become ambassadors of sorts, for both countries.

"People are people; and basketball people in America and Iran are the same," says Mr. Pitts, who is from Seguin, Texas. In the past seven years, he's played for teams in Syria, Lebanon, and now in Iran. "They really look after us a lot. My teammates are really good to me - in two years I have never had a problem. I get invited to their homes all the time."

Pitts plays for Saba Battery, which, ironically, is the team fielded by Iran's defense ministry. The other American on the team is Garth Joseph, a dual US-Dominican Republic citizen.

Together, the pair of talented foreigners shot 43 points on Sunday, well over half of those in Saba's nationally televised 77-71 defeat of team Peykan.

"We are sportsmen, not political men, and sport is a common language between all humans in the world," says Saeed Fathi, head coach of Peykan, which was the first team to import American talent, four years ago. "It's a good language," he adds.

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, anti-American slogans have been a fixture of government-organized events. And Pitts's Iranian teammates say he was somewhat anxious about this when he arrived. But players of both nationalities say now that the first thing to fall away are the prejudices and misconceptions fostered by governments and the media.

"We clicked from Day One," says Pitts, who sports two diamond ear studs and headphones around his neck after a recent practice.

Living in Iran has taken some getting used to, however. Alcohol is forbidden, and there are no nightclubs. Players say that their American families worry - at least at the start - about their sons or brothers working in a country lead by a clerical regime that is vilified by Washington.

"I tell my family: 'I keep going [to Iran], so it can't be too bad,' " says Pitts, who is often busy countering misperceptions among friends and relatives when he returns home to Texas for vacation.

Americans "think all Iranians hate America, or have a negative attitude to the US," he adds. "It's sad, because the news shows all the bad things [about Iran] but never the good things. It's wrong, but all states are the same: There are some bad things, and some good."

America is nice, but ...

Pitts also dispenses advice to young Iranians who dream of traveling to America. "I tell them: 'America is nice, but it is not like you think it is,' " he says. "If you don't have an education behind you, it is still a struggle. You can get a drink, but not all life is like that."

In Iran, the novelty of having tattooed Americans toeing Iranian free-throw lines has yet to wear off. Before the game, some of the handful of spectators ask Mr. Joseph - a barrel-chested 7 ft. 2 in. man - to pose for photos with children.

State TV cameramen and spectators laugh every time the towering Joseph snatches a rebound and consolidates control of the ball with his tongue out and a growl.

Each Iranian team can put up to two foreigners on the court. But the Iranian game and the 'imported' player dynamic is not for everyone. Chris Herren, from Fall River, Mass., who was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 1999, and then played for the Boston Celtics the next year, signed an agreement a month ago to play for Peykan, with a two-month trial period.

But the outside shooter drafted to score from beyond the 3-point line has recently been dogged by a family crisis in the US, injuries, and illness. During his second outing with Peykan on Sunday, he didn't score a point.

"If he can't play this game, he must go home," Mr. Fathi said after one time out, in which TV cameras caught a flash of disagreement between player and coach.

Mr. Herren left the bench before the rest of the team, could not be reached for comment afterwards, and was not at practice the next day. Fathi says the trial period is over, and Herren won't be playing in Iran.

While the Americans are here to score points and raise the caliber of Iranian play, Fathi admits that their presence also skews the results.

For example, he figures his Peykan team, loaded with six members of Iran's national team, would have beat Saba Battery Sunday by 20 points if Pitts and Joseph were not playing.

But Pitts notes that Iranian basketball is good, and getting better. "Athletic-wise, [Iranians] are very tough. The game is more physical here - it's a man's league," says Pitts. "Their skill level is rising - eventually they will be the best [in the Mideast]."

A ban on tattoos

While most here appreciate the American example, there are some aspects of the NBA that Iranian officials would prefer not to import.

Last month, the Iranian Basketball Federation banned its players from having tattoos, the Iranian news agency ISNA reported. "It has been noticed recently that some basketball players are copying foreign players and having themselves tattooed ... which is against the morals [of the Islamic republic] and unacceptable," the federation said. It called for players who have "committed such an act" to take rapid measures to "make them disappear so to avoid firmer measures" against them.

In dutiful compliance, during Sunday's game the Iranian Peykan center used strips of athletic tape to cover a large tattoo on his shoulder.

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