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.

Mark J. Terrill/AP
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.

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.

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.

Yet when American cheerleaders in black tights and tank tops took to the floor, the Iranians in the crowd clapped to the beat as loudly as for a 3-point jump shot.

So even if this game lacked the political impact of previous US-Iran matches, it yielded stories of people to people contact in a sport that includes an unusual amount of cross-pollination between the two countries.

“We’re not really friendly on the politics side, but we can be friendly from sports,” said Arsalan Kazemi, an Iranian team member who scored 14 points. “So that’s a good opportunity, a good situation, for Iran and America to be friendly.”

“I went to [college in] the United States with a completely different mentality,” said Mr. Kazemi, who is starting his sophomore year at Rice University in Houston, Texas. “I was like, ‘They are not going to like me, because I am from Iran.’ Because you watch news in the United States about our country, and we watch news about the United States about our country, [but it’s] a totally different story.

"They love me, I love them. [Americans] are really nice people," he said in a Monitor interview before the game. "And I’m sure if you come to Iran – to my country – it’s going to be the same thing.”

The Iranian center, the 7-ft. 2-in. Hamed Haddadi, plays for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies. Americans of NBA caliber play in the Iranian leagues, and the Iranian national team played in a summer league at NBA invitation to prepare for the 2008 Olympics.

“I don’t pay attention to politics, but just play the game,” said the towering Mr. Haddadi, who scored a game-high 19 points with hands the size of salad bowls. “I love to play basketball for my country, and try my best.”

How US-Iran sports diplomacy began

Before the game, three American spectators standing outside the arena weren’t sure of the scene, aware that they were far outnumbered by Iranians clogging the entrance gates.

When asked if they had seen many Americans, Jason Knox quipped, “I’m the other one!” He held a paper Iranian flag, given to him as a souvenir, and joked that he “wanted to fit in.”

When people who looked either Iranian or Turkish did pass by with the Stars and Stripes over their shoulders, the Americans joked again that it was “probably for burning.”

(Inside the arena, only one American flag was displayed throughout, by a Turkish fan of the NBA, Umut Yilmazok, who wore a Lakers Kobe Bryant jersey and said proudly that an American friend in North Carolina sent him the flag.)

“It’ll be interesting – I’ve never been in an environment like this,” said Terry Crist, an Arizona pastor. He praised the fact that the US had enough “benevolence” to welcome Iranians to American colleges and onto professional teams, despite years of mutual hostility, and said he looked forward to the game.

“Sometimes sports can build bridges that politics can’t,” said Mr. Knox, a consultant.

That was the calculation in the late 1990s, when the newly elected Iranian President Mohammad Khatami called for a “crack in the wall of mistrust,” and President Bill Clinton sought to reciprocate.

Exchanges of wrestling teams began, laden with political meaning. The first time the Americans stepped onto the mats in Iran, a big cheer of support went up from the Iranian fans – a moment that shocked Iranian officials, and was carefully excised from official television news coverage.

Immediately before a landmark US-Iran World Cup soccer match in June 1998, Mr. Clinton said both he and the popular Mr. Khatami wanted more people-to-people exchanges “to develop a better understanding of each other’s rich civilizations.” Such understanding, he said, could “be another step toward ending the estrangement between our nations.”

Before that game, Iranian hard-liners had warned their team against shaking hands or exchanging shirts. But on the field, there was frenetic handshaking, exchanges of flowers and gifts, and a high level of civility. The two teams were jointly given the 1998 Fair Play Award.

After the game, as Iranians poured into the streets to celebrate their 2-1 victory, Khatami gave a radio address in which he reinforced the themes of his policy of “dialogue of civilizations.”

Why it wasn't 'Axis of Evil' vs. 'Great Satan'

But on that night in 1998, Iran’s supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayyed Ali Khamenei – who still makes all final decisions in Iran – cast the result as proof of Iran’s religious and revolutionary superiority against the “Great Satan.” Ayatollah Khamenei said: “Tonight, once again the strong and arrogant contender experienced the bitter defeat at your hands.”

Those words were a mistake, says an Iranian engineer called Ahmed, speaking before the US-Iran basketball game in Istanbul. He called Khatami “our real president,” and Khamenei “our dictator,” and apologized for Khamenei's use of the term “Great Satan.”

“It’s 12 years after that [World Cup] match, and things have changed completely. It’s not just the US to blame,” says Ahmed. “People are the same, while politicians come and go. We don’t want to contaminate sports with politics.”

“Yesterday I met an American family. They invited me to lunch, and they were so nice! They wanted to show [their hospitality],” added Ahmed. “They were quite surprised to see an Iranian like me. They had not met one before – not even one.”

High expectations for game – and future US-Iran ties

The coaches and players hinted at a special feel of this game, if only because of high expectations from fans.

“There was a lot of pressure outside about this game – maybe if we changed the names of the teams … nobody would be here,” said Iran's coach Veselin Matic, from Serbia, after the game. “A lot of television stations, a lot of newspapers come to the practice, take our pictures. For us … this [attention] is good. I’m very happy that [for] my players, that helped to motivate them [to their] best.”

That was the view of one fan called Ali, who wrote from Iran to the basketball championship website. He had expected both teams to “behave like true gentlemen,” but that “now we found out that it’s just politics that has separated us from being true respectful friends! It will come true in near future…”

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