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Rice's Kazemi hopes to pave way for other Iranians

Photo by Scott Chancey

Photo by Scott Chancey

HOUSTON -- The pressure is great on Rice's Arsalan Kazemi, the first Iranian-born athlete to play NCAA Division I basketball.

The trailblazing 6-foot-7 freshman knows his performance could affect what opportunities other Iranian players might get in the United States.

"If I play good they're going to go after other players in my country," said Kazemi, who leads the Owls in rebounding. "If I'm not playing good, they're going to say: 'They don't have any basketball if he's the first one. They don't have any other good players."'

Kazemi's path to the U.S. began at the West Asian games in Tehran in 2007, when he earned most valuable player honors for leading Iran's under-17 national team to the championship and gained the attention of Anthony Ibrahim.

A Lebanese who has worked as an NBA broadcaster for Middle East telecasts and owns a travel agency in Houston, Ibrahim brought Kazemi to the U.S. in 2008. He helped enroll him in a prep school in North Carolina to play basketball and improve his English enough to get into college.

As he was preparing to play for Rice, Kazemi didn't know he would be the first Iranian to play Division I basketball.

"It was kind of amazing to be the first one to do something and make history," he said. "It's pretty good."

Rice coach Ben Braun has tried to convey to the 19-year-old Kazemi the magnitude of his journey. Braun has spoken to him about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball and about the first students to integrate schools.

"Those are breakthrough moments," Braun said. "I don't know if they're comparable or not, but they're similar. It takes a special person to be that first person. You have to have a lot of courage. You have to have a lot of confidence and a lot of faith and belief that you will do well and not put added pressure on yourself and just know that it's right."

Though Kazemi quickly fit in on the court when he arrived on campus, things away from basketball were more difficult. Though he improved on his English during his senior year of high school, one year in the U.S. didn't prepare him for the rigors of Rice, which is consistently ranked among the top 20 schools academically in the nation.

"It makes it extra hard," Kazemi said. "We have a paper and everyone does it in like an hour and I have to spend like five hours and still they are getting better grades than me."

Kazemi's father, Yousef, and mother, Roya, were worried about sending him to the United States and hoped he would not be treated poorly because he was from Iran. His parents remain in his hometown of Esfahan, where his father owns a candy factory.

They allowed their son to move to the United States because they wanted him to get an education instead of playing professionally in Iran.

"We know our son, we trusted him," Roya said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "He works hard and always (was) a great boy. He deserves the best. We support him. But I think the most important thing was his wanting and his talent. We hope he reaches his goal."

That goal is to join friend and fellow Iranian Hamed Haddadi of the Memphis Grizzlies in the NBA. Haddadi this season became the first Iranian to play in the NBA.

Braun believes Kazemi, who averages 10.4 points a game, has the talent to do that, and says he can lead a fast break as well as Rice's guards. His 8.9 rebounds a game are tied for second in Conference USA, and the coaches are working to make him more aggressive so that he scores more.

Braun, who is in his second year at Rice, knows Kazemi is disappointed that he hasn't helped the Owls (8-19) to more victories. Despite the record, he believes Kazemi's presence has added to the Owls' respectability.

"I don't judge our team and his performance and his contributions by our team's record," Braun said. "I judge it by the level. He's helped raise our level at Rice."

Kazemi regrets that relations between Iran and the United States are so volatile. He knows the problems run so deep that one person can't change things. Still, he hopes his success could be a small bridge to more understanding between the countries.

"The Iranian people want to know why our relationship between Iran and America is not that good and they all try to fix it," he said. "So I think playing basketball here kind of helps a little bit to fix that relationship."

Kazemi's friends and extended family in Iran were shocked he was able to come to the U.S. to play basketball.

"Everyone could not believe this," Roya wrote. "'He went to USA? Wow! How? They gave him visa? Unbelievable!' ... This is a good chance for our son to be there. He could learn more and better things for his play, and why not? Iran has many talented youth who can come there and play."

Despite the tension between the countries, Kazemi's experience with Americans has been positive. He's been impressed with the kindness of strangers and chuckles at the nicknames teammates and fans have given him. He's been dubbed "the Beast of the Middle East" and the "Bad Man From Iran," and fans hold signs with the monikers at games.

About the only place he hasn't experienced American hospitality is at airports. When he arrived at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in 2008, he was detained for more than six hours because of paperwork problems.

He was forced to answer scores of questions, a process made more difficult by his poor English.

"I said listen: 'I'm 17 years old. I came here to play basketball. I'm not a terrorist or none of that. So I'm not understanding what it is about,"' Kazemi said. "'All you are trying to find out is if I'm a terrorist or not. I'm not. I'm just here to play basketball."'

He apparently got through because soon after that he was allowed to leave. Kazemi was encouraged that the next time he arrived from Iran, after a visit home last year, he was only delayed at the airport for three hours.

Even so, it's unlikely his parents will ever get to see him play for Rice in person.

That doesn't stop Kazemi from staying on his parents to attempt a visit.

"It's really hard to get a visa for the family," he said. "But they should try once. Just once. Maybe it would work."