Round two of Jimmy Ness‘ global expedition. In this chapter, he’s covering hoops vanguard Arsalan Kazemi. The first Iranian to play college ball, become an NBA draftee and win FIBA’s dunk of the decade. His story is bravery incarnate. And the journey ain’t over.
Arsalan Kazemi didn’t set out to be a diplomat – he just wanted to ball. Unfortunately, his heritage fixed the rules. Being an Iranian on the global stage ain’t easy. Arsalan’s career is a perpetual mosaic of triumph and resilience. Luckily, he’s forged for the challenge. Maybe that’s why his name means ‘lion.’
Kazemi’s homeland is a nation of diverse culture, rich art heritage and palatial architecture. Iran has luxuriant forests, sweeping mountains and a tradition of warm-hearted hospitality. Sadly, these qualities are veiled by conflict. Political upheaval and decades of intercontinental head-butting have been the country’s 50-year headline.
After an inspirational college run, Arsalan returned home from the States in 2015. He’s currently plotting his next venture as Iran is ravaged by Covid-19. The infections are endless, fatalities are soaring and the basketball season has been sidelined. U.S sanctions have also shackled the economy. Any opportunity to earn a livable player salary is on a cliff-edge. Times are truly uncertain.
As a kid, Arsalan had no clue about domestic affairs, but he did know basketball. Day and night, night and day, it didn’t matter – he would spend every second putting up shots.
Kazemi’s stringent routine produced neighbourhood infamy and, more importantly, results. He dominated the country’s Super League tournaments. The power forward was among the youngest recruited into Iran’s national juniors and in later years he would play against a rising Giannis Antetokounmpo.
In an uncanny moment, Texas broadcaster Anthony Ibrahim spotted Arsalan during a 2007 performance against Syria. Ibrahim beheld a teenaged colossus exploding off the TV in a series of dunks, acrobatic rebounds and bullish defence.
Anthony, of Lebanese descent, knew the Middle East was an unmined talent quarry. The astute scout fought for Kazemi to secure a U.S scholarship and altered his life in the process.
Arsalan became a diplomat before he could drive. At age 17, he flew 10 million kilometres to Lenoir, North Carolina. The barely passable English speaker landed firmly in the bible belt.
Kazemi attended Patterson boarding school. Respected for its adamantine curriculum; the institute had a gym, about four classrooms and not much else. The nearest shop was a petrol station almost 30 minutes away.
Arsalan was utterly out of his depth. His birthplace Isfahan holds a population of two million. Ironically, he’d flown to the “land of opportunity” only to discover a place less industrialized than home.
“Where Patterson school was, was like 20 minutes into the woods,” he recalls. “There was nothing around it. So that was the biggest change for me. When I was there, I remember I called my mom and I was like ‘mom, I’m not gonna stay here, I can’t, I’m just gonna come home.'”
In continual communication with family, Kazemi earned the nick-name “laptop kid.” He was finally convinced to stay by Patterson’s basketball calibre. Trail Blazer Hassan Whiteside was a classmate and many other pro-hoopers are school alumni.
Completely isolated, Arsalan trained three to four times a day. He’d empty his lungs clocking miles across rolling hillsides only to return at midnight for more of the same. Dreams of “the good life” in America were quickly demystified.
Locals had their own misconceptions too. People repeatedly confused Iran with Iraq. In their minds, Arsalan had arrived from the animated kingdom of Aladdin. Despite this, it was a good-natured exchange.
“The first thing that surprised [locals] is they asked ‘does Iran have a basketball team? I was like ‘yeah man, my national team played in the 2008 Olympics. They have a very good basketball team. We have like Hamed Haddadi in the NBA.'”
“One of the funniest things, when I was in the U.S, was somebody asked me ‘do you guys have Coca-Cola?'” he laughs.
Following his Patterson grind, Arsalan fielded offers from multiple colleges. He eventually settled on Rice University. Situated in Houston, the intellectually formidable campus is known as “the Harvard of the South.”
Kazemi became the first Iranian to play division one basketball. He shouldered not only the pressure of performing to further his career but also being his country’s sole representative.
Arsalan’s name soared into the press. This charming Middle Easterner suddenly appeared on American TV. Everyone wanted the story. He could be spotted in the New York Times, SLAM, Sports Illustrated, CNN and ESPN.
The easy-going Iranian was also making an impact on college campus. He was initially unaware of university athletics culture and the fierce loyalty of fans. Iran doesn’t have university or high school basketball programs.
For those similarly oblivious, college athletics rank among the most beloved of U.S tradition. In a combination of hometown pride and the fervour of youth, crowd support is unmatched. Arsalan frequently hooped inside stadiums packed with 10,000+ roaring devotees.
“The fans, they go crazy. I remember there was an American guy, he brought the Iranian flag and the funny thing was, he was holding it upside down,” Arsalan laughs fondly.
Kazemi was also deeply affected by the support. Basketball enabled him to forge a community away from home.
“I remember I had [grown] a moustache, like a Fu Manchu. The next game, I don’t know how many fans, like at least 10 of them, were either wearing a fake one or they just cut their beard and made theirs like mine just to support. It was crazy.”
During his third year, Arsalan confronted another hurdle. To respect his virtuous handling of events, here’s a brisk summary: Kazemi reported racial harassment from Rice’s Athletic Director. Multiple Arabic players made the same accusations. They also transferred from the school.
Arsalan diverted to the University of Oregon and quickly resumed momentum. The Persian punisher spent his senior year hitting double-double stats. He cracked the top-10 of active NCAA players and hit third place in rebounding. Kazemi’s scrappy gameplay left racial neophytes back in their petri dish of stupidity. His college legacy was sealed.
In 2013, Arsalan plunged further into history as the 54th NBA pick. He was the first Iranian to receive the honour. The twenty-something sat with his mentor Anthony Ibrahim when the Wizards called his name.
Most Netflix specials would wrap here, but unfortunately it wasn’t quite a storybook finish. Kazemi was immediately transferred to the 76ers and spent the following years bouncing between summer camps and overseas contracts. Arsalan describes the era as being “lost in Philly’s process.”
Regardless of the imperfect outcome, Arsalan’s true victory supersedes sport.
“When I went from Iran to the U.S, I had one bigger goal in mind other than playing basketball; to show the American people what an Iranian person looks [and acts] like.”
“I think that I did a great job of doing that,” he admits.
Kazemi still owns a Houston property and remains connected to his coaches, friends and mentor. While he grapples with his next move, he’s comforted by receiving FIBA’s Dunk of the Decade. He garnered 80,000 votes in the bracket and is relishing the moment.
“It feels great, I’m not gonna lie to you, because since I started basketball and I was watching the NBA, dunking the ball was one of the most compelling moments that I saw on TV. I started playing basketball when I was eight years old and it was always my dream to be able to dunk.”
His future might be uncertain, but don’t worry about Arsalan.
After all, he came this far.