Arsalan Kazemi's college basketball debut didn't have the fanfare of say, John Wall or Greg Oden.
The media attention given to those touted prospects dwarfed anything remotely associated with the Rice freshman. The state of Kentucky couldn't wait to see what Wall could do, while Oden was cast as the second coming of Bill Russell.
As for Kazemi, he garnered a single mention in the fourth paragraph of a five graf story. The 6-7 forward scored 10 points and grabbed four rebounds in an 81-51 win against Sacramento State. To be sure, it was a routine first game for most freshmen.
|Arsalan Kazemi goes up to block a shot against Texas.
Nonetheless, he's part of history. Kazemi is the first Iranian basketball player to play on a hoops scholarship. And he's focused on doing the same in the NBA.
Not that it'll be easy. Just getting to the United States was hard enough.
This story from SI.com's Luke Winn details Kazemi's hoops odyssey, including a tense time in 2008 when he first came to the U.S. for one year of high school.
When Kazemi arrived at George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Feb. 8, 2008, Ibrahim, who had yet to meet his Iranian import in person, was there waiting. But while the F-1 visa Kazemi obtained in Dubai, the closest U.S. Embassy to Iran, was acceptable, immigration officials are wary of him for a few reasons: his I-20 for a planned year of prep school is from the Patterson (N.C.) School, but his flight had terminated in Houston; the I-20 also was misdated; and after Arsalan told them that [Anthony] Ibrahim was his "coach," they found out -- by calling Ibrahim's cell phone -- that he's a travel agent. A tense, six-hour questioning process escalated to a point where an official asked Kazemi, flat-out, if he was a terrorist. Only after a series of last-ditch, information-gathering phone calls between Ibrahim and immigration were they satisfied enough to grant Kazemi passage.
Even more details can be found here. Good luck rattling Kazemi on the free-throw line.
Rice isn't interested in him as a goodwill project, either. He's a spectacular athlete who's wowed scouts with his leaping ability, and is probably at his best hitting the boards.
Kazemi reportedly had scholarship offers from Oklahoma State, Seton Hall, Missouri and Arkansas, but settled on Rice after one trip to Houston.
He saw the campus, the facilities and even a strange school tradition (the Baker 13) and liked what he saw. Sure, the Owls were 3-27 the season before he committed, but knowing that friends like Ibrahim live nearby in one of the country's biggest Middle Eastern communities helps. It also applies to Rice's Egyptian-born director of basketball operations, Marco Morcos, who has bonded with Kazemi.
After all, college is about finding a place where you feel comfortable and can fit in, right?
And, like most college students, he spends plenty of time on the phone calling home, particularly on game days. From Winn's article:
"When we have a game, my mom won't go to sleep," he says. He speaks to her in a rapid stream of Farsi, being critical about his slow start. Seconds after hanging up, he calls the former Iranian junior team coach to thank him for coming. After that he calls another Iranian number, for another debriefing, this time in softer tones. By the time he hangs up, his meal has already gone lukewarm, but for the first time, he smiles. "That was my girlfriend," he says. "She's going for her visa on the 25th."
Perhaps most intriguing from a philosophical standpoint is Kazemi's coach, Ben Braun. After 12 seasons at Cal, he's helped Rice climb back up the conference standings, finishing 10-22 last season.
Also, Braun is Jewish.
As one of eight Jewish head coaches in D-I, he's aware of how crucial his relationship with Kazemi can be, calling it "the ultimate public relations opportunity." Coming from a country whose president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has called the Holocaust "a myth," it could've been an issue.
It's refreshing that it rarely comes up. Kazemi has told Braun that while there are issues between Israel and Iran, "that you're Jewish is not a concern," according to Winn's story.
An athletic player who also sees the bigger picture? Kazemi's more than a boon to Rice hoops, he's a bonus for college basketball in general.
Mike Miller's also can found on Twitter (@BeyndArcMMiller).