Skip to main content

Iranian playing in NBA scores with America

By Michaela Yisrael and Richard Roth, CNN
Hamed Haddadi, left, is the NBA's first Iranian basketball player.
Hamed Haddadi, left, is the NBA's first Iranian basketball player.
  • Hamed Haddadi began playing for Tennessee's Memphis Grizzlies in August 2008
  • Despite U.S.-Iran tensions, strains appear absent with teammates, fans alike
  • NBA had to apply to the U.S. government for a license to let Haddadi play
  • He's been trying to bridge gap between Iranian-Americans and basketball

East Rutherford, New Jersey (CNN) -- From nuclear weapons to human rights, the image of Iran is quite negative in America. But with little fanfare, one Iranian man has won hearts and cheers battling Americans on the court in basketball arenas around the country.

Hamed Haddadi is the NBA's first Iranian basketball player. At 7-foot-2, Haddadi began playing for Tennessee's Memphis Grizzlies in August 2008. His final game of this season was set for Wednesday night in Oklahoma City.

Despite U.S.-Iran tensions in the political arena, any strains appear absent with teammates and fans alike.

"It seems like he's the most popular Grizzly. When we go on the road ... he has a lot of support from a lot of people, a lot of people come out to watch him and watch us play," said teammate Mike Conley, who accompanied Haddadi to a "kebab fest."

The kebab fest was held in Las Vegas in 2009. Haddadi was accompanied by Conley and fellow Grizzly Hakim Warrick to a Persian restaurant. The event served to introduce the teammates to Persian food. Grizzlies' forward Rudy Gay turned the tables when he took Haddadi for a taste of American ribs at a Memphis restaurant.

It wasn't as easy getting permission to play in the United States. Current U.S. sanctions on Iran prohibit "a person or organization in the United States from engaging in business dealings with Iranian nationals," stated the NBA legal counsel.

Video: NBA's 1st Iranian player

The NBA had to apply to the U.S. government for a license that granted Haddadi permission to play for the NBA.

The reception has been positive courtside. But problems arose from game announcers once.

Ralph Lawler and Mike Smith, L.A. Clippers announcers on local Fox Sports, were suspended for a game for insensitive comments about Haddadi. When the Grizzlies faced the Clippers, the two joked about the Iranian center.

"You're sure it's not Borat's older brother?" said Smith. "If they ever make a movie about Haddadi, I'm going to get Sacha Baron Cohen to play the part."

Mayar Zokaei, Haddadi's Iranian-American manager, said the Iranian basketball player has brought lots of media attention to the middle-of-the-standings Grizzlies.

"He's gotten more press then any of his teammates this year and the past couple of years just for the sole reason that he's Iranian-American," said Zokaei. "Iranian playing basketball in America ... that's rare. [There aren't many]) Iranians doing anything in bona fide sports arenas in the U.S."

Haddadi faces big challenges. One is speaking and learning English.

Furthermore, his family is almost 7,000 miles away in Iran. The political turmoil back home is something he can't control. He worries about his family.

"It affects him because he misses them, he's not able to keep up to date with them because he's so busy ... he's always concerned about their well-being and such," said Zokaei.

Off the court, Haddadi has been working to bridge the gap between Iranian-Americans and basketball. Haddadi was at the forefront of creating the Hamed Haddadi Javanan Foundation. The charity organization aims to award college scholarships to student athletes.

The foundation has not been his only initiative.

In 2009, with Los Angeles Lakers forward Ron Artest and manager Zokaei, Haddadi hosted a weekend basketball camp for 100 children.

The camp was held on the campus of California State University at Northridge and was aimed mainly at the Iranian-American community.

Haddadi's team did not make the NBA playoffs, which start within the week. His next test on the court -- playing for Iran against the United States in the world championships in September in Turkey. Haddadi and teammate Rudy Gay agree the United States will win.

"Tell you the truth ... we can't beat the United States you know," said Haddadi. "We're [The U.S.] gonna win, of course," boasted Gay.

But his two years in America have been a personal victory for Haddadi, who just wants to play more when he returns to America.