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For the U.S. and Iran, a Friendly Competition: Match at world championship is about basketball, not nationalism

By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,

The game will be broadcasted live on ESPN at 12 PM Eastern (9 AM Pacific) time

Washington - When the U.S. and Iranian national teams play one another in basketball, Hamed Haddadi says, some boastful words will be exchanged -- but that's only because the Iranian center and U.S. forward Rudy Gay are such good friends.

Iranian center Hamed Haddadi goes up for a shot against Tunisia in the preliminary round of the FIBA World Championship in Istanbul, Turkey. He had 23 points and 13 rebounds.

Never mind the tense relationship between their governments, which have been at odds for 31 years. What matters on the court at the FIBA World Championship in Istanbul, Turkey, is basketball, and the teasing between opposing players - called "trash talk" - is part of the game when friends play one another.

"For the past few months, as this game has been materializing and we got the matchups for the world cup, we were kind of jabbing at each other back and forth," said Haddadi, a member of the professional National Basketball Association (NBA) team the Memphis Grizzlies, where Gay is his teammate. "He kept on bothering me with comments like 'I'm going to dunk on you, Hamed,' or 'I'm going to score a bunch of points on you,' and I went back to him and said, 'Watch out, because you're going to get blocked a couple of times in that game.'"

Reached at his hotel in Istanbul on the eve of the September 1 Iran-U.S. match, Haddadi noted the "talk and hype surrounding this game." He said it will be a chance for Iran to play its best, though not necessarily to beat a U.S. team packed with NBA stars. Haddadi is the first Iranian to play in the NBA.

"From a basketball standpoint, it's always good to play the best basketball team in the world and, in my opinion, the U.S. ranks among that hierarchy," he said.

Arsalan Kazemi going for the basket with Hamed Haddadi watching. Haddadi plays professionally in the United States, and Kazemi is a student-athlete at Rice University in Texas.

Trash talk is not a usual part of international basketball, Haddadi said, because it requires that opposing players be friends, or at least familiar with one another. That happens on American playgrounds and in the NBA, but not often in international tournaments, where one player might face an opponent only once in a career.

Although basketball, not politics, is on the players' minds, Haddadi said national pride does have a role in international competition. In facing the U.S. team, though, he said the Iranian players can be proud even if they are defeated.

"We want to go out there and represent our country well," he said. "We want to put on an honorable and respectable performance and not embarrass ourselves. You have to remember, every player on that U.S. team, for the most part, is a superstar on their own [professional] team, so this is a collection of stars, the best of the best there is." His goal, and that of his teammates: "I will give my best effort to represent myself as a player, but also, more importantly, as a player for the country of Iran."

Haddadi lamented that the Iranian team's efforts get "very, very limited exposure" in Iranian media, and he didn't think the U.S.-Iran game was being televised in Iran, "so that takes away a little bit from it, that our fans and our countrymen in Iran cannot watch this game."

"I get e-mails. I get messages on my Facebook fan page from people who support us, thousands of people who want to see the game," Haddadi said. "But I know that, for right now, the lack of media coverage definitely contributes to the fact that [basketball is] just not as big as it should be in Iran." As a result, he said, Iran's basketball program lacks the resources to win at the top international levels.

Haddadi, 25, who stands 218 centimeters (7 feet, 2 inches) tall, has spent two seasons in the NBA as a backup center for the Grizzlies, and he said he has become comfortable with his adopted home. He even sponsored a basketball camp for Iranian-American youngsters in Los Angeles last year, and he plans to repeat the camp this fall in at least two cities.

"The assimilation process was very smooth for me," he said. "I'm very comfortable with my teammates, the country, the U.S. I really love living there and working there. The great friends I've made on the team, my colleagues - Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay - those are guys that have become my friends as much as they've become my teammates. I feel that I have really established myself in the country."

About U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.

... Payvand News - 09/01/10 ... --

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