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U.S., Iran battle it out -- on the basketball court

By Mitra Mobasherat, CNN
Stephen Curry swats the ball from the hands of Iran's Mahdi Makrany during the Group B game between the U.S. and Iran.
Stephen Curry swats the ball from the hands of Iran's Mahdi Makrany during the Group B game between the U.S. and Iran.
  • In the first-ever meeting of the teams, the U.S. won 88-51
  • Scrutiny of the game was due more to the political situation than anything else
  • The Iranian players said they were excited to go up against NBA stars
  • Iran
  • Basketball

(CNN) -- Political discussions about Iran's nuclear aspirations were benched Thursday when the U.S. and Iranian national basketball teams went head to head at the FIBA World Championships in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Americans clinched first place in Group B with an 88-51 win over Iran.

But most of the attention wasn't directed toward the players' performance or their skills on the court; rather, it was the fact that the two teams -- whose countries have no diplomatic relations -- were sharing the same court for the first time.

"Yeah I get a lot of questions, most of it about the politics. But our game is nothing to do about the politics, it's just the sport," Iranian player Arsalan Kazemi told CNN.

"The only way is for people from USA and Iran can come together and have a friendly time together. We have to go there and play our best. The USA, you know, are a lot better than us. We just have to go there and play so the fans can enjoy the game," Kazemi said before the match.

The 6-foot, 7-inch forward and sophomore at Rice University in Texas considers himself a fan of both teams. He is the first Iranian to play Division 1 men's college basketball in the United States.

Kazemi grew up watching old National Basketball Association games replayed on Iranian television every Friday.

This is the first time Iran has qualified for the world championships, and for Kazemi, there was no hiding his excitement at playing against some of the NBA's elite.

"Because they are the best players in the world. They all play in the NBA, which is the highest level of basketball, and that's it. I just want to go and play against them, play good," Kazemi said.

Only about a quarter of the seats in Abdi Ipekci Hall in Istanbul were occupied for the game, and a majority of the spectators were Iranians or expatriates. Hamed Haddadi, who plays for the NBA's Memphis Grizzlies, was the crowd favorite as he played for his home country.

Through a sea of Iranian flags and banners, only a handful of American flags were visible, but one group of fans held up an American flag and an Iranian flag with a sign in between them reading "PEACE."

Relations between the two countries have been strained further in recent years due to Iran's nuclear program, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes. But Washington and many of its allies fear Iran may be trying to develop nuclear weapons.

Diplomatic ties between the United States and Iran were cut in 1980, after Iranian students seized the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and held 52 Americans hostage for more than a year.

Despite any outside pressures both teams may have felt looming from home, they were not shown on the court. Haddadi shared a friendly bump and a laugh with U.S. forward Rudy Gay, his teammate on the Grizzlies. Haddadi scored 19 points for the Iranians.

"We both came out, played hard, and represented our countries well. Iran fought very hard. It was a very good game. I think we showed a lot of respect for each other. I was happy with the outcome," U.S. player Tyson Chandler said.

The match provided a trip down memory lane for the U.S. team's coach, Mike Krzyzewski.

"I've been to Iran. I played there in the early 70s, in Tehran," he said after the game. "I have good friends that are of Iranian descent in the United States. So I have a good feeling for the Iranian people. There's no political aspect in my mind about the ballgame."

The Iranian team's coach, who is from Serbia, laughed when discussing the media attention surrounding the game.

"A lot of newspapers would come to practice and make a picture. OK for us, this is interesting. We are first time at the world championship and for us this entertainment is good," Veselin Matic said.

"I am very happy for my players. This helps them to motivate them. I think they are very good fighters," he added.

Despite its efforts, Iran will not advance to the next round. The U.S. win put them at 1-3 for the tournament.

"This was a very hard game, this was a very tough game. This is the first time we are playing in the world championship," Iranian player Aren Davoodi told CNN.

"Everyone wants to play against NBA players because they are the biggest players in the world. I hope we can be better next time against the U.S."

CNN's Yesim Comert contributed to this report