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Weight of expectation: Kazemi carries Iran into NBA

By Yasmin Khorram, CNN
July 11, 2013 -- Updated 1750 GMT (0150 HKT)
When Arsalan Kazemi was picked 54th in the 2013 NBA Draft, he became the first Iranian-born player to enter basketball's elite competition. When Arsalan Kazemi was picked 54th in the 2013 NBA Draft, he became the first Iranian-born player to enter basketball's elite competition.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Iranian-born Arsalan Kazemi was picked 54th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft
  • Kazemi first Iranian ever to be drafted by an NBA team
  • Second round pick of the Washington Wizards, who traded him to Philadelphia 76ers

(CNN) -- When Arsalan Kazemi was picked 54th overall in the 2013 NBA Draft, he knew his elevation to the sport's elite competition was about more than progressing his own career.

"I don't do this just for myself and my family," the NBA's first Iranian-born player to be drafted declares on his official Twitter page. "I have the whole country on my back."

And for Kazemi his success is not just about shouldering that weight of expectation.

"I was more excited for my country," the 23-year-old told CNN. "For the kids that play basketball and have a dream to one day make it to the NBA. I want to show them it's possible."

Kazemi fell in love with basketball at age nine while growing up in Esfahan, Iran, playing outside and disturbing his neighbors at all hours of the day.

"He loved it. He played every day," says his mother, Roya Kazemi. "We made him a hoop in our backyard and I bought him his first basketball."

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Within three years, he was a rising star on Iran's junior national team "playing with guys a lot older than me" and in 2007, when still just 16, his talents caught the eye of a man who would change his life, persuading him to come to the United States where he's now about to start a career in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Kazemi became the first Iranian ever to be drafted by an NBA team in June.

"I worked hard to make it, and now I have to fight even harder," said Kazemi, who is a 6-foot-7 power forward with the Philadelphia 76ers.

"It won't be easy. But it's been like that for me since the day I moved here."

His journey began at the 2007 West Asian Games tournament when Kazemi's ferocious rebounding and defensive skills against Syria gained the attention of Texas-based sports broadcaster Anthony Ibrahim.

"His team lost the ball half-court," Ibrahim said. "Arsalan chased the ball opposite floor and out of nowhere you see him come from the left side all the way to the basket to block the shot."

Political tensions

Kazemi grew up watching the NBA commentator every Friday on Alhurra TV, a Washington-based network that broadcast games in Iran.

While most scouts saw no reason to take the risk of traveling to the Middle East, Ibrahim often visited the region to bring young, talented athletes back to the States.

Ibrahim, a native of Lebanon, wanted to draw attention to countries where college coaches show little interest.

"It was hard to sell," he said. "When I told people about the talent, they would say 'What, a kid from Iran that can play? What are you talking about?'"

Ibrahim used their athletic ability to help secure scholarships at schools across the nation.

"My goal was always to get these kids education through basketball," he said. "But when we saw AK's level of talent...I said wait a minute, he's got a chance to go pro."

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Ibrahim took video of Kazemi to a friend, the general manager of the Lebanese national team; they both decided he "needs to play at a higher level."

He pitched the opportunity to Kazemi's parents, but given the political tensions between the United States and Iran, they worried about how their son would be received.

"To be honest, I didn't want to come," Kazemi said. "I told my family there's no way I'm going there by myself. All my friends were in Iran, I didn't know where I was going or what my life would be like."

His faith in Ibrahim along with the opportunity to study and play basketball persuaded Kazemi to agree.

Securing a student visa was the next challenge. The U.S. hasn't had an embassy in Iran since the hostage crisis more than 30 years ago.

It took six months before Kazemi landed in the U.S. in February 2008. At the time, he didn't speak English and he was held at the airport for seven hours of questioning by immigration officers.

"They kept asking me 'What are you doing here? Are you a terrorist?' And if I was here to harm the country."

Kazemi enrolled at The Patterson prep school in North Carolina, easing his homesickness by talking to his mother every day.

"It was really hard on me, I knew just enough English to get by in school," he said. "I was so homesick I carried my laptop everywhere to talk with my mom. I was nicknamed the 'laptop guy.'

"It was so bad, he would be on Skype in the car, in the mall, in the gym," Ibrahim added. "At one point we said 'OK that's enough put the laptop down tell Mom nice talkin' to ya. You're going to be OK'."

He was missing home, but Kazemi was taking the basketball court by storm and college coaches were noticing.

Upon graduating from Patterson, Kazemi was heavily recruited by college teams and offered scholarships across the nation. He chose the academically prestigious Rice University in Houston, which has a large Iranian community and is where Ibrahim lived.

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During his three years there, he led his Conference in rebounding and ranked among the top three rebounders nationwide.

He says he also came face to face with the type of situation that had concerned him before he left Iran.

After his junior year, he asked for and received a National Collegiate Athletic Association hardship waiver to transfer to Oregon where he competed in his senior year.

According to Sports Illustrated, the hardship had to do with derogatory comments allegedly made by the Rice athletic director based on ethnicity and religion. Kazemi is Muslim.

"He made some comments that made me uncomfortable," said Kazemi, who declined to specify what the comments were. "I was approaching an important year and I wanted to focus on basketball without worrying about what he was saying."

The athletic director, Rick Greenspan, who has since left Rice himself, denied any allegations of discriminatory treatment during Kazemi's time at Rice.

With the Ducks, Kazemi got lots of playtime and instantly became a fan favorite.

"If you're an athlete in Oregon they treat you like a celebrity," Kazemi said. "I got to experience having a home crowd. It's an amazing feeling when you hear 12,000 people chanting your name."

Fans were intrigued by his superstar ability on the court, but also his facial hair. At games, students would wear fake handlebar mustaches to support their favorite player.

Kazemi led the Ducks, who were seeded No. 12, to their first NCAA tournament since 2008. He averaged 9.4 points, 10 rebounds, 2.0 steals and 1.4 assists and he was named an all-Pac-12 honorable mention.

The Ducks had a deep run in the tournament, but lost the Sweet Sixteen game to the No. 1 overall seed and eventual champion Louisville

In that game, Kazemi dropped a double-double, scoring 11 points and grabbing a dozen rebounds -- a performance that put him on the radar of NBA scouts.

Two weeks later Kazemi skipped graduation ceremonies to work out with the Atlanta Hawks, one of a dozen NBA teams that invited the power forward to their pre-draft workouts.

His mother and sister were granted temporary visas to surprise him on draft night. Kazemi says he was shocked when he became the second round pick of the Washington Wizards, who traded him to Philadelphia in a matter of hours.

"He looked at me and said 'we really did it,'" Ibrahim said. "I said no you did it, AK. He got on the court and worked hard for six years. Youngsters in that region are looking up to that boy, he's a great role model."

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