Journeyman in Iran

by Alex Shultz

Kevin Sheppard had never seen a basketball practice go so poorly. He was frustrated and wanted to blow off some steam, so that night he went to a local restaurant. He flapped his arms like a bird as he talked to the employees behind the counter. “I think he wants the chicken,” one man said to the other in Farsi. A few minutes later, Sheppard left with two pieces of chicken and what looked like a beer can.

“This is a fake beer, no alcohol,” Sheppard said to the camera as he walked home afterward. “It’s very nasty. But if I can’t get the real thing, I have to drink the fake.”

Sheppard was an American playing basketball in a hostile land. His team, A.S. Shiraz, had paid twice as much for his services as they would for any native-born player. It was hard enough to recruit an international baller, let alone a United States citizen whose former president—George W. Bush—once called Iran “an axis of evil.” But here Sheppard was, walking back to his apartment as filmmaker Till Schauder videotaped his every move. Roughly three years later in 2012, Sheppard’s experience was released as The Iran Job, a documentary examining life in a country often seen with a weary eye by Americans. The film is set to be re-released as a DVD on March 4, so SLAM caught up with Sheppard, who recently retired and got his FIBA coaching license in the US Virgin Islands, where he resides. 

SLAM is giving away 10 prize packs—including a copy of The Iran Job DVD and movie poster. Enter here for your chance to win.

SLAM: When did [Director] Till [Schauder] and [Producer] Sara [Nodjoumi] first get in touch with you and how did that whole process work?

Kevin Sheppard: Well, I was over there playing with the team A.S. Shiraz, and one day the coach of the team came to me and told me they have some American filmmakers who want to do a story about American basketball players in Iran. I said, Why not? Because when I told everyone I was going to play in Iran, everyone felt that I was going to play with terrorists and killers, guys with AK-47s based on what we saw in the news and all the hype about Iran having weapons of mass destruction. I thought maybe this way would be good to show that Iran has a different side than what you see on the news.

SLAM: To clarify, you were already in Iran when they contacted you, right?

KS: Yeah, I was already there.

SLAM: So how did you get contacted to play there in the first place?

KS: In 2005 when I was playing in Spain, a team from Iran called my agent and he told me that they would like me to come and play there. I turned it down just because of everything I was hearing and everything I saw in the news. I didn’t trust the situation. But that summer I went to Israel, and Israel had the same type of feel in terms of there being a lot of suicide bombers in the country and a lot of stuff on the news that Israel was going to fight against the Palestinians and so on. But then I took the chance and went to Israel and it was like nothing I’d ever seen. Israel was really beautiful, very peaceful, one of the best places I’ve ever been when I stayed in Tel Aviv. So I said well, if Israel can be like this and I never heard about it on the news, then if the opportunity came around and someone from Iran called again to play there, I would take the chance. That’s how I ended up there—in 2008 they called again, they said they really wanted me to come and I thought, OK, I’m going to go. If it’s not what I like, I’m going to leave. But if it’s something that a lot of people have never seen, then I would be discovering something. So it was a win-win situation.iran_job_poster

SLAM: What was going through your mind after that first practice in the film? It looked like you were pretty frustrated and A.S. Shiraz did not look like a team that was going to make the playoffs in any sort of league.

KS: The first thing I would say is that my team was very bad, I had the worst players in Iran. That was not the real Iranian basketball. They had so many better players. [Hamed] Haddadi was playing over there at the time, he was not in the NBA yet. He was really good. What they do—and most teams overseas do this—they would put all their best players, their national team players on one team, so it’s very stacked. So you have four or five teams that are really, really good with national team players, future national team players and junior national team players, and then you have seven or eight teams that are really trash.

SLAM: I was curious about that. I wanted to pose a hypothetical for you: I’m in L.A. right now, if one of those guys on your team walked into any gym in L.A., would he be the best player on the court? Or would there be some former varsity high school guys who would be better than him?

KS: Yeah you’re right. Compared to the American talent, I’d choose a varsity athlete. You could just see it on the tape. Everything ran through me, I had the ball like 98 percent of the time. I had to make these decisions for the guys because their basketball IQ was so low.

SLAM: How much of a challenge was the language barrier? Because it seemed like you could communicate with some of the guys in the film just through gestures, but when you’d be on the bench they’d be saying stuff to you and you had no idea what was happening.

KS: Well we did have a translator, but I didn’t know what the coach was saying. He was talking to the guys most of the time and the translator, because they have an honor system, he was a little nervous to say what the coach was saying. So after a while I just said, Don’t even translate, man. I’ll get it. Basically, I would just ask the coach to show me the play and I’d know what he wanted.

SLAM: The basketball team sounded like they were pretty open to having Till follow you around and film you all the time, right?

KS: Yeah, they actually loved it. Some of the guys on the team spoke English too, I should clarify. Only a few guys didn’t speak any English. But the American culture, it was ironic, they loved everything about it. They named everything after Kobe and LeBron and guys were acting like they were D-Wade. So once they saw the cameras, it was like their moment to shine.

SLAM: You were in Iran during a time of real political change. That was when President Obama was first elected and the Green Movement broke out a couple months after you left in 2009. What was it like to be caught up in all of that in a country halfway across the world where there was a lot of tension between the United States and Iran?

KS: One of the funniest things about being over there during the so-called tension was that the tension is only between the governments. It’s not with the people, the people could care less. They were more frustrated with their government, they were not really into the USA-Iran thing as much as others thought. The real people over there who were going through real struggles, who saw a country produce billions of dollars of oil a year yet the population was still poor, that was the real struggle. They were not looking for an external struggle, they were more mad that they were pushing this thing with Israel and the USA instead of sharing the wealth. So I didn’t really have any problems from people asking if I’m from the United States, it was like everyday living.

SLAM: When Obama was elected, was that a huge deal over there?

KS: I was awake (when he was elected) and the funny thing is the people in Iran were celebrating. Every time they saw me in the streets they’d shout, ‘Obama is good!’ It was crazy. They only know three English words, ‘Obama is good!’ They were celebrating. It was really funny to me because I was very happy as an African American, so you had a lot of historical significance there. But I was a little bit more laid back because I do understand the challenges that he had to face, especially since the previous president had created so much tension over there. I was over there when President Bush came over to Iraq and they threw a shoe at him and it was all over the news. It was a lot of hostility between the countries, so it was amazing for me to see when a new president was elected how the Iranian people were really celebrating it. I think I said it in the movie that it’s great and all, but we still can’t forget the mission at hand: he’s still got to deal with the economy and make sure the country is doing well with foreign and domestic policy.

SLAM: I know you’ve played internationally for a couple of countries so maybe this part wasn’t a big deal, but as an African American in a country that doesn’t have a lot of African Americans, it seemed like you were received pretty well. Is that generally what you thought too?

KS: Yeah, sometimes I couldn’t even walk the streets because everybody wanted to take my picture, especially when I started getting popular in the newspapers. Sports over there are stress-relief for the people and they are into their sports. They love basketball, they love soccer, they love tae kwon-do. Every time you turn the TV on in Iran it’s some type of sports activity.

SLAM: When that Kickstarter campaign started and garnered a lot of attention in the media and eventually raised over $100,000, how did that make you feel? That must’ve been interesting as it unfolded.

KS: It was good that it was getting out there. I don’t receive anything from the film, because it was not about making money from it, it was just about showing my lifestyle and showing a lot of people’s prejudices and ignorance. Everything we see and hear determines our thoughts about something without you taking the opportunity to go discover it yourself. Even I was guilty of that, having a predetermined [view] of a country and its people without actually going over there and understanding the people. Once I got over there I thought, Hold up, something here is different. So it was my mission to go out there and let people know that in the future our countries might go to war, but we need to see the people’s side of it. It’s not just government versus government, they have real people and real children who are fighting the same struggles we’re fighting in America and all over the world. At the end of the day, we all are one.

SLAM: You ended up coming back to Iran for two more seasons didn’t you?

KS: Yeah I did, then I retired. I actually didn’t go back to my team, because my team was a first-year team and was really a Division II-level team. I went to a middle-of-the pack team to get a better opportunity to challenge the league. I did well taking a new team to the playoffs, but as you know in America, just taking a team to the playoffs doesn’t mean much. It’s either championship or nothing. I’m not satisfied just going to the playoffs, that’s pathetic in my opinion. That’s great for them but it wasn’t good enough for me.

SLAM: How did those other two seasons turn out?

KS: We went all the way to the finals with the other team and the next year we went to the semifinals, but I didn’t win the championship. They have a team over there just like Israeli’s Maccabi Tel Aviv, they’ve won like 50 straight because they have around nine national team players on the team. It’s extremely difficult to beat them, plus you have to play the guys in the stripes and the organization because they don’t want to see their national team lose. I do understand that anything goes on the court, but believe me—when it comes close, if you’re not beating that team by 20, you’re not winning. The funny thing about it is the system has worked, they’re the number one team in Asia.

SLAM: Have you been able to keep in touch with Hilda or any of the other women in the film? Did you get to talk to them when you went back to Iran?

KS: Yeah, I talked them a lot and they went to a lot of my games. Even when I come back to the Americas, I shoot them an email and ask how they’re doing. But I haven’t really talked to them in probably a year.

SLAM: What was it like to have Till filming pretty much your every move? Was that annoying at first or did you get used to it?

KS: It was very annoying, he’s still annoying [laughs]. I’m sick of that guy, with love. He was filming during everything. He’d be eating, brushing his teeth while filming, he was just ridiculous. If you see some of the takes that weren’t in the film, you’ll go crazy. This guy was a nut. But he basically became invisible to me eventually and I was just myself. Sometimes I’d get high-tempered and let him know ‘hey man, don’t put that in the film.’ But all in all, he was cool. He didn’t tell me what to do, he just told me to be myself. In a way, it helped me to pass the time. The overseas lifestyle can be very tough, not in terms of basketball but just being away from your family, being away in a hotel not eating the right food for six to eight months. It can be a grind, and so by having him around I was able to do a lot of stuff that I probably would’ve never done like looking for a Christmas tree. It helped.