No Pressure, Big Guy

by Irv Soonachan

Thirty years — almost to the day — after the hostage crisis made Iran a hated enemy in the eyes of most Americans, I saw a promotion at an NBA game that was a long time in the making: Iranian Heritage Night. Participants arrived early and in large numbers. About 800 people wore green t-shirts that were sponsored by the teams, the Warriors and the visiting Grizzlies.

Green has had a special significance to Iranians since this summer, when it became the symbolic color of pro-democracy demonstrations against a government that intimidated protesters with tactics such as shooting young women in the head. In an apolitical league – one that does business with plenty of fascist regimes – here was the unusual sight of two teams taking part in an overt political statement.

There was a troupe of brace-faced teens in traditional garb dancing before the lineups were announced. A Farsi-language pop star (wearing a green armband) sang the national anthem.

All of this occurred because of one man, and he was sitting at the end of the Grizzlies bench wearing street clothes. Hamed Haddadi is a 24-year-old second-year center who doesn’t get much playing time. He also happens to be the first and only Iranian national in the NBA.

I had lunch with Haddadi the afternoon of the game. Cramming his 7-2, 265-pound frame into a small San Francisco taxi – sharing the backseat with his manager and one of his buddies while I sat shotgun – we rode from the team’s hotel near the Museum of Modern Art to an immaculate Persian restaurant in Pacific Heights.

There we met an older man who was identified to me as a former Iranian basketball star, but who preferred not to give his name or to be quoted. In Iran, paranoia has a long tradition. He had an elegant manner that reminded me of a Southern gentleman.

Haddadi split last season, his first in the United States, between Memphis and its D-League associate in North Dakota. He understands English, but prefers to respond through a translator.

“A lot of places I would go to last year, people would approach me and say ‘where are you from?’ I would say, ‘Iran,’ and they wouldn’t know where it was, they hadn’t even heard of it,” he told me. “Now, they ask the same question but because of the elections and its ramifications being in the news, I don’t have to say where Iran is. I don’t have to repeat myself or explain.”

That was the closest we came to discussing the situation in Iran. His manager (and translator for the day), Mayar Zokaei, had me on strict instructions not to discuss politics. Haddadi showed up for the team’s media day photo sessions wearing green wristbands and has been wearing them ever since, and together with Zokaei put together the Warriors event, but doesn’t want to be quoted talking about it.

To gain some perspective on this I called up Reza Aslan, an internationally known religious scholar and go-to guy when the major news networks need an expert on Iran. Aslan was born in Iran but came of age in the Bay Area. He understands Haddadi’s caution, but also thinks he’s crossed the Rubicon.

“Just think back to what happened in June to the veteran players of the Iranian national soccer team, including the team captain, who is arguably much more famous in Iran (than Haddadi),” Aslan said. “They wore green armbands during a match, and when they returned (to Iran), they were forced to retire. By no means is Hamed safe. When he goes back to Iran, associating himself so explicitly with the green movement could not only be dangerous to his career, it could quite possibly be dangerous to his life.”

Haddadi answered my questions thoughtfully, but he also has a funny side – he’s the type of guy who doesn’t care who the joke is on as long as everyone is laughing. At one point (without the older gentleman there), Haddadi and his friends started speaking in louder and louder voices, and burst out laughing every half minute or so.

Zokaei, a faithful translator, turned to me and explained with a straight face, “We’re talking about each other’s mothers’ cooking.”

When the food arrived it tasted good to my palate, but I haven’t eaten much Persian food. There was lots of rice and large helpings of meat, cooked in sauces that were flavorful without being spicy. Haddadi seemed to like it just fine, working his way through the family-style meal in between copious swigs of Coca-Cola.

Haddadi didn’t know yet that he would be deactivated for the game – Hamed Haddadihe was told when the team arrived at the arena. His legion of fans didn’t seem to mind.

“He’s the first Iranian in the game, so it opens doors for us,” said Nima Jamnani, 17, who I met in the stands before the game. “It’s not about being a soccer fan or a basketball fan, it’s about backing up a fellow Iranian.”

After the game, the fans in green poured down toward the court for autographs and photos with Haddadi, who stayed with them until his team had to board its bus.

Aslan told me this level of loyalty is typical of the Iranian community. “I experience it all the time,” he said. “I do readings of my books sometimes, and my views on Iran are not exactly in alignment with a lot of Iranian-Americans, particularly the older generation. Yet my readings are filled with Iranians who will tell me to my face they disagree with everything I say, and then proceed to buy 10 books for their families. There’s something innate about the Iranian identity. It’s a 2,500-year-old national identity that Iranians take very seriously.”

Over lunch, I asked Haddadi if he felt the pressure of the entire Iranian-American community turning its eyes to him. The first word of his answer came back in clear English.

“Yes,” he said, before continuing in Farsi. “One-hundred percent I do. It’s kind of my civic duty to make these people who come support me happy, my countrymen. I do feel a pressure to play well because they’re there supporting me.”

I asked his closest friend on the team, point guard Mike Conley, what kind of potential Haddadi has. “He’s a very crafty big man with a lot of talent,” said Conley, who played college ball with Greg Oden. “You don’t see too many seven footers who can handle the ball the way that he does, and who can shoot and pass. He’s developing into a good player.”

When Haddadi first arrived in the States, it was Conley who drove him to practice and helped teach him English. Haddadi also took time to teach Conley. “He’s taught me some of his language,” Conley said, adding, “I know some bad words, too.”

Haddadi seemed conscious of his potential on the court and otherwise, but not arrogant about it. He said an infamous interview with an Iranian news agency, in which he was quoted as saying he was a star player, was a “misunderstanding.” Zokaei told me the agency asked Haddadi what it was like to be a star, and he self-effacingly replied, “Yeah, I’m the all-star who sits on the bench.” What was printed was very different.

As our lunch ended, Haddadi ordered some Persian tea. It was a black tea mixed with saffron and other spices I couldn’t name, and had a sweet, yet sophisticated smell. Haddadi lowered his head just over his glass, closed his eyes, and slowly filled his lungs with the aroma. He paused for a moment afterward and the rest of the table became quiet. I wanted to ask him what he was thinking of at that moment, but it seemed like too personal a question to ask.

I was left to imagine life in a faraway place with rich, ancient traditions, but where nothing can be taken for granted.

Game Notes

— Allen Iverson may still know how to fill a stat sheet, but he looks like a shadow of his former self.

— There are whispers around Memphis that Hasheem Thabeet is a bust. I’m not ready to write him off, but it’s clear that at best the No. 2 overall pick will be a long-term project.

— Last week on opening night, I touted Stephen Curry as a possible ROY. Then a friend in Milwaukee called, and suggested I watch Brandon Jennings… enough said.

— Special thanks to Reza Aslan, who is quoted in this week’s blog. I don’t know much about Iranian culture and he helped fill in the blanks. His books, How to Win a Cosmic War and No God but God, are highly recommended. Aslan said something during our conversation worth repeating here: “The idea of a nation that defines itself not by any ethnic, cultural, or religious marker, but by a social contract among free and equal citizens and a set of ideas to which everyone adheres, nothing like this exists anywhere else. The American identity is infinitely hyphenable. There is nothing difficult about calling yourself Iranian-American. Here in the United States we encourage hyphenation, sometimes to ridiculous ends. That tells you everything you need to know about America.”