Iranian hoopsters in Utah say basketball - not politics - is their game

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LEHI - Samad Bahrami and his teammates are visiting Utah on a mission clouded by grave political overtones. But it has nothing to do with missile tests, nuclear ambitions, terrorism or the threat of war.

For them, it's all about basketball.

Bahrami is the captain of the national basketball team of Iran - the nation that President Bush once denounced as part of an "axis of evil" and whose own religious leaders for years have urged "death to America" in rallies and prayers. Yet while his team's historic participation in the annual Rocky Mountain Revue summer league that starts today has stirred international attention because of the strained relationship between the respective governments, Bahrami and his teammates insist that politics is not their game.

"We are just looking for sport and basketball," Bahrami said. "For us, it's great, because everybody knows basketball in the United States. It is the most popular sport. . . . We just come here to take the experience and play with the good players and improve our odds of our game."

The Iranians are preparing to play in the Olympics for the first time in 60 years, having unexpectedly qualified for the upcoming Beijing Games in China by winning the FIBA Asian Championships last summer. That was a monumental achievement for a nation that had never won a medal at major regional tournament until claiming bronze at the 2006 Asian Games, ahead of their gold at the Asian Championships.

"It's a big success," said coach Rajko Toroman, a native Serbian. "Nobody expected that we could reach the Olympics."

Make no mistake, though, real-world politics have created the need for a certain diplomacy here.

Reporters interviewing players after practice at The Factory training facility in Lehi were advised to not ask about politics, and told that a member of the Iranian delegation would be present for all interviews - an arrangement that would be uncommon with American athletes.

Even the Jazz seemed unusually cautious.

Spokesman Jonathan Rinehart referred most questions about the Iranians to the NBA, which arranged their visit through the U.S. State Department, and general manager Kevin O'Connor did not return a call asking about them. The Jazz did not name Iran as one of the teams in the tournament when they announced the lineup for the Revue, either, saying instead that the "FIBA Asian Champion" would play two games at Salt Lake Community College.

Still, the Iranians seem to be enjoying their trip, which included a festive "NBA Cares" clinic with local children Thursday at The Factory.

The NBA "has treated us fantastic," Toroman said. "We feel very comfortable."

In fact, it was the Iranians who initially indicated they were interested in playing an NBA team, according to Brian McIntyre, the senior vice president of basketball communications for the NBA, as part of what has become a rigorous preparation for the Olympics. The Iranians will play 28 exhibition games in Italy, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Lithuania, Australia and China, as well as the United States.

"The only way to improve these players is to go somewhere and play tough games," Toroman said, noting that all of his players compete professionally in the Iranian League, rather than in more competitive leagues in Europe or the U.S.

The NBA sought guidance from the State Department, McIntyre said, knowing that the U.S. and Iran have not maintained diplomatic relations since shortly after the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979 - the event that precipitated the hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.

But the State Department encourages "people-to-people" relations, and approved the idea. McIntyre said Jazz owner Larry Miller did, too, despite recent escalations in tensions between the rival nations over issues such as Iran's nuclear program.

"Everyone said, 'It's not a bad thing to do, let's go along with it,' " McIntyre said. "Sports through diplomacy is not a bad thing."

It might already be working, too.

Since arrangements were made, American officials have reversed course and agreed to send an envoy to nuclear talks with Iran this weekend - a move welcomed by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Bush administration also soon plans to take the first steps toward re-establishing an embassy in TehÂran, according to news reports.

All of which might help portray Iran's attendance at the Revue as the latest sporting event to help build diplomatic relations, in the manner of the "pingpong diplomacy" that led to President Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972.

Regardless, the Iranians already are thrilled.

Having started to build their team at the junior level several years ago, they weren't even really targeting the Olympics, but rather the 2010 World Championships in Turkey.

By then, they hope their young team will have matured enough to be at its peak.

"What's important for us is that we participate in the Olympics and we learn from the other teams," said Mehran Hatami, an assistant coach and former player on the national team.

"Of course, here is the highest level of basketball they see. What they see on TV, now they touch, they feel it. It is very important for them."

For Bahrami, especially.

He's hoping to represent his nation proudly at the Olympics just months after his brother and most talented teammate was killed in a car crash, recalling easily the advice he received from Abolfazl Solbi, an 84-year-old member of the last Iranian basketball team to play in the Olympics, at the 1948 London Games.

"Take care of yourself very good," Bahrami remembered Solbi telling him, "and try to show your character to the whole world."