EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Arsalan Kazemi has always been a trailblazer.
He was the first Iranian to play Division I basketball when he enrolled at Rice University in 2009.
And now the 6-foot-7, 220-pound power forward hopes to become the first Iranian chosen in the NBA Draft.
With such bold moves comes pressure — and sometimes even harassment. And Kazemi is no stranger to that.
“I feel like a little pressure because a lot of people are watching me, a lot of young kids from not only my country, but the region from Middle East, and they all want me to make it so I just feel a little bit of pressure on my back, yeah,” Kazemi told SNY.tv last week after a group workout at the Nets’ facility.
Kazemi, who averaged 9.4 points and 10.0 rebounds last season at Oregon, is not projected to get drafted. DraftExpress.com ranks him as the 87th best prospect in the 2013 Draft Class.
“Nice overseas player,” one NBA scout said when asked about Kazemi.
“Cannot play,” one NBA GM added bluntly.
Hamed Haddadi, who played 17 games with the Phoenix Suns this season, is the only Iranian in the NBA, but he went undrafted in 2004. Kazemi is hoping to become the first to get drafted.
Because of his ethnicity, Kazemi has become a lightning rod who has attracted both criticism and support during his five years in the United States.
Kazemi left Rice University in 2012 after alleging racial discrimination by athletic director Rick Greenspan which was detailed in a Sports Illustrated story.
According to the story, Greenspan ”made derogatory comments referencing Al-Qaeda and the Axis of Evil when talking about Kazemi and two of his teammates.”
“I’d rather not talk about it,” Kazemi told SNY.tv. “It was just some stuff said that it made me uncomfortable and I had to leave Rice.”
Asked if he thought Greenspan was a racist, Kazemi said, “I have no idea because I can’t talk from his perspective so you should ask him.”
The transition to Oregon and coach Dana Altman for his final season was a better experience.
“Yes, Oregon was a nice small town and the people were really welcoming,” he said. “I made a lot of friends there and I loved the coaches and I loved playing basketball there and I would love to [have] had another year playing for Oregon but too bad it was just one year.”
As he goes through the draft workout process, Kazemi has also received support from various fellow Muslims.
“I have a special place in my heart for the Muslim community, hoping
@kazemiworld will bring bball to new heights over there, power of sports,” Tweeted @SB_NYAlicia, who was then Re-tweeted by Kazemi. @kavsyfbaby Tweeted: “would love for my Knicks to get you somehow. Need your rebounding and hustle on this team!”
Iran’s leaders have threatened to annihilate the Israeli cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa if it were attacked by Israel and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad once warned the Obama administration that if Iran’s nuclear facilities are attacked, the U.S. would face a war that “would know no boundaries.”
Asked if Americans have a misunderstanding of Iran, Kazemi said, “Not the ones that I’ve been talking to, but others probably because they’re watching the news. I probably had the same thinking before I come to the U.S.”
While living in Iran as a younger man, Kazemi said he feared that “people [in the U.S] are not going to like me because I’m from Iran. And when I came here it was totally different.”
Of his countrymen in Iran, Kazemi said, “They love Americans. There are American players that they go back in Iran and they play and if you get a chance to talk to them, they will tell you how welcoming Iranians are and how much they like them.”
Although his odds of getting drafted appear slim, Kazemi hopes that by playing basketball — wherever he ends up — he can somehow help to spread mutual understanding between Iran and the U.S.
“Yes, yes, definitely, I feel like sports is a way to always cross the borders and get to know more people and actually to see what is going on,” he said. “I think sports is the way and I try to be the best ambassador for my country.”