Kazemi breaking barriers

Updated: November 20, 2008, 12:51 PM ET
By Ryan Canner-O'Mealy |

Arsalan Kazemi may have been raised in Iran, but he grew up dreaming of playing in the NBA just like countless American kids.

[+] EnlargeArsalan Kazemi
ESPNRISE Arsalan Kazemi recently committed to Rice.

He would wake up before sunrise every Friday morning to watch live telecasts of his favorite player, Tim Duncan, on Middle Eastern satellite TV network Alhurra. Little did Kazemi know the announcer, Anthony Ibrahim, would one day change his life forever.

Kazemi is currently enrolled at the Patterson School (Patterson, N.C.) and recently committed to Rice.

His journey started at the 2007 West Asian Games in Iran. Playing for his country's Under-17 team in front of a crowd that included Ibrahim, Kazemi unleashed two monstrous dunks that brought the fans to their feet.

When Ibrahim returned to the U.S., he took a tape of the game to American coaches and quickly realized Kazemi had the potential to be a high-major Division I player.

Ibrahim then befriended Kazemi and tried to convince his parents to allow him to move to the U.S. from Iran, a country the U.S. has deemed a state sponsor of terrorism. Given the political tensions between the two countries, Kazemi's parents were skeptical.

But between their faith in Ibrahim and their son's pleas, Kazemi's parents finally relented.

"I told them their son could play basketball at a high level in America and go to college and get an education," says Ibrahim.

After he got permission came the hard part -- getting a visa. With no American embassy in Iran, the Kazemi family had to travel to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates to secure documentation.

Like all F-1 visas for Iranians, it was a short-term solution only good for one entry. So if Kazemi came back to visit his parents or play for the Iranian national team, he'd have to go through the arduous process again, with no guarantee of getting lucky a second time.

So when Kazemi left for America with Ibrahim in February, he knew it would be a while before he saw his family again. Once Kazemi arrived, he enrolled at Patterson, a remote North Carolina prep school.

Despite being on his own, Kazemi made an immediate impact.

"The first thing that stood out was his high basketball IQ," Patterson coach Chris Chaney says. "He played the game the right way and was a great teammate."

Kazemi became a hot target of college coaches this past summer when he performed well at the prestigious Reebok All-American Camp. And this winter, he'll play his lone high school season for Patterson.

Given the strained U.S.-Iran relations, Kazemi worried how he'd be received. But the players, coaches and community at Patterson have embraced him. These days, politics isn't even on his mind.

"I don't think about that because it's between two governments," Kazemi says. "It's not the people. I like Americans, and all the Americans I've met have been great to me."

Still, this journey hasn't always been easy. Kazemi hasn't seen his family since leaving Iran, keeping in touch via the Internet.

Also, the issue of his visa lingers. The most important piece of paper right now is his National Letter of Intent, the history-making document that stamps him as Iran's first D1 baller. But in reality, that takes a backseat to his visa, which expires in August.

Kazemi will head home this summer and hope to get another visa, not to mention see his family and play on the Iranian national team. Then he plans on returning to the U.S. to attend Rice, so he can show so he can show Americans another side of his beloved country.

"College coaches are telling me they didn't know there were kids like that in the region," Ibrahim says. "They thought it was all about fighting. But basketball can be a common denominator."

Ryan Canner-O'Mealy covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.