SAN JOSE, Calif. -- No matter your age, or where you've traveled and whom you've met, a conversation with 22-year-old Arsalan Kazemi could make you feel unworldly and a tad callow. Set aside the fact that at 17, he flew into the United States by himself from Iran, undeterred by the "Axis of Evil" designation bestowed on his homeland by the leaders of this country. Kazemi came prepared to practice what may be the finest art of diplomacy: playing transcendently stylish and unselfish basketball.
The Oregon forward had a combined 33 rebounds in last weekend's two NCAA subregional games, 17 against Oklahoma State and 16 vs. Saint Louis. Back home, he said, Iranians would not understand the meaning of "Sweet 16.''
"But I do," Kazemi said with one of his slow-breaking, big smiles. He knew what it meant for the Ducks, seeded 12th and often obscured by their football counterparts. He also knew what it meant for his country.
"When I went to Rice, I was the first Iranian to get a Division I scholarship,'' he said, "and then here I was the first Iranian to win a Pac-12 championship, and now I'm the first Iranian to go to the Sweet 16. And I hope it just goes from there.''
In some ways, Kazemi could be the mirror image of Kevin Sheppard, an American whose 2008-2009 season with an Iranian Super League team became the subject of a documentary called "The Iran Job."
But Kazemi has to explain himself and his country more often than Sheppard, especially since most young basketball players have no idea there is a professional league in Iran, with spots for Americans.
"Their eyes go wide," he said. "They're really surprised."
With sad predictability, some hecklers have resorted to the cheapest taunt imaginable when Kazemi turns up in their gym. They call him a terrorist, which he explains this way: "I call it the 'T' word, I don't want to say it."
He ignores them, as all athletes are taught to do. "They're saying more about themselves," Kazemi said. But this sort of baiting stoops to a level that embarrasses universities. The University of Washington noted that a heckling guide for its Dawg Pack student section targeted Kazemi based on his ethnicity and apparently intervened. Adam Jude, the beat writer for The Oregonian, tweeted from Seattle that a Washington spokesman said the issue had "been addressed with students."
The Americans who meet him in person, Kazemi said, are very friendly and seem eager to learn about Iran. "I'm more than happy to tell them what is exactly going on and help them understand," he said. "They all think that there is a war going in in Iran, and I tell them there is no war there, that it is in Iraq and it was in Pakistan for a while. And that Iran is totally safe, and it's a really nice country.''
Kazemi grew up in Esfahan, an ancient city widely considered the most beautiful in Iran. His parents own a factory that makes gaz, a nougat candy filled with nuts, and he talks with them at least twice a day, usually via Skype. He calls leaving them a sacrifice for his love of basketball.
"To be honest with you, I was really spoiled," he said. "When I traveled to play in Iran, my family went with me wherever I went."
Anthony Ibrahim, a Houston resident who did color commentary on the NBA's weekly tape-delayed broadcasts in the Middle East, visited Tehran and spotted Kazemi in one of the Iranian junior national team's game. He took game tape to U.S. coaches and made the case for the difficult emigration of the Kazemi family. Even then, young Arsalan's ability to elevate spoke for itself. He is now 6-foot-7 and 226 pounds, with unusual liftoff skills. He jumps sort of the way figure skaters do, almost elegantly without showing the effort.
After navigating the complicated visa process, without benefit of an American embassy in Iran, he finally came to the States. The first year, he played at the Patterson School in North Carolina, then chose Rice for college ball. The decision put him close to Ibrahim in Houston, and in a city with a broad Middle Eastern community. He ended up in a frontcourt with a 7-foot-2 Egyptian, Omar Oraby, who also became his roommate.
He flourished quickly there, as coaches told him that an emphasis on rebounding would earn him a starting spot. But as he headed toward his senior year, an exodus of teammates began. In all, six players transferred out of Rice, Kazemi the last of them. He and Oraby, who went to USC, received hardship waivers to avoid a redshirt season. The two of them never explained their transfer cases in public, but Rice issued a statement saying that their new schools had cited racial discrimination and called the accusations unfounded.
After Saturday's win over Saint Louis, Kazemi once again declined to answer questions about Rice, and he flinched slightly at the mention of his former school. It was the only time he avoided a subject, or failed to smile as he talked.
He knows that he represents all the future college players who might come from his country, and he will patiently and engagingly retell his story whenever asked.
"I've been in college, it's four years, and I didn't do anything bad and it's all been good about me," he said, "and I hope that makes coaches want to start recruiting other guys in Iran and in the Middle East."
Kazemi's game may take him further, especially if he cultivates an outside shot. His frame, for now, appears too slender for an NBA team to draft him as a power forward. He frequently passes up shots, but he has a showy side. He grew a handlebar moustache before one game, he has produced highlight-reel dunks on several occasions, and he tends to punctuate them with a double bicep flex.
Hamed Haddadi, a center with the Suns, beat him to the distinction of being the first Iranian in the NBA. The two are friends, and Kazemi said they text regularly.
He chose Oregon because the Ducks needed a rebounder, and could have expected isolation in Eugene, a lovely city that nevertheless lacks Houston's cosmopolitan qualities. But one night, he saw people waving an Iranian flag at Mac Court. He thanked them via Twitter. He also befriended a family in Eugene with a sister who lived in Esfahan and knew his family.
"It really is a small world," he said.