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Monday, May 8, 2006
Updated: April 15, 2:30 PM ET
Mission Improbable

By Sam Alipour

The Peugeot 206 SW speeds through Tehran in early December, filled with five very tall and somewhat buzzed passengers. They laugh and babble in English and Farsi and sometimes an odd blend of the two, rebelling against both Iran's alcohol ban and the traffic light ahead.

"Red light, Baba!"

Baba, Farsi for "Dad," is a term of endearment, but Garth Joseph—the anxious, 7'2", 320-pound American stuffed into the front passenger seat is using it as an expletive because the driver isn't yielding. "I no like red, I like green," says power forward Id in Nikkhah Bahrami. He blows through the light.

THE GOOD times keep rolling right through the intersection. And why not? The young basketball players (Iranians and Americans) for Saba Battery in Iran's Superleague are coming home from a big win earlier that evening over Peykan. Like victorious jocks anywhere, they're enjoying themselves. But this isn't just anywhere. This is Iran, where tensions with the U.S. fluctuate daily and where Americans trying to earn a living playing ball face challenges that are unique in the world. Driving along this stretch of the Moddares Expressway, the players see a huge reminder of those challenges, a fast-approaching mural that includes an image of the Ayatollah Khomeini and four words: DOWN WITH THE USA. The laughter in the car ceases and the young men are quiet.

In recent months, Iran's nuclear ambitions have raised the specter of an American military response. The always-strained relations between the governments are as tense as they've been in decades. But even as the former U.S. embassy serves as an Iranian military warehouse and anti-American museum, the Superleague is conducting a noisy, often unintentional, experiment in diplomacy.

The senior U.S. envoy? A Saba Battery baller named Andre Pitts, an American you've never heard of who played at a college you've never heard of, NAIA D1 Huston-Tillotson, in Austin. In his first two full seasons as Saba Battery's point guard, Pitts led the club to one Superleague title and, with a loss to Sanam in last year's title game, one runner-up finish. This year, helped by Joseph's arrival from China (and his 18 boards a game), Saba completed the regular season with a 14—0 record, breezing through the playoffs in March for its second title in three years.

Averaging 25 points and nine assists a game, Pitts is the league's Import Player of the Year and its biggest star. Since his arrival in 2003, average attendance is up 50% at Tehran's Azadi Arena, to 2,000 per game, and the state-run Channel 3 started airing live coverage of league games, most involving Saba. "The best team plays in our largest city," says Vahid Abolhassani, Channel 3's head sports reporter. "People who weren't watching before now watch."

Basketball is currently Iran's third-most popular sport (behind soccer and wrestling), and it's significant that the growing audience is seeing an American lead its favorite squad. "We've had other Americans come here who were closed off," says Behzad Afradi, Saba's captain. "But Andre isn't shy or cold. He wants to be a leader." Most contests find Pitts running the show from midcourt or midhuddle, a 6'3" traffic cop with two diamond ear studs, a quick first step and a quicker temper. "Other side, other side!" Pitts growled at 2-guard Hamed Afagh during a recent practice. "He's always telling me how to find my shot," says Afagh, a talented shooter with a hesitant trigger. "Luckily, he speaks slowly so I understand."

IT'S A Friday in December, and the Saba crew is at Pitts' posh condo in affluent northern Tehran. As the host greets guests, Iranian women toss head scarves to the floor, along with Islamic decorum. "Three years ago, you'd never find Iranian girls at a party like this," says Saba forward Bahrami. "Dre's got a way of making everyone feel very comfortable."

In the States, Pitts is a middle-class, 34-year-old husband and father. Here he's known as the Puff Daddy of Iran. His secret? He's got "a guy" for everything. His satellite guy, who was referred by a coach, helps him beat the ban on dishes. His music guy works out of a mall nearby and ripped much of tonight's playlist from the Internet. His drinks guy delivered tonight's menu of contraband Heineken and Absolut. "He drives up, pops the trunk, and I point at what we want," Pitts says.

"I feel like I'm buying drugs."

Music, liquor and girls aside, tonight's party offers another illicit pastime: inking new tattoos. In a recent statement, Iranian basketball federation officials admonished locals who were "copying foreign players" and demanded that they "make [the tattoos] disappear."

"They thought it comes off with spit," says Saba center Ali Beheshdi, who laughs before flashing his arm tat of a lion. Backup point guard Behnam Afradi wags a finger inked with an 8 in tribute to Pitts (his jersey number). Pitts' tattoo guy, who happens to be a woman, explains. "Everything is forbidden in Iran," she says. "If we listened, how could we live?"

And how could they learn? For those watching NBA TV's Seattle-Dallas game tonight, Pitts' forbidden dish is essential. "We watch NBA and do what we see," Afradi says in stop-and-go English that smooths out only when he's cursing. "Andre always swears at us in English," he explains, "so we have to practice."

Iran wasn't always such a party for Pitts. His arrival three years ago coincided with Ramadan, the annual Muslim holy period marked by a month of fasting from sunrise to sunset. "No food, no clubs, no family," he says. "I lost 20 pounds right off the bat. I didn't think I was going to make it."

His teammates lent a hand by throwing Pitts an early-season birthday bash. "I was blown away," he says. "Despite the limitations, Iranians know how to have fun. Once they let you see that, how can you not enjoy yourself?" Pitts returned the favor by offering the team a de facto clubhouse complete with barbecue, billiards table and games of chance. It's a useful outlet for teammates who, like most unmarried Iranians, live with their parents. "It is a great cultural exchange," Bahrami says. "We'd invite Dre to family dinners, and he'd teach us how to shoot craps."

Not that there haven't been hiccups. Complaints from neighbors led to a visit from Iran's feared cultural police, but after Pitts' 100,000-rials peace offering, he'd found himself a police guy, too. "It was only $12," he says. "They still help me from time to time."

Pitts has always had a knack for fitting in. His great-grandmother raised him in a Hispanic neighborhood in Seguin, Texas, prepping him for his future role as a statesman: "I was taught to love everyone the same. If we all bleed the same color, why cut each other?"

After four years in Syria, and now three in Iran, Pitts has become the Superleague's cultural attaché, often fielding calls from potential imports. "Most of these guys think the streets are run by camels and gangs looking to cut American throats," he says. "I've lived here three years, and I've never seen a camel."

He even shrugs off the politics. When airport officials search his gear while letting his teammates skate by, Pitts laughs. "We do that to Iranians in U.S. airports every day," he says. "America isn't perfect."

Neither is Iran. Saba's co-sponsor, the Iranian defense ministry, is barred from employing Americans. Joseph, who lives outside Albany, N.Y., when he's not in Iran, relies on his Dominican roots, but Pitts, inexplicably, is listed on the roster as Andre Diop of Senegal. He's even got the passport to prove it. "Whatever I have to do to play ball here, I'll do it," he says before breaking into a faux accent. "In Iran, I am from Senegal."

Saba coach Mehran Shahintab asks The Magazine not to dwell on nationalities. "If by some chance Iranian hard-liners were to get riled up," he says ominously, speaking in his native Farsi, "it could be a very bad thing for these two."

IT'S ALREADY bad, or at least stressful, for several American players here. Waitari Marsh used to like milk. But that was last year, when the league MVP led Tehran's Sanam to that title win over Saba. This season, the 25-year-old wore the powder-blue uniform of Pegah Hamadan, one of Iran's top dairies, while living in a milk-bottling plant in Hamadan, 250 miles from the capital. Being traded meant swapping the high life of Tehran for the life of most American Superleaguers: relegated to the sticks, where cultural isolation and mistrust reign.

Despite a reporter armed with the correct paperwork and Marsh's okay, a long-planned interview is at first denied, then comes off only after the team sends four chaperones. "I don't even know who half these dudes are," Marsh says as he surveys the officials in his kitchen. "They're probably afraid of what I might say."

And what Marsh would say if he could (and does, through unsupervised phone conversations) is that he's mind-bogglingly bored; that his roommate, Jamaal Davis, a center who played for Cincinnati from 1999 to 2001, brought 30 DVDs when he arrived two months ago and they watched them all in two weeks; that he once practiced in a gym decorated with bullet-riddled American flags; that he always thought Americans were loved everywhere but now knows that's not the case.

Marsh has had trouble sleeping since the transfer, and at his mom's suggestion, the Tulane grad started reading to fight insomnia. His bedtime book? An Osama bin Laden biography. Not much help.

As political tensions rise, Iranian hoops officials say Americans are still welcome. But the league is taking steps to appease the ruling mullahs. A cleric's complaint helped bring about the tattoo ban. And when Peykan officials released ex-Celtic and Fresno Stater Chris Herren in December, it was rumored that his past history of substance abuse played a part in the decision. (Officially, he was dropped for "poor play" and "poor attitude.")

Only 12 Americans played in Iran this past season, roughly half of the previous season's total. In December, Sanam center John Carter (Iowa, 1993-96) and guard Danny Johnson (who played for Clemson and College of Charleston in the 1990s) went home during the league's midseason break, returning only after being hit with breach-ofcontract fines. Carter and Johnson bristled at the social restrictions, but others are simply afraid. Petrochimi guard Jason Crowe (Cal State-Northridge, 1998-99) is the only American to have brought his family with him. Recently, a fellow elevator passenger had a message for Crowe, his wife, Irene, and their 1-year-old daughter, Malyiah: "Down with the USA." Says Irene: "I can't take it anymore. I can't live here, and I want Jason to come home with me."

EVEN THE main attraction for the Americansmoney-causes problems. Some Yanks make up to $250,000 a season, a lot for a nation with an average annual income of just $2,300. After a December win over Sanam in Tehran, a hundred Petrochimi fans who drove 24 hours from Mahshahr waited outside the arena. When former Georgia Tech star Eddie Elisma appeared, the mob pounced. One teenage fan pleaded for Elisma's beanie. "I'm sorry, it was a gift," he replied. "It's not like you can't buy another," the fan said in Farsi before switching to English to speak to another American. "Mahshahri people are poor, and these Americans are not, yet I can't have his hat?"

Marsh, for one, is conflicted. In December, boisterous locals filled the Pegah factory gym to its 2,000-seat capacity for a game against Khuzestan. The evening started with a reading of the Koran, but seconds into the game, the gym erupted when a Marsh alley-oop to Davis sent the rim rocking. The fans serenaded Marsh with a chant that these soccer devotees once reserved for the pitch: "Waitari, doostet dareem!" Waitari, we love you.

Marsh feels the love but still hopes to play in Europe next year. If that doesn't fly? He applied for a gig at Radio Shack before he came here, and right now the mall isn't sounding so bad. If he could respond, Marsh might say, "Waitari loves you too." Just not so much your government. Or your milk. STILL, DIPLOMATIC victories happen regularly. "I know it's not what those Tehran boys are feeding you," says former Eastern Michigan and Jacksonville U. forward Calvin Warner, 25, offering some Persian tea. "But this stuff is pretty good."

This season, the first-team all-leaguer for Zob Ahan toiled in the conservative city of Isfahan, the 2,500-year-old former capital of the Persian empire. Here, 200 miles south of Tehran, the cultural exchange has been reversed.

As teammates Jaber Rouzbahani and Ali Baheran guide Warner through his first tour of the city, it's clear that Iranians want to know him. At Naqsh-e Jahan (Map of the World) Square, home to the 17th-century Imam Mosque, family picnics and pickup soccer games dissolve upon the players' arrival. "Calvin has great slam dunks," says a 14-year-old Zob Ahan fan. The enthusiasm is expected. "We have 4,000 fans at our games," Baheran explains. "There aren't many entertainment options. Sports and religion are all we have."

Plus, the Americans are exotic. "He's so black!" says Saeed, a 17-year-old shoeless soccer player who asks permission to touch Warner's skin (and gets it). "Soccer is for followers," Saeed says. "Basketball is more exciting." Warner is gracious, posing for photos and accepting all comers. "I hate it when people stare at me," he says, hiding under gray sweats and a beanie. "But I guess it's inevitable. Most of them have never seen a black man before."

Despite Warner's novelty, national star Rouzbahani shares top billing here. He's also uniquely suited to foster today's cultural swap. Only 19, the 7'5" center is coming off a yearlong U.S. visit for workouts with the Suns, Mavericks and Spurs. He calls America "a fast and impersonal country" but admits that the recent interest shown by both the Lakers and UCLA is appealing. Los Angeles-a.k.a. Tehrangeles-is home to the largest Iranian population outside the homeland. "If I were to play in the NBA, it would be a great thing for Iran," Rouzbahani says. "It's my greatest hope that it can help relations between our two countries."

Right now, though, he and Baheran are content to help Warner adjust to life in Isfahan. They go to a restaurant owned by Baheran's brother-in-law, which recently added a new menu item. "We have hot wings, Calvin!" he says, beaming. "Special for you, just like home."

Over lunch, Warner says he can't find anyone to braid his hair. Rouzbahani offers a fix, but Warner has doubts. "Jaber, you've got a shaved head," he says. "How good can your barber be?"

For Warner, the most jarring part of life in Isfahan is the city's gender segregation. Unlike in Tehran, where women wear slight head scarves and tight jeans, in Isfahan women sport full-body hijabs that Warner calls "black cloaks." But he makes do. "We have basketball groupies," he says. "You just have to find them up in their sections. They're subtle-a wink or a smile is all they can give."

The former Sanam star misses Tehran's parties. "But living here has given me discipline," he says. "I get to work on my game and help a country improve theirs. It's a pretty cool responsibility." Key to this attitude is the fact that Warner has stopped watching the news. "This isn't Americans vs. Iranians," he says. "It's our governments. Iranians are warm and giving. They've been nothing but good to me."

On cue, there's a knock at the door. Zob Ahan coach Mohsen Sadeghzadeh pays a surprise visit, and for the next 10 minutes, coach and player discuss a recent loss. "Calvin, why we not make shots?" Sadeghzadeh asks.

"We need to attack the hoop more," Warner says.

Sadeghzadeh agrees, and the two chat a bit longer before the coach turns to inspect the garden plants outside. It is, after all, his garden.

Sadeghzadeh owns the duplex that Warner calls home. His wife's grandmother lives in the unit above. "It's spacious, plenty of room to invite his friends over," the coach says as he waters the plants. "I wanted him to be comfortable. I care for him very much. Calvin is special."

IT'S NEW Year's Eve, and Superleaguers from all walks of life are among the 200 guests dancing to rim-rattling techno in the moneyed Tehran neighborhood of Fereshteh, where a young lady has sacrificed her condo for a Western holiday and yet another party. Most of the revelers are oblivious to the smoke emanating from her poorly wired Christmas tree, which is shooting sparks. Luckily, the police lookout snuffs it out. "This is the craziest party Iran's ever seen," says Eddie Washington (University of New Orleans), who made the 600-mile trip from Sirjan, where he plays center for Gol-e Gohar. "No way I'd miss it."

But Pitts and the Saba players take it slow because tomorrow is the most anticipated game of the season: a nationally televised contest with Sanam, a rematch of the past two league finals (Saba's abstinence pays off with a 76-56 win).

Recent events also make them reflect. Coach Shahintab's father died not long ago, sparking Pitts' first mosque visit. "The most valuable thing I've learned here is the importance of family," says Pitts, who comes from a broken home. "I feel like I have that now. My teammates are my brothers, and Coach is the dad I never had." He's even thinking about following in Shahintab's footsteps. "I'd love to coach in Iran one day," Pitts says. "I think I could help basketball here."

Bahrami says he already has and tells a story from an earlier Peykan game. During a timeout, with 36 seconds left and Saba leading 75-71, Shahintab told his players to double Peykan center Hamed Haddadi in the post. But with Peykan possibly looking for a three, Pitts had another idea: cover the perimeter and single-up in the post. "When we got back on the court," Bahrami says, "the five of us huddled together to decide. We accepted Dre's suggestion and forced a turnover. That's what we like to do. On the court, it's just us, so we make decisions together. As a team."

NOT LONG after midnight, the Saba crew calls it quits. Exiting the party, Pitts is asked about his new tat. "It says IN GOD I TRUST," he answers. Simple enough, but the Iranians start debating its meaning. "Does it mean 'God, trust me'?" asks Bahrami.

Sort of, but as the players pile into Bahrami's Peugeot, the question goes unanswered. It's too late, and too darn cold, to get into all that now.