For Americans, It Can Pay to Play in Iran's Court

Garth Joseph, who plays for the Saba Battery basketball team, shops for food in Tehran. He has found that proscribed goods are available, but not cheap.
Garth Joseph, who plays for the Saba Battery basketball team, shops for food in Tehran. He has found that proscribed goods are available, but not cheap. (By Newsha Tavakolian -- Polaris For The Washington Post)
By Karl Vick
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 10, 2006

TEHRAN -- Making himself as inconspicuous as a 7-foot-2 black man can be in Iran, Garth Joseph sidled up to the store counter. His air was at once playful and furtive. "Give me that good stuff," he whispered.

The clerk, a bespectacled woman dressed in a black head scarf, reached under the counter and brought forth a slab of pork: It was black-market bacon, absolutely illegal in the Islamic Republic of Iran and priced like the contraband it was.

"Fifteen dollars for bacon!" Joseph squawked, reaching into his sweats for his wad of green Iranian currency. "It's so much money, but I love bacon. I eat about two pounds of bacon a day in America."

But in America, Joseph warmed the bench during his only season in the National Basketball Association, hobbled by injuries and struggling for a place in a league moving away from the big man. And in Iran, he is huge in every way, the object of stares and delight not only for his gargantuan size, but also as the most conspicuous and highest-paid of the basketball players who left the United States to play the pivot along the "axis of evil," a grouping in which President Bush included the country where they have found their fortunes.

About 20 Americans play hoops for a living in Iran. They nurture pro careers that might not exist in the States, navigate a culture that offers precious few diversions in public -- though a lot more behind closed doors -- and, as much as possible, avoid politics. Iran is at the center of international concern for its nuclear ambitions and has remained notorious to the United States since 1979, when student radicals took over the U.S. Embassy in a siege that lasted 444 days. But for offshore ballplayers working for a paycheck, Iran is just another stop on an international circuit that quietly counterbalances the NBA's burgeoning import of players from Croatia, Congo and China, to name just the C's.

"One of my friends -- he's really like a cave man -- he says, 'Are they walking around with AKs?' " said Andre Pitts, a Texas native who plays point guard on the same team with Joseph, Saba Battery. "I said, 'If you came here, you wouldn't ever want to go back, the way they treat you.' "

Black-market bacon is the least of it. American players are paid from $60,000 to $200,000 a year to elevate a sport that in Iran ranks in public popularity behind soccer, volleyball and wrestling, in that order. The Americans are considered so special they are not even required to cover their tattoos with bandages, as their Iranian teammates do on game days. They are paid in dollars, which they must wire home through third countries because U.S. banks are prohibited by sanctions from doing business with Iran.

The Americans "cover up the weaknesses of the team and help basketball in the whole country," said Mustafa Hashemi, coach of Petrochimi, sponsored by the Petroleum Ministry in the southern city of Mahram, a city so devoid of acceptable restaurants that the Americans eat in a company cafeteria.

"It's like being at a camp," said Eddie Elisma, a New York native drafted in 1997 by the Seattle SuperSonics and now a Petrochimi team leader. "It's not as bad as you think."

In fact, inside a private home, life in Iran can be exactly the opposite of the public image. In Joseph's six months in Tehran, his most striking discovery has been the nation's double life. He first noticed it during Ramadan, the month when observant Muslims fast during daylight hours.

"They eat," Joseph declared. "They don't eat in public, but they eat.

"It's like I found out: A lot of things aren't done in public here. They're done, though."

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