Iranian and Israeli Players Could Face Off For First Time
On Monday night in Sacramento, an Israeli player could face a player from a rival Middle East Muslim nation for the first time ever in the NBA.
Kings forward Omri Casspi is the first man from Israel ever to play in the NBA, and has three games under his belt. His team at Arco Arena next plays Memphis, which features center Hamed Haddadi, a second-year man from Iran.
Before his Grizzlies met Denver on Sunday night, Haddadi told FanHouse he never has faced an Israeli player on the court because teams from his Iran, which does not recognize the Jewish nation, are not allowed to play Israel. In 2005, Haddadi said his Iranian team was not allowed to go to Argentina for the 2005 FIBA World Championship for Young Men because of the possibility of Israel being an opponent.
But Haddadi has no problems with facing Casspi.
"It is just a sport,'' he said. "I don't know what happened with the two countries. I don't care. I just do my job. I don't think about politics ... I do not think what the two positions of Iran and Israel is.''
But Haddadi realizes the high-profile position he is in as an NBA player. In order to make a statement that this is indeed just sport, he was asked if he would shake Casspi's hand before the game.
"Why not? Which is his number? Haddadi said of Casspi, who wears No. 18. "I think it could be good (to make a positive statement).''
Casspi could not be reached Sunday. However, he was asked last July at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas about the possibility of facing Haddadi this season.
"It's not a problem for me,'' said Casspi, whose Kings and Haddadi's Grizzlies both were in the summer league but did not meet. "I don't know about him.''
There are players in the NBA from Turkey and Senegal, but both those nations have diplomatic relations with Israel. Iran is the world's only predominately Muslim country that has an NBA player and does not recognize Israel.
"As one of the biggest cliches regarding the Israel-Arab conflict would say, 'It's not the people of Israel and Iran who hate each other, it's the leaders,''' said Eran Soroka, basketball writer for the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv. "A lot of people emigrated from Iran to Israel during the last decades, and you can find Israeli and Iranian citizens dancing to the same music in clubs in, for example, Turkey. The NBA is also a frame which is completely different from the Middle East tension: Haddadi, for that matter, is an Americanized Iranian... He already accepted the challenge of playing for his country's nemesis (the United States).''
Tensions between Iran and Israel have risen in recent years due to Iran attempting to develop nuclear technology. Iran refers to Israel's government as the "Zionist regime'' and the land is referred to as "occupied territories.''
In 2006, Iranian president Mahmoud Admadinejad said he wanted to "wipe Israel off the map'' and was said to have called the Holocaust, Nazi German's extermination of 6 million Jews during World War II, a "myth.'' He later denied he made comments that the Holocaust did not happen.
Haddadi has tried to steer clear of all this.
"I don't want politics into sports,'' said Haddadi, 24. "I think it should be separated.''
In 2005, Haddadi learned the hard way that it isn't in Iran. He was ready to go to Argentina for international competition until the trip was abruptly canceled.
"We don't go to Argentina because (Israel was playing),'' Haddadi said. "I was young. I was (20). I didn't know about politics or anything. I can't say, 'I want to go to Argentina.''
But Haddadi opted to push politics aside at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Even though Iran insisted its representatives have no contact with Israelis, Haddadi was among Iranian players who shook hands with David Blatt, the Israeli coach of Russia's Olympic team. It happened after Russia easily beat Iran 71-49 in a first-round game.
"After the interview, I shake his hand,'' Haddadi said of the post-game media session. "I don't care. It is just sport.''
After the game, Blatt told Israel's Sports Channel, "That's the beauty of Olympic Games. They go beyond the issue of nationality. Only here can an Israeli coach shake hands with the players and coach of the Iranian team.''
But there hardly has always been harmony at the Olympics between Iranians and Israelis.
"The most famous cases happen in the Olympic games and big international tourneys,'' Soroka said. "In 2004, an Iranian, Arash Miresmaeili, was one of the surest bets for a gold medal (in judo), but then, the draw confronted him with Israeli Ehud Vaks. Arash withdrew (he officially was disqualified due to being overweight but it's generally believed that was intentional), and became a hero in the eyes of the Iranian leaders. Vaks won by forfeit.
"In Beijing 2008, swimmer Mohammad Alirezaei pulled out of a heat with Israeli Tom Be'eri because of (what Alirezaei claimed was) illness... This is the Iranian formal policy of athletes who represent that country. Haddadi is representing mainly the Memphis Grizzlies in (Monday's) game, I believe.''
There is plenty of international harmony in the NBA. The league announced last week that opening-day rosters feature a record-tying 83 international players from 36 countries.
It is no certainty Casspi and Haddadi, both reserves, will take the court at the same time Monday. Casspi is averaging 18.0 minutes in his three games while Haddadi is averaging 3.7 in Memphis' first three.
But the teams will meet again Nov. 23 in Memphis and March 22 in Sacramento.
"I don't know,'' Haddadi said when asked whether people in Iran will care if he plays against Casspi. "The government, they don't like to play (Israel in sports competitions).''
One thing is for sure. Like the Kings' previous three games, Monday's game will be watched closely on television in Israel even though it starts at 5 a.m. local time.
Hopefully, Casspi and Haddadi will shake hands before it begins. After all, it is just sport.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com.