SALT LAKE CITY // Normally basketball is an afterthought for Iranian sports fans, given the popularity of football, weightlifting and wrestling. But with Iran's national basketball team preparing for its first Olympic appearance in 60 years, that has changed. "For every athlete, it is like a dream to participate in the Olympic Games - especially for us because basketball in Iran is not that ... important," the captain and forward Samad Bahrami said. "Everyone is looking for you and taking care of you."
By beating Lebanon for the Fiba Asian Championship last year, Iran clinched their first Olympic berth since 1948 - a different era for both the Olympics and the world. The '48 Games took place in London, which was still cleaning up the rubble left by years of bombing raids during World War II. Iran itself was only a decade removed from being known as Persia. Sixty years later, Iran's relations with much of the West is strained. The team's success comes as the Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad deals with increasing pressure from world powers to freeze its uranium enrichment programme.
At the Olympics, the basketball team has little chance. It is in the same group as the defending gold medallist Argentina, Australia and Russia - all featuring at least one NBA player. Iran, which open against Russia on August 10, don't have the international experience of its opponents. The coach Rajko Toroman, a Serb, is pointing more toward the 2010 world championships than next month's Olympics. In Beijing, he fully expects his players to be awed before the array of international talent.
Toroman is putting his team through a difficult pre- Olympic schedule. He said his players have the physical ability but lack the skills and knowledge that come from playing at levels not found in the Iranian professional league. "In my opinion, that's only way to improve these players because the Iranian League is not so strong. They don't have enough tough games," he said. "Genetically they have good abilities. They have good body skills but they do not have enough good technical games in the Iranian league."
A part of Toroman's preparation has been a visit to the Rocky Mountain Revue, the summer league for the NBA rookies and other young prospects, hosted by the Utah Jazz. The talent doesn't compare with that of the US team, but Toroman sees it as a valuable part of his accelerated lesson plan. Iran played the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday and lost 79-62. The Iranians held their own early, taking a 20-18 lead after the first quarter, but the Mavericks overwhelmed them with a 25-8 advantage in the third. Iran have also played two games against the NBA D-League Ambassadors, a team that played in the developmental league last season.
The NBA commissioner David Stern welcomed the Iranians and hopes this is a step in showing "how something as simple as a game of basketball can promote understanding." Bahrami and his teammates are thrilled to be heading to Beijing. The players have spoken to Abolfazl Solbi, a member of the 1948 team. Now in his 80s, Solbi still visits the team and offers advice to the new generation of Iran's basketball Olympians.
Bahrami said: "If you participate in the Olympic Games, after 40 years you can say I was in Olympic Games. I was in Beijing. Solbi said, 'that's very good. Take care of yourself and try to show your character to the whole world because at the Games everybody is looking at you."' Iran will leave the medal expectations to others. Reaching Beijing is enough of an accomplishment. "Everybody knows we cannot win medals," Bahrami said. "But it's going to be a good experience."
* Associated Press