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Luhm: Iran's Haddadi worries about basketball, not politics
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

A young Iranian playing in the NBA.

Among the things I never thought I would see in my lifetime, that's one.

But he's here.

Hamed Haddadi, a 7-foot-2 center for the Phoenix Suns, has joined the long list of foreign-born players who have come to the United States to play basketball at its highest level.

None of the others, however, come from a country with such an acrimonious history with the U.S.

Before Wednesday night's game against the Jazz, Haddadi admitted the political aspect to his situation is rare. But it's not a distraction.

"It's part of it," he said outside the visitor's locker room at EnergySolutions Arena. "But I don't follow politics. It's not my job. Basketball is my job. I follow basketball — my sport, my team. I wake up every morning at 7:30 or 8. I don't have time for politics, you know? I follow just my job."

Haddadi was born almost 28 years ago in Ahvaz, Iran, a city with a population of 1.4 million that has an average high temperature in July of 115 degrees.

No wonder he likes Phoenix.

Haddadi didn't play basketball until he was "14 or 15," concentrating instead on soccer.

"It was not big — basketball in Iran," he said. "I was a soccer player at first. People there play soccer in the streets, like they basketball here. Or baseball. There, it was soccer."

Still, Haddadi began playing basketball — and liked it — even though he could not find oversized gym shoes. So he played in his stocking feet until an uncle in Germany sent him sneakers that fit.

"Basketball is more fun," Haddadi said. "It is exciting. … When I first started dunking without jumping, I said, 'Yeah, I like basketball.' "

Others began noticing Haddadi after he led his Iranian teams to Asian championships, but he did not sign as a free agent with Memphis until after the 2008 Olympics.

The Iranian basketball community rejoiced.

"People were so excited," Haddadi said. "They send me messages; they are so happy. ... I have many fans that support me. It makes them happy when I play. I want to do well for them, for me and for my team."

Haddadi wasn't an instant success in the NBA. In fact, some aspects of the game were completely new to him, like the defensive three-second rule.

"I was a kid … and didn't know what I was doing," he said. "I play defense and they like, 'One, two, three.' I said, 'What's going on?' They said, 'You can't stand there like that. You must move.' I said, 'Well OK.' "

In nearly five seasons, Haddadi has played in only 147 games with Memphis and Phoenix, which acquired him at the trade deadline in February.

In the last month, however, Haddadi has shown signs of evolving into an effective player for the Suns.

In a game against Minnesota, for example, he finished with 6 points, 8 rebounds and 4 blocked shots in 22 minutes.

"He's worked very hard," Phoenix coach Lindsey Hunter said, "and he's come a long way."

A long, long way.

luhm@sltrib.com

The first Iranian NBA player has started playing well lately for the Phoenix Suns.
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