TEHRAN, Iran --
TEHRAN, Iran—The closest thing to an American ambassador in Iran is a 7-foot-2 giant who speaks with a Caribbean lilt and sheepishly admits that he listens to Conway Twitty.
Garth Joseph, a New Yorker who was born on the island of Dominica, is by far the most recognizable player in Iran's national basketball league. On the court, he towers over opponents as a fearsome star who's known for his rebounds. On the sidelines, he melts into smiles and hugs for his awestruck young fans.
Local sportswriters dub him "The Ambassador," an apt name for a person who's learning how to navigate politics, sports and religion in the Islamic Republic.
"When you play in different countries, you lose your nationality, your color, your race," Joseph said one day recently as he listened to reggae in his Tehran apartment. "You're just a basketball star. It lets you talk to people about your values and your culture without them attacking you right away."
This year, about 20 Americans—a record number, even as international tensions mount over Iran's nuclear program—dribbled, dunked and danced before cheering Iranian fans, attracted by some of the best salaries outside the National Basketball Association.
Former NBA players such as Joseph, who briefly played for the Denver Nuggets and the Toronto Raptors during the 2000-2001 season, can command more than $20,000 a month here, local sports officials said, though the average player starts at closer to $7,000 or so, far below the NBA rookie minimum of just under $400,000 a year.
The United States and Iran have had no diplomatic ties for nearly 30 years, and the players are perhaps the only Americans many Iranians ever will encounter, a reality that brings them more responsibility than just scoring. Joseph, who came last October, said he tried to dispel stereotypes about the United States among his Iranian teammates, while reassuring his worried wife and children that Iranians weren't all murderous hostage-takers.
"I have political opinions like everybody else, but I'm not over here fighting a political war. I don't pick a side," Joseph said. "We all have our problems, even in America. You come to realize that nobody's totally free, not even in a democracy."
Sixteen teams make up the Super League, Iran's version of the NBA. Wealthy corporations and government ministries sponsor the teams; two of the most successful belong to the Defense Ministry. Each team is allowed two foreign players, and coaches prefer Americans.
"They're tall and big and can catch all the rebounds and make all the shots. They rescue the teams," said Mahin Gorgi, an Iranian journalist who covers basketball for the local sports paper Goal.
Gorgi said the American players delighted Iranian fans with their tattoos, victory dances and shouts of "Yeah, baby!" whenever they scored.
Yet even with those flourishes, attendance lags far behind that for soccer and wrestling. When the military-sponsored basketball teams play, commanders sometimes order soldiers to fill the empty seats.
Gorgi, who's become friends with several of the players she covers, said she didn't have the heart to translate for her American pals when the soldier-dominated crowd at one recent game broke into chants warning the United States: "Nuclear energy is our absolute right!"
Life in Iran can be jarring for young American athletes. There are no bars or nightclubs, and guards accompany teams even on away games, to make sure that players don't drink or carouse. The restrictions lead "imported" players to create their own vibrant underworld, which recalls Prohibition days in the United States, with bootleggers knocking on the door to deliver contraband such as alcohol and bacon.
Joseph, who has three children back in New York and who played college ball at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., spends his free time reading Persian history and trying to find coconuts, avocados and other tropical ingredients for the island cooking of his childhood. He tries to take in historical sites.
But not all players share his tastes.
John Carter, who plays for the Defense Ministry's Sanam team, spends his time off holed up in a Tehran apartment stocked with Absolut vodka and Phillies Blunt cigars. A tangle of wires leads to his Xbox video-game set, an Internet connection and an iPod that usually bumps southern hip-hop. Hot pizza is just a phone call away, from Iranian delivery guys who scream "Johnny!" each time he calls.
"Welcome to `Little America,'" said Carter, a 32-year-old Oklahoman who played for Iowa in college, as he ushered a guest into his apartment. "Salaam, yo, salaam!"
Carter, who never played in the NBA, finds his way around Tehran by using colorful anti-American murals as landmarks. One day, he and his roommate, a player from North Carolina, tried to remember the location of a shopping center.
"The one by that big drawing," Carter began.
"With the bullets coming out of the American flag?" the roommate asked.
"No, the other one," Carter said.
"The one with the Statue of Liberty with, like, a skeleton face?"
"Not that one, either."
Carter is no stranger to the Islamic world: He's also played in Syria and Saudi Arabia. His girlfriend is of Lebanese descent and he owns a home in a predominantly Arab suburb of Detroit. Still, when his agent floated the idea of playing in Iran, his first thought was "Hell, no."
Then he heard the salary, and within weeks he was pounding the parquet in Tehran.
He and other players sometimes are chided for dancing in public or chatting up Iranian women, but for the most part, the country's notorious security apparatus doesn't hassle them. One time, however, Carter was locked out of his house after practice. A 6-foot-9 African-American man sitting on a Tehran doorstep isn't exactly inconspicuous, so it took just minutes for the authorities to show up.
An Iranian officer swung open the door to a police car and ordered Carter inside. The American refused, and slammed the door shut. Again, the officer tried to force Carter into the car and, again, the player refused. Just as things were getting ugly, the officer made a move toward Carter.
"He pulled my hat back and realized who I was," Carter said. "He was, like `Johnny! Johnny Car-ter. Johnny Car-ter! OK, OK, everything is OK.'"
Clearly, Iranians like the American players.
Azadeh Stadium was packed when the Defense Ministry's Saba Battery, the team that Joseph plays for, faced archrival Peykan for the season's championship. No Americans played for Peykan, though the team was the first to recruit foreign players several years ago. Saba Battery won 119-107.
Iranians went crazy in the stands, with old men blowing horns and little boys dancing and stomping their feet.
Joseph barely had time to wipe the sweat from his brow and take a sip of water before young fans with cameras rushed him. He stooped to pick up a little boy; he struck a muscle-man pose for a giddy teen. His coaches and Iranian teammates congratulated him with traditional Persian kisses on the cheeks.
After Joseph's team won the league championship last month, state television clamored for interviews, and two young women shyly waited farther back for their chance to congratulate Joseph and a Texan teammate named Andre Pitts. Iman Farzin and Shabna Rahami, both 19, lingered around the exit, hoping to greet the American stars on their way out.
"They make our own teams better, and it doesn't matter where they're from," Rahami said.
"Our politics and our support for them are separate," Farzin agreed. "Iranian people like American people."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): IRAN-BBALL
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McClatchy Newspapers 2007