Nation & World

May 4, 2006 12:00 AM

U.S. basketball players become stars in Iran's professional league

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 Irans national basketball league. On the court, he towers over opponents as a fearsome star whos 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 whos 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. Youre 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 Irans nuclear program dribbled, dunked and danced before cheering Iranian fans, attracted by some of the best salaries outside the National Basketball Association.

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