[Update: Monday, July 21 -- I.R Iran's final Revue game vs. Utah Jazz was webcast on NBA.com. You can watch it here. Thanks for your support.]
Saturday, July 19 -- The Rocky Mountain Revue each year features up-and-coming basketball players in summer league competition. This year's Revue includes several NBA teams, an NBADL select team, and the Iranian National Team. So, the natural question is: Who dropped the ball on that one? Amidst the Bush administration's lengthy political wrestling match with Tehran, how did the NBA get away with inviting Iran's team to play summer league ball?
The answer is surprisingly simple. The Revue had a standing commitment to FIBA to include the Asia Continental Champion, which everyone expected would be China. Without superstar center Yao Ming, the Chinese team failed to advance, and Iran went on to defeat Lebanon in the championship. Iran? They haven't been competitive in basketball for more than 30 years.
So, the NBA, desperately needing some positive publicity (and with approval from the U.S. State Department), invited Iran to participate. And the Iranians, perhaps thinking it was all a joke, accepted. So, after more than a year of nuclear fear-mongering by the American media portraying Iran as our most imminent and dangerous enemy, we invited them to come over and play some pickup games? Brilliant!
Fast-forward to today, as the Iranians faced the Dallas Mavericks' summer league team in competition. If you have never been to Salt Lake City in July, it's 130 degrees, and there's not much going on other than the Revue. Also, it's not the most colorful town. And by that I mean it's mostly white folks out there in the desert. Usually.
But not today. Today the sand-colored crowd packed the gym at Salt Lake Community College to support Team Iran. They came from California, Florida, New York and Canada. They showed up two hours early with flags and banners and tambourines and cheered and chanted and sang until the very end. The Iranian team lost, but you wouldn't know it unless you were looking at the scoreboard. And I wasn't.
I was looking at the screen of my laptop, trying to find the webcast of the game through the Revue's website. Alas, I was later informed that the games would be neither webcast nor televised. I was suprised, since all of the NBA summer league games from Las Vegas were made viewable online, I assumed the Revue would be also. Certainly this tournament featuring the Iranian team on the soil of the Great Satan merits a webcast at the very least.
Then I began to notice a pattern. Revue officials did nowhere mention that Iran was participating in the tournament until opening day--all event programming listed the Iranian team as "FIBA Asian Champion." If you weren't a regular fan of Team Iran, there was no word of their participation until just a few days before the tournament. And finally, the passionate pro-Iran crowd was denied witness by national audiences, or any audiences for that matter. Why?
Why invite Iran to participate, go through the trouble of arranging the media circus and maximizing the public relations opportunities when nobody outside of the SLCC gym will be able to watch the game? If this was in fact the bold offering of goodwill that the U.S. State Department claims it to be, why back off now? So far, nobody is offering any simple explanations. The Utah Jazz, which organize and manage the Revue, offered their official statement on the matter as "No comment."
To me personally, it seems that perhaps someone didn't want the nation to see its Iranian-Americans waving Iranian flags and chanting in Farsi from the Mormon heartland. Perhaps that same someone wants us to believe that Iranians are some distant, foreign enemy, and not our neighbors or pickup-game teammates. And, as Americans, perhaps we should ask why that is.
During the course of certain events, there are moments, however fleeting or seemingly insignificant, that ultimately transcend our shared humanity. Journalists have often reflected on the the role that sports play in helping conflicted people resolve their differences. In 2006, a civil war in the Ivory Coast was put on hold to allow the embattled nation's soccer team to qualify for the World Cup. I can't help but feel that if any sport does indeed wield such tremendous influence, that influence is being egregiously wasted.
Today, I watched players representing my hometown exchange gifts and hugs with players representing my homeland. Today, I witnessed two nations with a long and storied history of polar ideologies put their differences aside, and not for some grand design, but for a simple basketball game. It makes me want to believe that anything might be possible. Well, maybe anything except watching the game on TV.