A Rare Blend

Arsalan Kazemi is a man of many firsts: the first sportsmen in his family, the first Iranian-born NCAA Division-1 basketball player and hopefully by the end of the year, the first from his country to participate in the NCAA tournament.

Eugene, Ore.,- Arsalan Kazemi is a man of many firsts: the first sportsman in his family, the first Iranian-born NCAA Division-1 basketball player and hopefully, by the end of the year, the first from his country to participate in the NCAA tournament.

Kazemi said Wednesday that that was a major factor that led him to Eugene when things got tumultuous at Rice, where he spent the first three years of his college career.

"I heard a lot about coach Altman and his coaching staff," Kazemi said. "He's a great coach and he took a lot of teams to NCAA tournaments. That's one of my goals and hopefully we can get there this year."

The 6-foot-7 forward is uniquely versatile in his game, a near double-digit rebounder, as well as one of the country's leaders in steals per game. Kazemi said he saw those two roles as holes Oregon that needed to be filled, and ones he was conducive to sealing.

"They needed a guy like me, to get more rebounds for them, to make some hustle plays, get some scoring out of him," he said.

Head coach Dana Altman is one of many who are happy that Kazemi felt that way. Altman lauded Kazemi's maturity, something rare in a first year player, but perhaps not unexpected out of a player with his life experiences.

"He's so focused on his studies and basketball… I don't think he thinks he has much time for anything else," Altman said. "His priorities, I think, are in the right order."

Kazemi grew up playing many sports in Iran, from tennis, swimming, volleyball, he chose basketball, as it was the sport he saw the most improvement in, aided by his growing height.

In Iran, basketball has become a growing athletic phenomenon, becoming one of the nation's top-three most popular sports, Kazemi says.

The popularity has been aided by Kazemi's efforts in the United States, but he is not alone. The country has three other players currently playing in the United States, the 7-foot-2 Hamed Haddadi, the country's biggest star and member of the Memphis Grizzlies, UCLA walk-on Sooren Derboghosian and Hawaii Pacific center Farbod Farman.

The decision to leave his native Iran in search of an American education and collegiate basketball career was an extremely difficult one, he says. In doing so, he knew he was leaving his friends and family behind for a country of unfamiliarity.

After spending his final year of high school at the Patterson School in Lenoir, North Carolina, Kazemi had a number of schools to pick from, but settled on Rice.

That decision was assisted in some part by the strong Iranian influence in Houston. According to Kazemi, in Houston, where Rice University is located, there are nearly 20,000 Iranian citizens. Because of that, Houston had a few Iranian restaurants and presented some semblance of home.

Those are things that Eugene might be lacking, but something that he has hasn't let affect him.

"I'm just getting used to the city. So far I really like it," he said. With a small population enrolled at Oregon, mostly in the graduate school, Kazemi has made friends with some Iranian students, some of which he says "can cook [Iranian food]".

Since moving to the United States, Kazemi travels back to Iran each summer, where he participates with Iranian national teams. The international competition is extremely important to him, both because it allows him to exhibit national pride and compete with the worlds best, but also because it gives him a week or two with his parents in Esfahan, Iran.

"It's really tough to just see your family once a year. For that month you go home, you just see them for a week or two, because the rest you have to be in a national team camp and practices," he said.

Back in Iran his parents are unable to watch him play, something Kazemi tried to mitigate by subscribing to the Pac-12 Network. Unfortunately, the feed hasn't been able to work and Kazemi says that instead they follow along using game-casts.

The transition to playing at Oregon hasn't been a difficult one, he says. As a veteran player, his knowledge of the game is vast and the biggest difficulty is perhaps meeting the expectations that Altman has set for him, which are admittedly very high.

Altman believes Kazemi is holding back offensively, and perhaps too aggressive defensively, a rare blend in a basketball player, especially at the Divison-1 level.

According to Altman Kazemi possesses perimeter skills that he has yet to showcase at Oregon, ones he wishes he had more time to harness.

"In today's game, to have someone like that, that's that talented and that unselfish…" Altman said, explaining that his perimeters shooting skills could be a strength of his. "I've encouraged him to shoot the ball more often. Now that's unusual to tell players they need to shoot it more."

And while he ranks fourth in the nation in steals at 3.4 per game, Altman thinks Kazemi's gambling style could get him into trouble in conference play.

"You've got to pick and choose your spots. He's gambled a number of times, and they've taken it right by him. It's like a defensive back in football, you have to pick your spots," he said. For Kazemi it's more simple than that.

"When I see a guy with the ball in front of me, I just want to get it from him," he said.

For those struggling for an NBA comparison, Kazemi says his favorite player is Luis Scola of the Phoenix Suns.

"I think my game is kind of like him. He's got really nice post game down-low. I still have to improve my outside game like him," he said.

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