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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 November 2005, 10:52 GMT
Basketball in the 'axis of evil'
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

Garth Joseph
American basketball players are popular with Iranian fans
Insults bounce back and forth between Iran and the United States on an almost daily basis but on the basketball court it is a different story.

A growing number of Americans are now plying their trade in the Iranian basketball league.

Saba Battery - a local Iranian basketball team - is having its first practice session in a gym in Tehran with the new player from America.

He is a staggering 217cm (7ft 2in) tall - a giant by Iranian standards.

"We both have different cultures, different religious so if we respect that we will get along very fine," Garth Joseph says.

He regards himself as an ambassador for his country which has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the revolution.

"I hope they start relations. I was surprised to see we don't have an embassy here or Iran one in America; I thought what's going on," says Garth.

'Basketball is universal'

The US embassy siege and the taking of American diplomats in 1979 is clearly ancient history for these young sportsmen.

Iranian basketball fans
On the streets they may shout "Death to America", but on the court they cheer for American basketball players

Iran is a country whose first love is football, but those who follow basketball happily accept the American players.

They have even been warmly welcomed on teams sponsored by the Iranian Ministry of Defence.

"Basketball is universal - so there's no colour, no race; we just bond - from day one when I came here the team just took me in and we just took off," says veteran Andre Pitts, who also plays for Saba Battery.

"For us as players we don't ask someone where he is from. It's more, 'I want to beat you and you want to beat me so let's go'," he adds.

The only problem Andre has is being the centre of attention. An African-American in Iran is a novelty.

An American basketball player scores
When Pegah Hamadan took on Saba Battery four Americans played

"At first everybody stared - that was the hardest thing for me to get used to," he says.

"You go to eat in places, put some food in your mouth and look up and there's everyone staring at you, but I've got used to it now."

Andre Pitt has been here so long he is beginning to like Persian food - he says his favourite dish is chicken rice.

For many players it is a major culture shock.

Winning combination

Jamaal from Indiana, Kansas, now lives in the provincial Iranian town of Hamadan, where he says the women are mostly dressed in black cloaks and there is nothing to do except play basketball for the local team.

Hamadan player Jamal
Players have become unofficial ambassadors for the US

"This place is nice. It keeps you safe and grounded; some places you go out and get into trouble but there's none of that here," he jokes.

When Pegah Hamadan play Saba Battery there are two Americans on each team.

The Iranian players kiss each other on both cheeks when they meet, the Americans do a high-five.

Diehard fans play drums and trumpets and shout "Ya Ali" - invoking the name of one of the twelve Shia imams - for the slam dunk.

"When I first got here I think it was only me and two other Americans. Now we have almost 20 I believe," says Waitari Marsh.

He thinks the coaches and the players are improving rapidly.

On the streets they may shout "Death to America", but on the court they cheer for American basketball players.

Iran has always said it has a problem with the American government, not with its people, and this is an example of that.

Watch the players in action

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