What it's like to play basketball in Iran

James White creates space in a Turkish Airlines Euroleague game last year. (Getty Images)
James White creates space in a Turkish Airlines Euroleague game last year. (Getty Images)

Last month, James White was home in Washington D.C. when the news hit: President Donald Trump issued an executive order temporarily barring immigrants from seven Muslim-concentrated countries from entering the U.S. A day later, Iran, one of the countries included in the order, announced that it would ban U.S. citizens from entering its country. White, a first-year forward with Petrochimi Bandar Imam Harbour – a team in the Iran Super League – on a break from the team and scheduled to fly back the next day, wondered: Would he be able to return?

A phone call to a coach eased his concerns. “He told me, ‘What, do you think our government is like the United States?’ and said everything would be OK,” White said in an email to The Vertical. “From the moment Trump was elected, everyone [in Iran] was just saying, ‘He is stupid.’ They only know what they read or see on TV, just like we do their country.”

White is one of dozens of American players competing in the Middle East. Some, like White, have been unaffected by Trump’s executive order. Others have not been so lucky. On Sunday, The Vertical reported that Joseph Jones and J.P. Prince, teammates with Azad University Tehran, were unable to return to Iran following a vacation in Dubai. The agent for Prince and Jones, Eric Fleisher, told The Vertical that both players were allowed to return to Iran on Thursday and are expected to finish their seasons.

Anxiety, understandably, is measurable. One player agent declined an interview request for his client out of fear that publicizing his name and location would jeopardize his safety. It’s unfortunate because the experience playing in the region has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It’s been very positive,” Fleisher said. “The people have been warm. They have embraced [Jones and Prince]. They love basketball. I asked them, ‘Was it what you expected?’ And they told me it was easier than they thought.”

White, a three-year NBA veteran who was drafted out of Cincinnati in the second round by the Portland Trail Blazers in 2006, describes a very pro-U.S. environment. “Most of the people I run into love the U.S.,” White, 34, said. “The biggest thing they say they like is the freedom. There are so many rules over here, I understand why.” White says his teammates don’t believe they will one day play in the NBA – but they dream about it. “They ask me all kinds of questions about when I played and who I played with,” White said. “They are amazed by the things [NBA] players can do. Right now, they don’t have anyone with the kind of talent that could play there, but they will eventually.”

White says the team has an assistant coach who would routinely travel to the U.S. for coaching clinics. The coach, White said, has his green card and hopes to one day coach in America. But Trump’s executive order, White said, has the coach concerned about being able to go back.

It remains to be seen how the recent hostility with the U.S. will affect American players in Iran, Iraq and other countries impacted, if at all. White, though, says he has never feared for his safety. “It’s never been an issue here, never,” White said. “The people are good people. But people always fear what’s different from them, so we tend to make everyone in the Middle East the bad guys. They are not.”


Isaiah Thomas is having a special season. (Getty Images)
Isaiah Thomas is having a special season. (Getty Images)

3. I.T. for MVP?

On Thursday the NBA tabbed Golden State’s Stephen Curry (a two-time MVP) and Kevin Durant (a former MVP) as the Western Conference Co-Players of the Month. In the East the honor went to Isaiah Thomas, the Boston guard who is putting up MVP-level numbers this season. Some context:

• The 44 points Thomas scored in a win over Toronto on Wednesday marked the 33rd straight game he has posted 20 or more. In Boston’s decorated history only John Havlicek and Kevin McHale have put together 30-plus games of scoring 20 points or more.

• Thomas is the best fourth-quarter scorer (10.5 points) in the NBA, averaging more than Russell Westbrook (nine points) and scoring 66 fourth-quarter points more than Westbrook overall.

• Thomas’ scoring average (29.7 points) is just behind Larry Bird (29.9) for the highest-scoring season in Celtics history.

These are MVP-numbers. But can Thomas win the MVP? Harden continues to be the frontrunner, and Westbrook’s triple-double average season will be hard to ignore, as will a superb two-way season from Kawhi Leonard. But Boston is 2 ½ games behind the suddenly struggling Cavaliers. If the Celtics can overtake Cleveland, and if Thomas continues to post superior numbers, he will make a strong case for the award.

Paul Millsap has the Hawks in a tough spot. (Getty Images)
Paul Millsap has the Hawks in a tough spot. (Getty Images)

2. Will Atlanta deal?

On Thursday, Hawks president and head coach Mike Budenholzer sidestepped a question about how engaged he is these days with his front office, with Atlanta among the teams with assets that could be moved before the Feb. 23 trade deadline.

“I just think in general front offices and coaching staffs, no matter how you configure your organization, you are trying to find ways to get better,” Budenholzer told The Vertical. “Things are discussed around the league, sometimes you are not a part of it, but if there are opportunities to get better, we would like to do that. I don’t think it’s that much different from any other team or any other coach.”

Budenholzer’s word choice – get better – is interesting. When Atlanta shipped Kyle Korver to Cleveland last month, it seemed to signal a rebuild was coming. The Hawks had discussed trading Paul Millsap, a likely free agent at the end of the season, and Millsap would be an attractive piece to a contender.

Yet while it’s still possible the Hawks could be sellers before the deadline, there are no guarantees. Atlanta is 9-5 since trading Korver – including a 113-108 win at Houston on Thursday – and teams that have engaged the Hawks believe Atlanta is unsure how it wants to proceed. Internally, some see a team that has little chance of advancing past Cleveland in the Eastern Conference; others see a team just 2 ½ games back of the second seed – the type that should be reinforced, not broken up.

Expect teams to still probe the Hawks about Millsap, who averaged 19.5 points and shot a season-best 37.7 percent from 3-point range in January. But the more the team wins, the less likely it is Atlanta moves him.

LeBron James is the key to the Cavs getting better. (Getty Images)
LeBron James is the key to the Cavs getting better. (Getty Images)

1. On LeBron vs. Barkley

LeBron James was right to be irked by TNT analyst Charles Barkley questioning his competitiveness this week; James is a four-time league MVP and a three-time Finals MVP who has elevated two franchises to championship levels. Yet Barkley’s criticism revealed a simple fact: James wants Cleveland to bring in more talent, and the Cavaliers simply have no way to do it.

Cleveland has spent lavishly in recent years to build a championship roster. The Cavs have the NBA’s highest payroll ($130 million). They paid $54 million in luxury-tax penalties last season and are on the hook for $27.1 million more after this one. They declined to match Milwaukee’s four-year, $38.4 million offer to Matthew Dellavedova, but they did it with the belief that Mo Williams – who abruptly retired before the start of the season – would be on the roster.

Cleveland simply doesn’t have the assets or financial flexibility to make a significant deal. And James may be the key to the Cavs improving before the postseason. The NBA’s buyout season begins after the trade deadline, with players bought out by March 1 eligible for the playoffs. And the market for those players will be competitive. The Cavs will be able to offer any point guard on the market a chance to win, but they won’t be able to offer significant playing time. James will have to be a recruiter to persuade a veteran to eschew a larger role in favor of a chance to win a title. In all likelihood, that represents the Cavaliers only chance to get better.

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