Suddenly, basketball matters in Iran.
Normally the sport is an afterthought given the popularity of soccer, weightlifting and wrestling. But that has all changed now that Iran's national basketball team is preparing for its first Olympic appearance in 60 years.
"For every athlete, it is like a dream to participate in the Olympic Games — especially for us because basketball in Iran is not that ... important,'' captain and forward Samad Bahrami said. "Everyone is looking for you and taking care of you.''
By beating Lebanon for the FIBA Asian Championship last year, Iran clinched its first Olympic basketball berth since 1948 — a different era for both the Olympics and the world. The '48 Games took place in London, which was still cleaning up the rubble left by years of bombing raids during World War II. Iran itself was only a decade removed from being known as Persia.
Sixty years later, Iran's relations with much of the West is strained. The team's success comes as Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad deals with increasing pressure from world powers to freeze its uranium enrichment program.
At the Olympics, Iran's basketball team has little chance. It is in the same group as defending gold medalist Argentina, Australia and Russia — all featuring at least one NBA player. Iran, which opens against Russia on Aug, 10, doesn't have nearly the international experience of its opponents.
Coach Rajko Toroman, a Serb, is pointing more toward the 2010 world championships than next month's Olympics. In Beijing, he fully expects his players to be awed before the array of international talent.
Toroman is putting his team through a difficult pre-Olympic schedule. He said his players have the physical ability but lack the skills and knowledge that come from playing at levels not found in the Iranian professional league.
"In my opinion, that's only way to improve these players because Iranian League is not so strong. They don't have enough tough games,'' he said. "Genetically they have good abilities. They have good body skills but they do not have enough good technical games in Iranian league.''
Part of Toroman's barnstorming was a visit to the Rocky Mountain Revue, the summer league for NBA rookies and other young prospects hosted by the Utah Jazz. The talent doesn't compare to that of the U.S. team that will be playing in Beijing, but Toroman sees it as a valuable part of his accelerated lesson plan.
Iran played the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday and lost 79-62. The Iranians held their own early, taking a 20-18 lead after the first quarter, but the Mavericks overwhelmed them with a 25-8 advantage in the third quarter.
Iran also played two games against the NBA D-League Ambassadors, a team that played in the developmental league last season. The trip concludes with a game against the Utah Jazz on Monday.
NBA commissioner David Stern welcomed the Iranians and hopes this is a step in showing "how something as simple as a game of basketball can promote understanding.''
"In an increasingly turbulent world, it is rewarding to bring people together to celebrate teamwork, discipline and respectful competition on the court,'' he said in a statement.
Bahrami and his teammates are thrilled to be heading to Beijing. He the players have spoken to Abolfazl Solbi, a member of the 1948 team. Now in his 80s, Solbi still visits the team and offers advice to the new generation of Iran's basketball Olympians, Bahrami said.
"If you participate in Olympic Games, after 40 years you can say I was in Olympic Games. I was in Beijing,'' Bahrami said. "He said that's very good. 'Take care of yourself very good and try to show your character to the whole world because in the Olympic Games everybody is looking at you.'''
Iran will leave the medal expectations to others. Reaching Beijing is enough of an accomplishment.
"Everybody knows ... we cannot win any medals,'' Bahrami said. "But it's going to be a very good experience.''