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Baghdad's Basketball Bubble: These Americans Star in Iraq

by Sarah Burke /  / Updated 

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He may be a star on Iraq's most popular basketball team, but Mychal Kearse's first stop when he returns home to the U.S. next week will be anything but flashy.

The shooting guard is craving one thing: lunch at Chipotle.

Kearse is one of nine Americans playing basketball in the troubled country's Superleague this year — his fourth season in Iraq.

"I was a little skeptical at first,” the 32-year-old Kearse told NBC News. “When you hear about coming to Iraq, coming to Baghdad, of course you’re afraid.”

He added: “It’s not like they show on TV. I don’t feel unsafe at all.”

Image: Mychal Kearse
Mychal Kearse@mlkearse3 / Twitter

Kearse plays for Baghdad-based Al Shurtah — or "Police Club." Americans like Kearse and teammate DeAndre Rice earn as much as $7,000 per month and fans are happy to see them on the court.

“The American players started to improve the game,” said Hussein Naji Al-Amedi, who has led the Iraqi Basketball Federation since 2003. "They started to teach local players on some techniques."

However, the rise of ISIS in the country has hurt the Superleague — which sometimes now attracts as few as 10 and seldom more than 75 spectators per game.

“When ISIS took over all those big areas, fans did not come to watch the matches,” Al-Amedi said. “Everything is connected to the security conditions.”

Iraqi clubs began signing American players four years ago, a move officials hope will reinvigorate the sport which has struggled to recover the popularity it enjoyed in the 1970s and 1980s.

Police Club fan Ali Hassan Jalil, a 40-year old government employee who has supported the team since childhood, credited this different type of U.S. invasion of "adding more excitement to the game."

"We all used to watch [Michael] Jordan and [Shaquille] O’Neal doing all those fantastic moves," he said. "The American players last season, they also did some of those moves.”

Kearse attended Mount St Mary’s University where he was the first two-time winner of the Northeast Conference Defensive Player of the Year award.

“I feel like my teammates have given me the shirts off of their backs"

But Iraq is a long way from Kearse's home in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Security concerns mean that daily life tends to be repetitive — consisting of basketball, video games, hanging out with other players and Skyping with family members.

Kearse and Rice live in neighboring hotel rooms in a safe part of Baghdad but admit that they don’t get out much.

“Here is just work, you don’t have a life,” said Kearse, who played in Japan, Denmark, Lebanon and Romania before helping Police Club to win last season's Iraqi title.

Aside from once being struck with a glass bottle after being mistaken for a U.S. soldier, Kearse said he has not encountered any trouble.

“I love my Iraqi teammates,” Kearse said. “I feel like my teammates have given me the shirts off of their backs. They’ve made it so much better for me.”

Rice, a 30-year-old native of Flint, Michigan, is wrapping up his second season in Baghdad after previous pro stints in Libya, Syria and Tunisia.

“It’s been an adjustment," the point guard and playmaker admitted. “It’s a different experience ... But I’m grateful for the chance to come over.”

Ali Farhan, a 14-year Police Club veteran, said the Americans have not only helped boost interest in the game but also taught teammates some new tricks.

“The American players are very social and like to form friendship with others,” the 32-year-old Farhan said. “We have a good relationship with the American players, inside and outside the court.”

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