Prague, 13 December 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Calvin Warner from Jacksonville, Florida, is one of the Americans who is now playing basketball in Iran, dubbed by U.S. President George W. Bush as part of the "axis of evil."
Warner, who is playing in his third season in Iran, recently told Radio Farda that he has been warmly welcomed in the Islamic Republic.
"Ever since I came to Iran, people have welcomed me with open arms," he said. "Everybody is nice. Everybody wants you to be here. Everybody wants you to enjoy the good things about their country, and they want you to actually realize that it's not as bad as it seems like on TV. Sometimes you hear bad things about Iran. But unless you come here, you don’t know it, until you experience it for yourself. That’s why I keep coming back, because it’s not bad."
Since the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran some 27 years ago, anti-American slogans have become part of many state-organized ceremonies and demonstrations. Among ordinary Iranians, however, there are almost no ill feelings toward the United States.
Warner said his Iranian teammates have accepted him with open arms. "I like all the players. They like me a lot. They respect me a lot. They respect my basketball. They respect my ideas," Warner said. "So it makes me happy that they're happy that I’m here. And I’m happy to be here to help them achieve their goals and get better as basketball players. I think the Iranian players are getting better. They're learning from the American players. I think it’s a good fit for people to keep coming here and helping the Iranian players."
Warner said he found the job in Iran through an agent and decided to give it a try. He said it’s been something of a culture shock for him. "Iran is a very nice place. It’s different -- different culture, very different from the U.S. It’s good for me to experience different things in life. I live in Isfahan now. It’s a beautiful city, an ancient city," he said.
In Iran, where Islamic rules are applied, personal freedoms are limited, and there is relatively little to do for entertainment. But Warner said he doesn’t mind the limitations that go with life in Iran. "I’m used to having more freedom and more things to do," he said. "There is not much to do here, but I come here, it’s good for me. I concentrate on basketball. So I don’t really concentrate on having a lot of fun or always partying."
Warner, who plays for Isfahan's Zob Ahan team, says that when he first came to Iran two years ago, there were only three American basketball players living there. Now there are about 20.
Abbas Morshedi, a basketball coach in Khuzestan, said foreign players are selected to play for Iranian teams based not only on their talent on the court. "We want players we choose for our team to be close to our cultural characteristics," he said. "Players should not be impolite. They should not be aggressive and nervous, and they should respect the norms of the court. Fortunately, the majority of players I have seen this year -- two of which were selected by me -- all have these issues I mentioned."
Farzad Koohian, who is from Isfahan and coaches the Sanan team in Tehran, told Radio Farda that sports exchanges between different countries can create "closeness" and help bring down barriers of mistrust.
"I can give you an example. One of the [American] players named Waitari Marsh, who this year plays for the Pegah Hamedan team, after the end of the season returned to the U.S. and gave an interview and said, 'I feel more at ease walking in Iran’s streets than walking in my country.' And his mother also said in an interview that she's very happy that her son plays basketball in Iran. And she said that because of him playing in Iran, 'we have become attached to Iran.' This was a very good message," Koohian said.