isIt wasn’t so much the Great Satan. Plus the Big Love In. And for two enjoyable hours at the Saitama Super Arena, the basketball teams of the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran gave a salutary lesson in harmony, decency and class to many of their political leaders over the past 42 years.
One scene among many others. Everyone is heading to their locker rooms, when Iranian Mohammad Jamshidijafarabadi dares to ask Phoenix Suns superstar goalie Devin Booker for a photo. There are gestures. Nod. Banalities. And then the two smile and cross the court together, pulling the breeze. It turns out to be contagious. A few seconds later, Saeid Davarpanah follows suit and soon he shares a pose with the American Damian Lillard.
The International Olympic Committee is often guilty of epic overtaking when it talks about the power of sport. It’s all about how he can unite and bond, lubricate and join, and open doors that would otherwise stay locked. But seeing two children of the 1979 revolution beaming with their American counterparts was enough to melt the hearts of even the most icy of cynics.
Later, when American coach Gregg Popovich was asked about the importance of dividing the United States and Iran on a pitch and why the sport succeeds as politics and diplomacy collide. often deceive, he hit the nail on the head. “I’m not a secretary of state, so I don’t know what you’re looking for,” he replied. “But, in general, I think people from different countries get along better than their governments. People like each other no matter what country you are talking about. I really believe it. And it’s a time when sport transcends all that little bullshit you get from governments. “
Popovich went out of his way to congratulate his Iranian counterpart, Mehran Shahintab, for the way he organized his team in the United States’ 120-66 victory. “It’s no surprise that coaches enjoy meeting, talking and players showing sportsmanship,” he added. “We just wish it was real life. “
The feeling was mutual. “Pop is one of those great coaches,” Shahintab replied. “He congratulated my players and I appreciate him. He’s a respectful coach and we’ve learned a lot about basketball. We respect people. It is a break with politics.
Indeed, it was. However, the rest of the script took a more predictable turn. After losing their opener to France in a minor shock, the US team reveled in weak opposition. As a result, it looked more like a Dream Team from 1992. It was just a shame there weren’t a lot of crowds to revel in it all.
Iran had led early, thanks in large part to two buckets from Hamed Haddadi, a 7-foot-2 center built like a JCB and with an equally heavy turning radius. But that only delayed the inevitable. It was clear when, in the middle of the first quarter, the United States decided to host an informal three-point competition. “Jrue Holiday for three!” cried the announcer, turning the volume up a notch, shouting: “Damian Lillard for three!” And then, finally, “Kevin Durant for three!
In 56 seconds, the score had dropped from 14-9 to 26-12, going from respectable to passing. The bookmakers had made Iran a 40-point underdog. The United States surpassed that handicap in the third quarter.
How Iran could have done with CUE, an AI basketball robot created by Toyota, which appeared at halftime. Dressed in a No.95 jersey, he made his way into the arena on his own and up to the free throw line, before picking up the ball and sending it cleanly through the basket.
The machine then did the same at three points, although two half-field efforts hit the rim, and it even had time to greet the non-existent crowd before leaving the field.
It was mind boggling stuff. And something Aaron Geramipoor, a British Iranian born and raised in Stockport, must have wished he could replicate as his four shots in the game were missed.
Geramipoor’s old school motto, Bramhall High, is ‘Maximize Your Potential’. The 7-foot-2 keeper certainly did so during a club career that saw him move, like a Mediterranean vacation rep, after almost the season. To make matters worse, he also had a fiercely blocked shot from NBA legend Durant’s long arm.
“It’s basketball,” Geramipoor told The Guardian later, adding: “It was a crazy experience. Unimaginable. We went out and played hard, but they’re a very good team.
If there was one rare bum note, it was when Haddadi glared at the interviewer who asked him what it was like to see female referee Andreia Silva from Brazil on the pitch. “We just come here to play basketball, it’s not about a woman or a man,” was his gruff response.
Still, there was a lot to be positive here in Saitama. Sports relations have certainly come a long way since the two countries’ infamous meeting in 1998, one of the most politically charged games in World Cup history, with Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum also acknowledging good relations between the teams.
“It’s a question of sportsmanship,” he added. “Obviously we’re here to play a game, but we all respect each other. “
Whether that makes a difference in the broader US-Iran relationship is a whole different story. But that could at least give the leaders pause. It is not the first time that it is about politics, it is the great men who have been able to see the big picture.