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Basketball Diplomacy: US and Iran

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Iranian basketball team to play Utah Jazz and rookie Dallas Maverick team among others in a series of exhibition games in Salt Lake City:

By Ali Kermalli and Robert Windrem, NBC News

Despite rising tensions with Iran, the U.S. State Department today announced that it has invited Iranian athletes to compete in the United States as part of a “people-to-people exchange” program. Nicholas Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, today confirmed a report on MSNBC.COM’s “Deep Background” blog.

“With the generous support of Congress, we’re in the second year of successful people-to-people exchange programs. Partnering with the U.S. Olympic Committee, we invited 15 members of the Iranian national table-tennis team to the United States last week. This group included the first female Iranian athletes who’ve ever been to the U.S. on this program. In cooperation with the National Basketball Association, we’ll bring the Iranian Olympic basketball team here next week for the NBA summer league,” Burns told Congress today.

“We’re committed to using educational, cultural, and sports exchanges to help rebuild bridges between our two societies after 30 years of estrangement,” he added.

Deep Background Post:

When is a basketball game not just a basketball game? When an NBA team plays an Iranian team in, of all places, Salt Lake City.

Call it the ‘Dunking for Diplomacy’ tour.

Later this month, at Salt Lake City Community College, six NBA teams will gather to play a series of exhibition games. In addition to the hometown Utah Jazz, there’ll be rookie teams representing the Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks, Golden State Warriors, New Jersey Nets and San Antonio Spurs along with the Islamic Republic of Iran. That’s right, round ballers from the last member of George Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’ will battle the Jazz and the Mavs in games scheduled for mid-July. As it turns out, the Iranians–Asian league champs–are competing in the Olympics in Beijing, starting August 10, and thought they’d throw down first with a little b-ball against America’s finest, the NBA.

So how did this happen…and why?

Sports events historically have been used to thaw the diplomatic ice. In 1972, “ping pong diplomacy” paved the way for President Nixon’s historic visit China. More recently, North Korea’s Tae Kwon Do team performed in the United States, as one of the steps towards improving North Korea-U.S. relations.

So is this just “ping-pong diplomacy” with a larger ball?

The NBA won’t reveal much. Brian McIntyre, the NBA’s Senior Vice President of Basketball Communications, said the Islamic Republic of Iran Basketball Federation (IRIBF) called to say it was interested in playing its national team in a game or two against an NBA team on the way to Beijing. A summer-league tournament would be fine, the Iranians said.

McIntyre said the league called the State Department to ask what to do. After all, the U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran. And recent news reports have suggested Iran may be trying to build nuclear weapons. Then, there are possible plans by the U.S. or Israel to take military action to prevent that from happening. The State Department, which is all in favor of people-to-people (or in this case, player-to-player) relations, encouraged the idea, McIntyre said.

And so the NBA approached the Jazz, which sponsors the Rocky Mountain Revue, a summer basketball league for NBA hopefuls, top rookies, other young but unproven players and vets looking for another chance. Jazz owner Larry Miller agreed to the contests.

The NBA and State Department understand, McIntyre said, how important “sports diplomacy” is to building relationships between nations. But there are hints that the Jazz may not be fully embracing the love-thy-neighbor concept. On the Utah Jazz website, the team lists the Rocky Mountain Revue participants by name. All except for Iran, which is described simply as “the 2007 FIBA Asian Champion.”  The word “Iran” is not mentioned on the team’s announcement or the schedule. A Jazz official had no comment.

Despite the low-key publicity, the Iranians will be playing at 2:15 p.m. on July 19th against Dallas, and at 7 p.m. on July 21st against Utah.

U.S. officials believe that the request came from the highest levels in Iran, and is part of an attempt by Iran to tamp down tensions between the two countries. In fact, Iranian officials told NBC News that hardliners in the Islamic Republic opposed the overture. But moderates in the Iranian government prevailed. The Iranian officials said that moderates in the government have been trying to set something like this up for two years. Iranian officials add that the basketball team is already in the U.S. training for the games.

And, by the way, he added, so is the Iranian national ping-pong team.

Irancove @ July 11, 2008

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