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Slam-Dunk Diplomacy

By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post
December 6, 2000

ISFAHAN, Iran ­­ After 21 years of rancor and distrust, Iran and the United States have found something they can agree on: Nobody plays basketball like the Americans.

That may not be much, but for Gary LeMoine, an American who is coaching Iran's national basketball team, it's a beginning.

"Like Brazilians are known for soccer, Americans are known for basketball, and if you hire an American coach, you get a part of American culture," said LeMoine, 49, a self-described "basketball nomad" who has bounced around the globe for 14 years, coaching teams from Mongolia to Qatar.

"This job is bigger than basketball," he said. "I'm hoping I represent what America stands for. I've been hardworking and honest and fair with my players, to demonstrate what's good about America. And maybe in some way that can eventually help open a dialogue between the governments."

That is a tall order, given the political animosity and personal anguish that has marked relations between the U.S. and Iranian governments and people for almost half a century. "Let's face it," an Iranian diplomat said recently, "in our country, all Americans are spies. And in your country all Iranians are terrorists."

For Americans, relations soured in 1979, when revolutionaries led by a conservative Muslim cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, overthrew Iran's authoritarian, Westernized leader, Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. Khomeini's followers sacked the U.S. Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days, parading them in front of television cameras and threatening to execute them. In recent years, the U.S. government has refused to normalize relations with Iran, accusing it of supporting terrorists abroad and developing weapons of mass destruction.

Iranians' anger with the United States dates from 1953, when the CIA helped reinstall the shah in a coup and then supported him for more than 25 years of corrupt and repressive rule. Following the hostage-taking, the United States--dubbed "the Great Satan" by the Khomeini government--froze billions of dollars in Iranian assets and led an international economic embargo that has stunted Iran's development. In 1988, resentment here hardened when a U.S. Navy ship mistakenly shot down an Iranian passenger jet over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on board.

Political analysts, politicians and diplomats in both countries say that repairing relations will take years. In the meantime, many analysts say, person-to-person contacts and cultural exchanges could lead to a thaw and eventually to diplomatic relations, which would help stabilize one of the world's most volatile regions.

As in the "Ping-Pong diplomacy" that helped lead to establishment of U.S.-China relations in the early 1970s, sporting events seem to be the favored way to advance U.S.-Iran contacts. Recently, U.S. and Iranian weightlifting, wrestling, fencing and soccer teams have competed against each other, although not without controversy.

In April, Iran's junior fencing team landed at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on the way to a tournament but refused to be fingerprinted--as current U.S. immigration rules require of arriving Iranians--and returned home.

Still, when members of Iran's Olympic Committee decided to build a more competitive basketball program, it was natural that they would turn to an American, sports officials and players here said.

"We just wanted a good coach, and Americans are known for basketball," said a top Iranian sports official, who declined to be quoted by name. Although politics had nothing to do with the decision to hire LeMoine, he said, sports "can help bring better relations between nations. If the United States government thinks about these factors, it could help in creating a dialogue. It's the responsibility of sports families to promote this."

Mariam Babaei, a 27-year-old guard on Iran's national women's basketball team, noted that Iranian President Mohammad Khatami encourages what he calls a "dialogue among civilizations." And, she said, "maybe Gary is just a little part of this policy."

"We don't have any problem with the American people," she said last week, while watching LeMoine coach a basketball clinic in Isfahan, a city of about 1.5 million people 250 miles south of Tehran. "The problem is between our governments," she said as she and about seven other women--forbidden by law to commingle with men on the court--watched practice from the sidelines.

LeMoine took a coaching job in Bahrain in 1987 after being passed over for the head coaching job at an Oklahoma high school. He has been on the road since, coaching club and national teams in Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Mongolia. He has returned often to the United States, coaching high school and small-college teams, many in his native Oklahoma and in Illinois, where his wife and two sons live.

As LeMoine led the Qatari national team at the Pan-Arab Games in Jordan this year, a scout asked if he would be interested in coaching the Iranians. LeMoine visited the country and met athletic officials and players in April--and accepted the job, over the objections of his mother in America and hard-line conservatives in Iran who wanted a home-grown coach.

"When I first started coming to the Middle East, it was during the Iran-Iraq war, and people thought I was crazy. But sometimes you just have to take risks, and I have been treated very well," said LeMoine, who has coached the Iranian men's national team to a .500 record during his eight-month contract, which expires this month. He added that he has never been threatened or antagonized by Iranians for being American. "The basic guy on the street here loves America," he said.

If there is political fallout from his job, LeMoine said, it's unintended. "Sports transcends politics and religion. It gets down to relationships between people. There are a lot of intangibles, but first and foremost it's a business, and the Iranians want results."

In practice sessions, LeMoine emphasizes fundamentals--how to pivot, screen, box out, double-team. He yells instructions in English, which most of his players understand, while an interpreter hollers in Iranian. He counsels discipline and patience for the Iranian players, who he says often "make two passes and put up a three-point shot."

"We're very happy to have him here because basketball is an American sport, and he's teaching us a lot of professional techniques," said Babak Nezafat, 24, a point guard on the national team.

Some citizens have complained that the team should have an Iranian coach, while others say an American might help patch up relations between the two countries, but Nezafat has his own view.

"I'm just a basketball player and I don't know anything about all that," he said. "From a sports point of view, it's been great having him here."


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