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Michael Brandy, Deseret News
Players from the Iranian national team stretch Wednesday during practice at The Factory in Lehi. They are the reigning FIBA Asian basketball champions.

Uniformed personnel from one of the "Axis of Evil" nations have arrived deep inside the heart of "the Great Satan" and are preparing their forces to engage foreign opposition.

That's one scary, keep-clicking-on-the-Drudge-Report-for-updates way of looking at it.

Another less-tense-sounding way?

Iran's national basketball team is visiting the United States to play some friendly exhibition games in Utah against U.S. teams.

In other words, an international crisis is not on the horizon — just some hoops.

So don't turn on the cable news channels; these visitors are more likely to show up on ESPN. No need to alert the State Department, either. Officials from that U.S. government office extended the olive-branch invitation to these guests as part of a peaceful exchange program masterminded by President Bush.

As part of Iran's Beijing Olympics preparation, the reigning FIBA Asian basketball champions accepted the offer. It's part of a world tour that will take the squad from Australia to Slovenia to the Rocky Mountain Revue to the Middle East and then to China.

After practice Thursday night, Iranian player Iman Zandi said through a State Department-provided interpreter that he believes exchanges like these are "really important to bring two countries together" because goodwill can be built through good sportsmanship.

Iran Basketball Federation director Mashhoun Raza agreed with that, but he insisted this is more of a basketball business trip for his country's team than an American vacation or a diplomatic mission.

"We want to learn some more techniques of the basketball in America to take with us back," Raza said. "America is one of the best basketball teams in the world, so we are here to get some experience from them and play with them and to learn from them (and) get to a higher level."

The Iranians did have at least one coming-to-America condition: They'll play and talk about basketball but not politics.

That's a message Jazz coach Jerry Sloan, whose summer-league team plays Iran on Monday, would wholeheartedly endorse. He's much more concerned about how to score around Iran's 7-foot-5 center instead of discussing the latest on Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or other global affairs.

"We play whoever's here. My concern in the summer league is not who you're playing against," Sloan said when asked about Iran's inclusion in the Revue. "This is not about politics. I'm in basketball. I'm not in politics."

State Department spokeswoman Darlene Kirk, of the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, said this exchange program began in 2006 when President Bush asked her office to "expand our people-to-people contacts with Iranian people." More than 160 Iran citizens from various professions — doctors, lawyers, judges, artists and other national sports teams — have visited the U.S. so far.

A group of elite American wrestlers returned the favor by traveling to Iran in 2007.

"This is one of the ongoing commitments to build a bridge with the Iranian people through citizen exchanges," Kirk said.

The NBA, always looking for ways to expand its global presence, was happy to assist the Iranian team in finding a place to play in the U.S..

"In an increasingly turbulent world, it is rewarding to bring people together to celebrate teamwork, discipline and respectful competition on the court," said NBA commissioner David Stern in a statement released by the league regarding the Iranians' Utah visit.

"In this spirit," Stern continued, "the NBA embraces the opportunity to welcome the Basketball Federation of Iran and the Iranian Olympic team in a demonstration of how something as simple as a game of basketball can promote understanding."

Iran will play twice in the Rocky Mountain Revue — against the Jazz on Monday and the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday — and another pair of free-to-the-public games against NBA Development League players today (5 p.m.) and Sunday at The Factory in Lehi.

The Iranians will help put on a free youth hoops clinic this morning with D-League standouts at 11 at the Utah Flash's training facility. They'll also watch NBA teams practice for the upcoming Revue at the Salt Lake Community College. If time permits, they'll try to visit tourist attractions.

Zandi, who says he's followed the Utah Jazz since the days of Karl Malone, is feeling like he is in hoops heaven.

"I always watch NBA, and I'm very interested in NBA players. I'm very proud to be here, to learn more from these guys and see them from here," he said. "Basketball in the United States is top in the world, so we want to learn from them. Our basketball players will learn something new every day from your guys."

The Iranian hoopster added that he'd love to host American players in his homeland. Kobe Bryant, his favorite NBA superstar, would be especially welcome.

After the Revue, Iran's team will head home for a five-day break before traveling to China for a pre-Olympics tournament. Raza said his country is ecstatic about making the Summer Games, something it hadn't done in 60 years.

"It's a very (big) honor for us to go to the Olympics," he said.

However, the Iranians will have to play without their best player, Aidin Bahrami, who was killed in a car accident in December after leading the nation to its first-ever Asian championship.


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