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Americans playing basketball in Iran concerned, but plan on staying

Waverly Austin is one of a handful of Americans playing professional basketball in Iran. (Courtesy of Waverly Austin)

The only American exiting the plane didn’t dare draw extra attention to himself.

He kept his head down walking through the airport to the taxi line to avoid making eye contact with any of the strangers he sensed staring at him.

It was early Friday morning, and for the first time since he came to Iran to play professional basketball, Kelvin Amayo did not feel safe. He was still reeling from finding out that the U.S. and Iran were on the brink of war minutes earlier when he and his teammates turned on their phones after their flight landed in the Iranian city of Tabriz.

The discovery that a U.S. drone strike had killed Iran’s most revered general overnight made Amayo instantly wary that he could be a potential target for retaliation. He was suddenly conscious of how conspicuous a 6-foot-4 black man was in Iran, even though to that point Iranian people had only treated him with kindness and respect. 

“I made a point of not looking directly at anybody,” said Amayo, a Montreal native who grew up in New Jersey. “I don’t want to say it was scary, but it was definitely uncomfortable. You can’t put nothing past nobody. You don’t know what people are thinking.”

At the same time as Amayo grappled with the ramifications of the U.S. attack on Iran, so too did the more than half dozen other Americans playing pro basketball there this season. Each of them came to Iran aware of the risks of living in a country with a volatile, contentious history with the U.S., yet none could possibly have predicted the animosity so quickly intensifying to this extent. 

In a Friday speech, President Trump justified the airstrike by describing Qasem Soleimani as a terrorist who was “plotting imminent and sinister attacks on American diplomats and military personnel.” Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei countered by vowing to avenge the death of Soleimani, promising a "harsh retaliation is waiting for the criminals whose filthy hands spilled his blood.”

American players contacted by Yahoo Sports said they intend to monitor the situation for the next few weeks to see if Iran follows through with attacks against U.S. targets abroad and if all-out regional war breaks out. Each player for now intends to stay in Iran for the rest of the season, but they worry that escalating tensions could take the decision out of their hands.

Unrest in Baghdad already forced Iraq’s state-run basketball league to shut down for two-plus months, though play is expected to resume next week exclusively in the city of Duhok. If the situation in Iran worsens, league officials could abruptly ban foreign-born players or cancel the remainder of the season.

“This situation is going to affect the Iranian league — or at least the import players who play in the league,” predicted Ahmad Madwar, a Syrian native who has negotiated contracts for many Americans in the Middle East. “We all are waiting on how Iran will respond to this airstrike. It may be limited or it may affect the whole region.”

American basketball players whose NBA dreams fizzle typically seek work in tourist-friendly Europe, China or Australia, but those whose phones aren’t ringing sometimes summon the courage to travel a riskier path. They head to the Middle East, drawn by the desperate desire to extend their basketball careers and salaries that sometimes compare favorably to paydays available in other far-flung leagues around the world.

The Iranian league is more attractive to Americans than other leagues across the Middle East because it is run professionally and has a reputation for treating players well. Six-figure salaries are common. Payments typically arrive on time. Teams often put players in nice hotels and apartments, pay for flights to and from games and provide nice training facilities and competent medical treatment.

Kelvin Amayo is the leading scorer in the Iranian Basketball Super League. (Courtesy of Kelvin Amayo)

Among the recognizable faces who have played in the Iranian League include former NBA draft picks Loren Woods and James White and ex-college stars like Edgar Sosa and Jacob Pullen. Safety concerns have kept high-profile players away the past couple years, but those Americans who have played in Iran typically have enjoyed the experience. 

“Everyone thinks it’s dangerous here, but it’s not like that,” said former University of Oregon forward Waverly Austin, now in his second season playing for a Tehran-based club. “It’s a really nice place to live. I’m not scared when I go outside. Everyone I talk to loves Americans. I go to the mall by myself. I go to restaurants by myself. If I didn’t feel comfortable, I wouldn’t come back here.”

Before Friday’s attack, Amayo’s time in Iran had been similarly positive. Not only has the former Iona and Loyola Marymount guard boosted his market value by averaging a league-best 25.3 points and propelling his first-year club into playoff contention, he also has received a warm reception from Iranian people he has met. 

“The people here are very nice and very passionate for their clubs,” Amayo said. “I played a game [Thursday] in Tehran, and there were 70, 80 people waiting to take pictures with me after the game. So when you hear about the stigma that people in Iran don’t like Americans, I don’t see that at all. If you show respect to people, you get the same back.”

Even though Iranians had previously been unfailingly friendly to him, Amayo took no chances on Friday. He taxied from the airport straight to his hotel and did not leave the whole day, opting not to go to the mall or to go play video games because the risk of going out in public wasn’t worth it. 

“I doubt anything would have happened, but I didn’t want someone who was feeling a certain type of way to see me,” Amayo said. “You just don’t want to put yourself in a bad predicament for nothing.”

When Amayo’s family in New Jersey awoke to the news of the U.S. attack on Soleimani, they immediately called Amayo to make sure he was safe. Many of Amayo’s Iranian teammates and coaches also called to make sure his taxi ride to the hotel had gone smoothly. 

Amayo appreciated those phone calls, but it was a conversation with his Iranian agent that he found most comforting. Amayo’s agent assured him that he was safe in Iran and urged him to finish what has been a breakout season. 

“If they don’t shut down the league, I’m going to continue to do my job,” Amayo said. “And if they do, I know my resume is good enough that I’m going to be able to get a job in another good league somewhere else.”

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