It was not so much the Great Satan. More the Great Love In. And over two enjoyable hours at the Saitama Super Arena, the basketball teams of the United States and 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. Everyone is drifting towards their locker rooms, when Iran’s Mohammad Jamshidijafarabadi dares to ask Phoenix Suns’ superstar guard Devin Booker for a photograph. There are gestures. Nods. Small talk. And then the pair are smiling and walking across the court together, shooting the breeze. It proves infectious. Seconds later Saeid Davarpanah is following suit, and soon he is sharing a pose with USA’s Damian Lillard.
The International Olympic Committee is often guilty of epic overreach when it harks on about the power of sport. All that guff and fluff about how it can unite and bind, lubricate and conjoin, and open doors that would otherwise remain bolted. But seeing two children of the 1979 revolution beaming away with their American counterparts was enough to melt the heart of even the iciest cynic.
Later, when the US coach, Gregg Popovich, was asked about the significance of the US and Iran sharing a court together, and why sport gets it right when politics and diplomacy often gets it so wrong, he hit the nail on the head. “I am not the secretary of state so I am not sure what you are looking for,” he replied. “But, in general, I think people from different countries get along better than their governments. People appreciate each other, no matter what country you are talking about. I really believe that. And this is a time where sport transcends all that petty crap you get from governments.”
Popovich went out of his way to praise his Iranian counterpart, Mehran Shahintab, for the way he had set up his team during the USA’s 120-66 win. “It is no surprise that coaches would enjoy meeting each other, talking to each other, and the players would show sportsmanship,” he added. “We just wish that was real life.”
The feeling was reciprocated. “Pop is one of those great coaches,” replied Shahintab. “He praised my players and I appreciate that. He is a respectful coach and we learned a lot about basketball. We respect people. It’s a break from politics.”
Indeed it was. Although, the rest of the script followed a more predictable turn. Having lost their opening game to France in a minor shock, the US team enjoyed feasting on weak opposition. As a result this had more of a feel of a 1992-style Dream Team whopping. It was just a shame there were no crowds to revel in it all.
Iran had led early, largely thanks to two buckets from Hamed Haddadi, a 7ft 2in centre built like a JCB and with a turning circle every bit as lumbering. But it was only delaying the inevitable. That much was clear when, halfway through the first quarter, the USA decided to have an informal three-point competition. “Jrue Holiday for three!” cried the announcer, raising the volume a notch as he shouted: “Damian Lillard for three!” And then, finally, “Kevin Durant for three!”
In 56 seconds the score had galloped from 14-9 to 26-12, from respectable to a walk over. The bookies had made Iran 40-point underdogs. The USA raced past that handicap in the third quarter.
How Iran could have done with the CUE, an AI basketball robot created by Toyota, that made an appearance at half time. Sporting a No 95 jersey it rollerskated itself into the arena by itself and to the free-throw line, before picking up the ball and sending it clean through the basket.
The machine then did the same from three-point range, although two efforts from half-court hit the rim, and it even had time to wave at the non-existent crowd before leaving the court.
It was staggering stuff. And something Aaron Geramipoor, a British-Iranian born and raised in Stockport, must have wished he could replicate as all four of his shots in the game missed.
The motto of Geramipoor’s old school, Bramhall High, is ‘Maximise Your Potential’. The 7ft2in guard has certainly done that during a club career that has seen him move, like a Mediterranean holiday rep, after almost season. To make matters worse, he also had one shot violently blocked by the long arm of NBA legend Durant.
“That’s basketball,” Geramipoor told the Guardian later, before adding: “It was a crazy experience. Unimaginable. We came out and played hard but they’re a very good team.”
If there was a rare bum note, it came when Haddadi glared at the interviewer who asked what he made of seeing a female referee Andreia Silva of Brazil on court. “We just come here to play basketball, it’s not about woman or man,” was his gruff reply.
Still, there was much to be positive about here in Saitama. Certainly sporting relations have certainly come a long way since the two countries’ infamous 1998 encounter, one of the most politically charged games in World Cup history, with Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum also acknowledging the good relations between the teams.
“It’s all about sportsmanship,” he added. “Obviously we are here to play a game but we all respect each other.”
Whether this will make any difference to wider US-Iran relations is an entirely different story. But it might at least make leaders stop to reflect. Not the first time when it comes to politics, it has been the big men who have been able to see the bigger picture.