Arsalan Kazemi receives an international phone call after every game. His mother, Roya Kazemi, reaches out to her son who plays basketball 7,000 miles away after watching the game or following the play-by-play online.
But Roya Kazemi doesn’t ask about the Rice star’s numbers, even though he’s leading the nation in rebounding. She’s only concerned about his well-being.
“After every game, she calls me to make sure I’m fine, that I’m not hurt or anything. That’s the way that she does it,” Kazemi told ESPN.com. “She doesn’t even ask anything about the score. After about five minutes, she asks, ‘Did you all win?’”
Those conversations -- he talks to his family twice a day -- preserve his connection to Iran, where he remains a star for his home country’s junior national team. He ventured to the U.S. four years ago for basketball and educational reasons.
Kazemi averaged 12 points and 8.9 rebounds for Iran in last summer’s FIBA Asia Championship. His international exploits have led to multiple professional offers from overseas clubs.
Right now, Kazemi said he’s focused on helping his 9-5 Rice squad start strong in Conference USA play, which will begin with a Saturday matchup against Marshall.
Three years ago, Kazemi became the first Iranian player to compete at the Division I level on scholarship. But being a pioneer doesn’t define the junior standout.
Check the top of the NCAA’s rebounding chart. You’ll see Kazemi’s name (12.3 rpg). He also leads Conference USA with 2.23 steals per game, No. 30 in the country, and field-goal percentage (61.2 percent).
The 6-foot-7 forward said he focused on scoring in his youth because that’s what his Iranian teams needed from him. But coaches at Patterson School in North Carolina -- where he played his senior year of high school -- emphasized rebounding.
So Kazemi, who’d rarely focused on his stat lines from international competition, grabbed old newspaper clippings and discovered that he was a better rebounder than he’d realized.
“When I was playing overseas, I really didn’t know rebounding matters that much,” he told ESPN.com. “After they told me it’s a big deal here, I was taking out some of the newspapers and checking the stats. I had 21 points and 20 rebounds, seven assists and six steals [in one international game]. I was doing pretty good back then.”
He’s doing pretty good right now, too.
Kazemi is averaging 13.7 ppg, 2.8 apg and 1.3 bpg. He’ll end up on Conference USA’s first team at season’s end if this pace continues.
He said his production is the result of selflessness. He can score but he doesn’t have to. So he focuses on affecting the game in other ways.
“One of the things I usually don’t think about is scoring. When you don’t think about scoring, usually what you think is about defense. I always tell myself to grab the offensive rebound, then we can run and we can score,” he told ESPN.com. “Sometimes, when I don’t get the ball from my teammates, I just go get it from the rim. That’s how I think.”
Kazemi said he played multiple sports as a young man. But he gravitated toward the action that basketball permitted. Plus, he liked Michael Jordan and idolized Tim Duncan.
After excelling at the youth level in Iran, Kazemi’s family sent him to America to get an education and to compete.
He always acknowledges its contributions to his achievements. That’s why he’s willing to risk his collegiate career every offseason to see the mother and father who supported his dream.
Iran doesn’t have an American embassy. So Kazemi has to travel to Dubai once school ends so he can apply for a visa to play basketball in the U.S.
This season, he missed the first week of school while awaiting a response on his visa application. He’s not promised anything when he leaves the U.S., so he’s never sure if he’ll be allowed to return to America and his team.
“I go back home but I have to wait on the results for sometimes two weeks, sometimes two months, sometimes one month. It can take like up to six months,” he told ESPN.com. “There’s not a guarantee every time I go back home to get the visa. … I always have to realize I might not come back.”