Hoops as diplomacy in 'The Iran Job' doc

"Nowhere did I feel as welcomed as in Iran," says Sheppard. "Their hospitality is unique." Courtesy of Fork Films

In 2002, President George W. Bush infamously labeled the Islamic Republic of Iran a member of the “Axis of Evil.” To a number of American ballers, though, Iran is home sweet home. The story of one Yank’s foray into the Iranian hoops scene is told in “The Iran Job,” a gripping documentary from Till Schauder about journeyman Kevin Sheppard’s 2008-09 season in the Iranian Basketball Super League.

Sheppard, a gregarious native of the U.S. Virgin Islands who played point at Jacksonville University, arrived in Iran with preconceived notions -- informed by Western media coverage -- of a backward country populated by fanatics.

“If you watch TV in America, or most places in the West, you can get the impression that every Iranian carries an AK-47 and is hiding in his basement scheming to build nukes,” Sheppard told the Blitz. “You get scared into thinking it's a very dangerous country for Americans.”

What the baller found, instead, was a warm reception from doting Iranians armed with a healthy curiosity about their visitor, a love of Americana and a desire for the freedoms enjoyed by the West.

“I played in many countries,” says the veteran of leagues in China, Israel, South America and Europe. “Nowhere did I feel as welcomed as in Iran. The people are extremely supportive and their hospitality is unique -- never seen anything like it. I realized that the majority of Iranians -- I mean everyday Iranians -- actually love Americans. They love our music, our culture, our way of life. It was a real surprise for me.”

The film and the country in which it’s set hits close to home for this Iranian-American reporter. I’ve battled misconceptions about my native country -- some pretty silly racial slurs, too -- for as long as I can remember. (For the record, people: I’ve spent a half-dozen summers in Iran; I haven’t spotted a single camel, much less seen to the proper riding of one.)

And as the author of a 2006 ESPN Magazine feature story about the Iranian Super League’s American imports, I’ve witnessed Iran’s unintentional experiment in hoops diplomacy, a sometimes comical effort conducted by locals and wide-eyed Yanks who overcome their nations’ tense relations and a lifetime of misinformation to forge lasting friendships -- when they’re not miscommunicating on the court.

The doc, which sold out its premiere at the LA Film Festival and hits theaters in LA on Sept. 28 and New York on Oct. 12, treats basketball fans to the amusing trials and tribulations of Sheppard’s team, A.S. Shiraz, a rag-tag squad of talented but untrained men who want nothing more than to learn the game from an American with skills and know-how. The film sings when it focuses on Sheppard’s off-court relationships with teammates and his unlikely friendship with three young local women who bristle under the social restrictions placed upon them by the Iranian regime.

These elements, by themselves, would make for a stellar documentary, but a crazy thing happened on trip from production to the big screen, and it’s every documentarian’s dream: an unexpected and totally organic dramatic conflict fell into Schauder's lap in the form of 2009’s “Green Movement” -- the harrowing and, eventually, bloody uprising by Iran’s youth captured on flip-phones and witnessed on YouTube. Schauder sets Sheppard’s plotline on a collision course with the country’s internal conflict. The result is nothing short of spellbinding.

Telling Sheppard’s story required guts and resourcefulness on Schauder’s part. When the Iranian government denied the filmmaker a journalist visa, going so far as to deem his as yet-unfilmed movie “garbage” in correspondence, the German-born director boldly elected to go under the radar with his production, using his German passport to enter Iran as a tourist and then filming Sheppard’s journey with a small camera more befitting a vacation movie.

“Had I been caught,” the director tells us, “it would’ve been a scary situation.” Things got hairy anyway when, late in the shoot, word of Schauder’s film leaked to the powers that be. While attempting to re-enter Iran to film a Shiraz playoff game, Schauder was detained at the airport and, without explanation, held in a cell for 24 hours before being sent home. Game over.

To this day, Schauder’s name sits on a blacklist, but the filmmaker, who is married to his movie’s Iranian producer, Sara Nodjoumi, says he can stomach his ban so long as he achieves his lofty goal: peace between the two nations.

“In America, we’re quick to take drastic measures, such as going to war with a country, without really knowing what we’re getting into,” Schauder says. “I wanted people to understand the people and culture of Iran before taking these measures, and I thought sports was a great way to do that. Kevin doesn’t have an agenda. He didn’t go to Iran to make world peace. He went there to do a job.”

And Sheppard, for one, is better for it.

“People are people anywhere in the world,” says the 33-year-old baller, who retired in 2011 following his third season in Iran. “We may follow different religions, but by and large we share the same hopes and dreams and aspirations. One of these aspirations is to live in a decently free society. It was amazing, actually inspiring, to see the Iranian people protest for their rights during the Green Movement. They took real sacrifices. And they try to do the best they can -- on and off the basketball court -- even though they have so many restrictions. It was humbling to see that. When you engage with people, and get rid of your own fear factor, you get to know them and you can go a long way towards building a meaningful dialogue.

“Basketball was my entry into Iran, but in the end my experience there was much bigger than basketball.”

Check out the website for the film, read its Kickstarter page and see the trailer for "The Iran Job" below.