By Ali Karimi, for NBA.com
Posted Sep 14 2009 11:55AM
One hundred screaming kids, a guest appearance from new Lakers forward Ron Artest, learning, fun and a smiling 7-foot-2 Iranian center as the sponsor.
That was the first annual Hamed Haddadi basketball camp that concluded Sunday on the campus of California State University Northridge in the San Fernando Valley.
The two-day event was the first-ever sports camp held by an Iranian athlete, one organizers anticipate to be an annual occurrence. The wide-eyed campers were mostly Iranian children between the ages of 6-18, but the event was open to the public. They smiled with glee as they posed for photos with Haddadi and cheered with delight after their athletic hero made a basket.
Twenty volunteers served as Camp counselors, most notably: Behdad Sami, the first professional Iranian basketball player to ever play in the United States; Tehran Ghasri, an Iranian radio/tv personality who is currently on a comedy tour; and Benny Koochoie, who became the first Assyrian to play for the Iranian National team after returning from his summer stint with Team Melli.
In the meantime, both Sami and Koochoie will seek employment overseas while working toward their NBA dreams.
Haddadi, on the other hand, recently returned from his MVP performance in leading Iran to the FIBA Asia Championship title in Tianjin, China.
But it's been a tough few weeks for him after contracting food poisoning that he believes was caused from drinking bad tap water in Taiwan.
The recent news of the Grizzlies acquiring Allen Iverson, nevertheless, has Haddadi excited for the 2009-10 NBA season.
"I'm very excited to play with a player of his (Iverson's) caliber," he said in his native Farsi when asked about his newest teammate. "I'm proud to call him a teammate."
Day one of the camp was highlighted by Artest's guest appearance, with the crowd cheering on the all-smiles veteran after he swished a half-court shot.
Yet even the campers packed a little star in Yara Shahidi, who recently made her theatrical debut starring opposite Eddie Murphy in Paramount Picture's "Imagine That."
"I hope they have the camp again next year," the nine-year-old said. "I had so much fun. We spent the morning doing drills and afternoons with scrimmages and contests."
Since the largest concentration of Iranians outside of Iran remains in L.A., Southern California seemed to be a natural choice for the location of the camp.
Haddadi was happy to be the catalyst for bringing the youth of the Iranian-American community together in L.A. even if it was only for a weekend, and Ehsan Bashi, the camp's co-coordinator this year, believes that Iranian youth will soon see Haddadi as an icon.
"Sports are not an emphasis in Iranian society." he said. "With Hamed, we have a great role model for hard work and dedication."
It was a sentiment Sami also echoed.
"I told the kids, 'With hard work, anything is possible.' I played two minutes a game in high school, and now I'm a pro athlete," he said.
Mayar Zokaei, Haddadi's manager, hopes the event can spread to other cities.
"We made the price $45 for two days in hopes that everyone could afford it. Nobody was turned away," Zokaei said.
Weekly Persian magazine Javanan and the One Group helped promote the event with Ghasri using his media outlets to spread the word as well. Haddadi sponsored 20 kids from financially-disadvantaged backgrounds while all net proceeds from the event will be going to the Hamed Haddadi Javanan Foundation ("Javanan" means "youth" in Farsi).
And while 100 kids enjoyed their two days with Iran's lone NBA player, Haddadi also dispelled any notion that he was considering leaving the league with Internet rumors starting to swirl.
"The Grizzlies have assembled a deep and talented roster. I look forward to helping them win games and make a playoff run," he said.
"I look forward to doing this camp again next year. I love working with kids because I'm a kid at heart."
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