Monday, July 13, 2009 | 2:04 a.m.
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Hamed Haddadi returned home last month to Tehran as a hero, the first Iranian to play in the National Basketball Association.
When, that is, he chose to venture outside his house and go to a restaurant or visit with friends.
“I kind of had an inkling there would be an immense reaction by the people,” Haddadi said Sunday at Cox Pavilion through translator Mayor Zokaei. “There was a significant reaction. I know it’s changed their vision of me.”
Memphis inked Haddadi, 24, to a contract in August, after he led everyone in rebounds and blocked shots at the Beijing Olympics. With 16.6 points and 11.2 rebounds, he was the lone Olympian to average a double-double.
Relations that have been strained for decades between the United States and Iran complicated his arrival on the world’s most prestigious basketball stage, but getting here might have been the tough part.
The 7-foot-2, 260-pound center played 19 games for the Grizzlies last season and he continues to make the transition to the size and speed of the NBA.
But Haddadi, who has nearly 3,700 friends and fans linked to his Facebook page, is sure of himself and his ability to learn quickly.
“Basketball was easy for me in Iran,” he said in the scant English he spoke. “Here, it is faster than in Iran and Asia. Here, I need to take time and think. I’ll do better.”
He was asked about a play Sunday in which two Oklahoma City players appeared to foul him in transition under the basket. No foul was called, and Haddadi missed a close lefty shot.
Haddadi turned to Zokaei.
“They’re taller and faster here,” Haddadi said through his interpreter. “Everyone jumps high. But I’ll be able to acclimate myself to the physical play. It’s nothing the refs need to do for me.
“I’ll do it for myself. The calls will come. I’ll just play and see what happens.”
Memphis plays New York at 3 p.m. Tuesday at Cox, the L.A. Clippers at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center and Phoenix at 5 p.m. Saturday at Cox.
Haddadi averaged 2.5 points and 2.5 rebounds in his brief tenure with the Grizzlies last season, when he made about $1.6 million. Memphis is interested in keeping Haddadi through 2013.
Haddadi is poised for a big man and has keen court sense. Sunday, he dribbled once on the right wing and fed a cutting teammate, with a left-handed flip pass, for an easy layup.
He hustles and he’s strong. Even double-teamed, he demanded the ball in the post. And he’s a stellar teammate, quickly helping a fallen Grizzlies player and erupting on the sideline at a good play.
“I want to exhibit some pride as the first Iranian player in the NBA,” Haddadi said. “I look forward to working hard and playing hard, and making my fellow countrymen proud.
“Hopefully, I’ll last a while in the league. It’s been a little hard for me, this transition. My intensity at this level isn’t where it needs to be, but I’m working hard on getting it there.”
While in Tehran on holiday, Haddadi witnessed the dramatic fallout, and widespread demonstrations that garnered global attention, from rigging claims in his country’s presidential election.
He gave his shortest answer, through Zokaei, to any of Sunday’s questions when asked about what he heard and saw, and felt, during that tense time at home.
“I’m just here to talk about basketball,” Haddadi said.
But when pressed about being an Iranian trail blazer, Haddadi again struggled for words.
“I hope other Iranians think of me this way,” he said. “There’s nothing I can say by myself. There’s nothing I can say on my behalf. But if people say I am a role model and trail blazer, then that’s what they think.”