(SI.com) | February 26, 2010

HOUSTON (AP) -The pressure is great on Rice’s Arsalan Kazemi, the first Iranian-born athlete to play NCAA Division I basketball.

The trailblazing 6-foot-7 freshman knows his performance could affect what opportunities other Iranian players might get in the United States.

“If I play good they’re going to go after other players in my country,” said Kazemi, who leads the Owls in rebounding. “If I’m not playing good, they’re going to say: ‘They don’t have any basketball if he’s the first one. They don’t have any other good players.”’

Kazemi’s path to the U.S. began at the West Asian games in Tehran in 2007, when he earned most valuable player honors for leading Iran’s under-17 national team to the championship and gained the attention of Anthony Ibrahim.

A Lebanese who has worked as an NBA broadcaster for Middle East telecasts and owns a travel agency in Houston, Ibrahim brought Kazemi to the U.S. in 2008. He helped enroll him in a prep school in North Carolina to play basketball and improve his English enough to get into college.

As he was preparing to play for Rice, Kazemi didn’t know he would be the first Iranian to play Division I basketball.

“It was kind of amazing to be the first one to do something and make history,” he said. “It’s pretty good.”

Rice coach Ben Braun has tried to convey to the 19-year-old Kazemi the magnitude of his journey. Braun has spoken to him about Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in baseball and about the first students to integrate schools.

“Those are breakthrough moments,” Braun said. “I don’t know if they’re comparable or not, but they’re similar. It takes a special person to be that first person. You have to have a lot of courage. You have to have a lot of confidence and a lot of faith and belief that you will do well and not put added pressure on yourself and just know that it’s right.”

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