Winning FIBA Asia Cup 2007 the benchmark for Iran: Nikkhah Bahrami

August 2, 2020 - 15:31

TEHRAN - Samad Nikkhah Bahrami says that winning the FIBA Asia Cup 2007 was the benchmark for the Iranian basketball.

He talked in detail about the national team with FIBA Asia Cup on Instagram.

"I can remember, at that time, basketball was not professional in Iran. Players weren't getting paid a lot and most of the players had another job on the side. I was like maybe 15-17 years old when Iranian basketball was nowhere in Asia, even in West Asia," Nikkhah Bahrami said.

"I was really suffering when I saw everyone talking about every other sport on TV and not basketball, but I really believed in us," he said. "I was thinking that Iranian basketball players had good size, great intelligence, and we love basketball. So, I was just thinking if they cared a little bit more about basketball and us, we could do something."

"I was very young when I got to the national team, 17-18 years old," he explained. "I never wanted to be a young player on the team, I just wanted to be a key player in the team. Maybe now people think that I was young and they pushed me because I was young, but I remember I was practicing maybe two more times any other player in Iran for every day, not for a month or two months or for a short period of time. I just wanted to out-practice everybody because I just wanted everybody to respect me because of my game. Not my age. Not because I was young. Not because I was tall. Not because I was strong. I just wanted to make a change every time I got to the game."

"The hard thing was to make that personality for myself to just prove to everybody they can count on me, that I can change the game. Prove that if I'm on the court and off the court, what are the differences."

"I remember I get to the camp, physically I was not that strong. Some older players, they didn't want to give up their places which is normal. They were tough on me, bodied me, pushed me, bumped me so hard. So, I remember, me and brother, we went to the weight room like four hours a day and I was young so my body was ready for that, too. I gained like 16-17 kilograms, ridiculous muscles."

"Then, I went to the camp next summer and I was bumping everybody, pushing everybody. Then I remember the coach telling me out of practice 'You are young, you cannot hit everybody like that' but I didn't want to hit everybody! I was just big and I wasn't used to my body and I was very strong all the sudden. That was hard and tough. I didn't want to disrespect anybody but I was young and gained a lot of weight and muscles and I was very strong."

All of the pieces finally fell into place at in 2007. Heading into the Asia Cup in Tokushima with little to no expectations, Samad and Iran ended up changing the course of history by winning their first of many titles.

"[Before the tournament] we had some young players and we had experienced players. All of the sudden, all of the experienced players were injured one by one and they left the camp. A week before the tournament, the team left for the Asia Cup and I remember everybody - newspapers, everyone - saying that this team will never go to the second round."

It was a fair assumption in the moment. Iran were grouped with Jordan, the Philippines, and the defending champions China.

"Everyone was saying that [we] aren't going to make it, we aren't going to be good because we were young, we didn't have any good experience."

"Inside the [training] camp, we all believed in ourselves because we had very good practices," he said. "Rajko Toroman is a very good coach. He changed the mentality of the other player to think that we can do it. It didn't matter if we were young, if we were inexperienced, whatever. We had a good team and we practiced really hard and good for him, so we ran into the tournament and we beat everybody."

Making their way through to the Final against Lebanon was further than what anyone on the team imagined. They were confident of how good they were, but this stage was already the furthest any Iran national team had gone in the Asia Cup. They were a young team that wasn't quite sure what was up ahead for them in the future, yet here they were.

"I had no idea what was the 'Olympics'. I wanted to go to the Olympics, that would be nice. But we couldn't even touch or feel what was going to happen to us. I remember [the president of the federation] wrote on the board that if we win, we will get the ticket to the Olympics and our professional lives will be changed."

"So, we go to the game and, obviously, we beat Lebanon. Then we qualified and we were happy, jumping up and down all over the court, yelling and singing, whatever. Then we come back to the locker room. I remember that I read it again, it's the same thing that he wrote on the board. I remember thinking 'okay, we are going to the Olympics. So, what is this?'"

"Then the next year, I was walking in the opening ceremony parade at the Olympics and I was thinking 'okay, he was right. He was seeing ahead'."

"I had no idea what it was at that time and I can say that the benchmark for Iranian basketball was that championship because after that, every team in Asia respected us. We believe in ourselves and then everybody in Iran believed in us."

"He was right, everything changed."

Because of that and many other reasons, the Asia Cup 2007 title will always hold a special place in Samad's heart.

"That was our first title," Samad said of his all-time favorite Asia Cup experience. "I think that was the turning point for Iranian basketball and Aidin - my brother  - was there with me so that was the best one for me. Maybe I can't remember any of those games, but I remember so many situations and I have so many images of 2007 in my head."

That title gave the opportunity for Samad and the national team to play all over the world whether it was in the NBA Summer League, Europe, or Australia. They got to beat Serbia. Samad got to experience a star-caliber NBA talent first-handed going up against Manu Ginobili. And all of that experience rolled along into the preparation for Asia Cup 2009.

They say defending a title is tougher than winning the first one, but Samad disagrees.

"I have to say the second time [in 2009] was so easy. I'm telling you, we had confidence through the roof," Samad claimed.

"When we won in 2007, everybody was talking about how China didn't go with the full team and that's why you guys won the championship. That was the only thing that bothered us for those two years. So, when we faced China in the Finals, we beat them [18] points."

"I remember all the fans leaving the stadium because we were dominating. The thing is that crazy confidence we had coming back from the Olympics with the experience as a young national team, so that the easiest one."

Iran were able to settle their slight "grudge" with China in 2009, but he still longed for more opportunities to go against a full force China squad. Samad got those chances early on against Yao's China teams in the early 2000s and wishes the two national teams could have had the chance to go up against each other in their primes.

"I think it was almost impossible to beat China at that time but I cannot say that. We were not in our peak, we were young."

"That would be a very nice matchup, if we could play against them when we were our prime. I think we could play against them because Hamed would match up against Yao and I think we could do something."

"I really miss playing against China with their best prime time generation."

The Iranian legend who played in seven Asia Cups also talked about the future of Iran basketball, specifically about Behnam Yakhchali who will be playing in Europe in the upcoming season. He emphasized about the difficulties of playing in Europe as an Asian - as he had done himself in the past - but that he was confident Behnam would be able to succeed and pave the way for many more.

Samad properly wrapped up the talk with a heartfelt appreciation note to the fans for their support over the years.

"Without the fans, I wouldn't Samad Nikkhah Bahrami like you know me now. Like they know me in the streets every time, they say hi, they want to take a picture, they want a signature, but they give a lot of energy, too. They think for them it's something special to see me and then take a picture with me, but they don't understand how much energy they give to me to sustain and stay at this top level to make them proud."

"I have to say that most of the things that I have right now - actually everything that I have right now is because of them. Because they push me, they pray for me, they love me. The energy they give and send to me when I was playing with the national team all around the world is something huge that changed my life, too. I'm not going to trade anything for that," He concluded.

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