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Hoop Dreams Land Basketball Player An 'Iran Job'


Kevin Sheppard was an outstanding point guard at Jacksonville University and he hoped to play professional basketball - maybe in places like Miami, Boston or Los Angeles. Instead, he wound up playing in places like Brazil, China and Israel. Then, came an offer from the heart of the Axis of Evil.


SIMON: Kevin Sheppard's 2008-2009 season playing for the A.S. Shiraz team in Iran's Super League is the subject of a new film by Till Schauder. It's called "The Iran Job." Kevin Sheppard and Till Schauder join us now from our studios of NPR West. Thanks very much for being with us.

TILL SCHAUDER: Thanks for having us.

: Thank you.

SIMON: Mr. Sheppard, did you have any concerns for your safety?

: Well, definitely. I had a lot of concern. All I knew was everything I heard on the news. So, I basically had one plan, really - to go over there, see what it's like. If it's everything like they say on the news, then I would just jump on the plane and come back home or go somewhere else to play. But if it's not, then I will find out something else and see something else that a lot of people on this side of the world have never seen.

SIMON: What did you discover? How was it different from the Iran you'd seen on the news?

: You know, one of the most important things that really humbles me was the fact that I got an opportunity to meet with the people and live with the people and saw the lifestyle of the people. And in fact, it was just such a big huge separation between the people and the government that it was really sad that the people of this side of the world didn't get an opportunity to see it. But in reality, the people of Iran really want to change themselves, as a lot of us got to witness with the Green Movement on TV.

SIMON: Mr. Schauder, you originally wanted to make this film by entering Iran as a journalist but that, I guess, became a problem.

SCHAUDER: Yeah, that's right. And at first, they seemed supportive of the project. It looked like we were going to get all the paperwork that we needed. But then out of the blue one day they called us and basically told us your project is probably garbage and we're not going to let you do it. And it forced me to really take the smallest, lightest equipment possible and enter Iran with my German passport. I have dual citizenship - U.S. and German.

SIMON: Mr. Sheppard, let me ask you some basketball questions. In the film, when you get to your team, S.A. Shiraz, you were not - if I might put it this way - bulled over by the caliber of Iranian basketball. Let's listen to a clip.



: This is the worst basketball I've ever seen in my life. Very bad basketball. Not a good day.

That was absolutely true. I mean, I was on a young team - it was an expansion team, their first time in the top level. It's a challenge.

SIMON: At the heart of this film is the utter friendliness with which you are received by Iranians. There's a wonderful moment in the scene when you, Mr. Sheppard, you're conversing with a shopkeeper who had lived in Tennessee and - well, I'll let him speak for himself. But let's say that he loved Bob Marley.



: (Singing) Don't worry, be happy, everything will be all right. Yeah, I smoked marijuana in America.

SIMON: I'm sure the statute of limitations has expired. The most touching part of the film in many ways is your relationship, friendship you develop with three young Iranian women. And this is a friendship in which they share with you, but the difficulties they have as women living in Iran, and we see it in the film, but it has to be kind of a concealed relationship.



: Shhh. Let me go upstairs and get the key.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (unintelligible) too.

: Whenever the girls leave our apartments, we have to sneak them out the back gate. They don't want Abdullah or anyone else to see them.

SIMON: What do you think they got out of their friendship with you?

: You know, basically what I think they got out of our relationship was the fact that they was able to communicate with a guy from the United States who was open, who was able to listen to their problems and see them for their inner struggles and what they're going through. Whereas, when I spoke to a lot of my teammates, a lot of the women over there were seeing more, like, sex symbols. So, it was a little bit different for them to see a man like myself being able to be as open as I was. And, you know, they gravitated to me.

SIMON: Till Schauder, I gather, based on your experience, that making a film in Iran is kind of not like making one in Kansas, is it?

SCHAUDER: The most difficult part of it was actually to get the footage out of the country. Because normally when you go anywhere in the world, you make a backup of your tape and you send it home or you send it home right away so there's no risk in losing anything. In Iran, I couldn't do that because you're not allowed to send media from Iran to the States. This is not an Iranian restriction. It's actually an American restriction. But I couldn't risk taking it out myself because had they caught me at the airport with, you know, a hundred of tape, they wouldn't have believed my I'm just a tourist line. So, I had to send it to my mother in Germany, 'cause Germany has much better relations with Iran, and she would then send it on to New York.

SIMON: We don't want to spoil the storyline, Mr. Sheppard, but you have this momentous intersection, in a sense, between playoff hopes of the Shiraz team and the hopes of the Iranian people in a presidential campaign.

: I mean, the timing of how all of this thing happened, I mean, you just can't write this thing, where I just went to a country and all of a sudden this election came about that I knew nothing about. And then you see what's going on with my team in comparison with the people of Iran trying to basically stand up for their rights. Because all this was happening before even the revolution in Egypt and Syria and all those places. And I was in the center of all this. I mean, it's, you know, I'm still at a loss of words. I can't even explain it. I think maybe spiritually God put me in that situation so I can be there to understand that, hey, even though you're a basketball player, this, what you're going through right now is bigger than basketball. And it was just a humbling experience for me.

SIMON: Would you ever go back to coach the Iranian national team?

: No, sir. I think I'll try to coach my own national team first in the...

SIMON: In the Virgin Islands. OK. Kevin Sheppard, now retired from basketball, and filmmaker Till Schauder. Their film is called "The Iran Job." Thanks very much, gentlemen.

: Thank you.

SCHAUDER: Thanks for having us on the show. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.