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Mayar Zokaei translates well to the NBA

BEN BOLCH / ON THE NBA

The Iran-born player agent and UCLA graduate seeks to link two different but increasingly diverse basketball cultures. Among his clients: Hamed Haddadi, the first Iranian to play in NBA.

April 14, 2012|By Ben Bolch
  • Memphis' Hamed Haddadi, above, is a client of Mayar Zokaei, an Iranian American manager and interpreter who graduated from UCLA and spent much of his childhood in the San Fernando Valley.
Memphis' Hamed Haddadi, above, is a client of Mayar Zokaei, an Iranian… (Joe Murphy / NBAE via Getty…)

Someone had to tell Hamed Haddadi that he had been likened to Borat's older brother.

The Memphis Grizzlies center had been lampooned by Clippers broadcasters Ralph Lawler and Michael Smith during a November 2009 game, with Smith asking his colleague if he wasn't sure Haddadi was related to the fictional character created by comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.

Some listeners didn't consider the comparison a compliment given that Borat was a crude chauvinist.

Haddadi didn't know the difference. The first Iranian to play in the NBA, he didn't speak English.

That's where Mayar Zokaei came in.

Haddadi's Iranian American manager and interpreter, a UCLA graduate who had spent much of his childhood in the San Fernando Valley listening to Clippers broadcasts, wasn't offended because he grasped Lawler's offbeat sense of humor.

Nevertheless, Zokaei knew he had to inform his client what had been said.

"[Haddadi] said, 'Why would they do that?'" Zokaei recalled. "I said, 'This is what they do for everybody. This is the kind of humor they manifest in their broadcasts. Don't take it personally.' "

Zokaei, who now co-represents Haddadi along with veteran agent Marc Cornstein, also served as an interpreter two days later when Lawler and Smith apologized to Haddadi after serving a one-game suspension for their remarks.

Haddadi has become a trailblazer for other Iranian players with NBA aspirations, and Zokaei has been there much of the way to ensure steady footing for his countryman.

"He came and helped me during a period in my life where I really knew few people in the U.S.," Haddadi said via email through a translator, "and it was more of a friendship and I trusted him."

Though he lives in West Hills, Zokaei travels to Memphis every month and attends about a third of the Grizzlies' road games. He routinely ships Haddadi traditional Middle Eastern walnut cookies, macaroons, rice cookies and specialty brittle to complement the large quantities of tea that he drinks daily.

Zokaei has also spearheaded Iranian Heritage Nights for Grizzlies games, including one against the Clippers a few years ago at Staples Center complete with a Persian dance troupe and national anthem singer. Fans slipped on green T-shirts and Haddadi wore wristbands of the same color, which has come to symbolize the pro-democracy movement in Iran.

Zokaei said his client wasn't making a political statement.

"He understands he's from a country where some things are not the way they should be," Zokaei said, "but he loves the people there. You'll never hear him say anything bad about his country."

The 7-foot-2 Haddadi played for Iran in the 2008 Olympics and has averaged 2.1 points and 2.2 rebounds for the Grizzlies over his four-year NBA career. He said he hopes more Persian players will eventually join him at basketball's highest level.

Prospects include Benny Koochoie, a 6-3 shooting guard who was among the top scorers in an Iranian pro league that included former NBA players, and Arsalan Kazemi, a 6-7 junior forward at Rice who is the first Iranian-born Division I college player in the United States.

Zokaei also represents Koochoie and former NBA guard Rashad McCants, who recently concluded a season playing professionally in Puerto Rico. He hopes to add more high-profile players — Iranian and otherwise — to a stable that also includes entertainment clients such as Persian singer Arash.

"I think every agent has to start off with a niche," said Zokaei, 32. "You can't go out there and think you're going to sign the No. 1 guy out of college. The byproduct of me finding my niche is that I'm able to endorse Iranians playing in the U.S. but also Americans playing in Iran, which is an untapped and evolving basketball market."

Zokaei has helped place former American collegiate players Tim Ellis and Gjio Bain in the Iranian Super League for a team based in Haddadi's birth city of Ahvaz. He often ships them deodorant and toothpaste because they have found that the concentration levels of comparable items there don't work with their body chemistry.

The son of a variety magazine publisher and editor, Zokaei was born in Tehran a year after the start of the Islamic Revolution. His family left Iran when he was 3, making brief stopovers in Turkey and Michigan before settling in Southern California two years later.

Zokaei eventually spent several years as a sportswriter for The Times and the Los Angeles Daily News but had known he wanted to a sports agent from the moment he realized as a swingman at El Camino Real High that his playing prospects were limited.

Haddadi asked Zokaei to represent him in 2009 because he was a fan of one Zokaei's music clients. The pair quickly became an odd couple, the former journalist and the player Zokaei described as "a very personable 7-foot-2 little goofball."

Easing a player's transition to a foreign environment is only part of what Zokaei intends to accomplish.

"Any way I can bridge the gap between two cultures that have historically not been on amicable terms," Zokaei said, "I think that will reap its own rewards in the long term. Sometimes it takes music or sports for cultures or people to come together."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

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