17 February, 2020
28 August, 2021
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Michael Rostampour: The Beastly Wolf of Iran

 TEHRAN (Iran) - Michael Rostampour plays with the passion and aggression of a beast. It's something that he's always had pride in ever since he was young up until now where he is a key piece of the Iran national team.

Iran basketball was always in the back of Rostampour's head growing up, even if he did not immediately map out the road to being a national team player since he was young.

"[Iran] just started winning the Asia Cups and I just started playing basketball," he said, in a recent interview with FIBA Asia Cup on Instagram. "As an Iranian, my dad was always watching sports."

"We'd just seen [Iran basketball] and eventually we saw Haddadi go to the NBA. My dad went to an NBA game, he saw Haddadi there. They;re from the same province. My dad is from Abadan, Haddadi's from Ahvaz. They're from Khuzestan, the same province in the south, so they have the same dialect and when you have that type of connection, it just makes you dream bigger."

A future in basketball wasn't the dream that Rostampour initially had growing in Minnesota, however. That came by chance as the 14-year-old Rostampour followed his best friend around to basketball game, lighting up a competitive fire in him.

"I was that tall skinny kid," he said. "But I didn't actually play organized basketball. When I came to the games and I watched, I'm just looking at the competition and I'm like 'This guys is good?'. 'This guy is beating this guy?'."

"Nah, nah, nah, let me see what I can do. I got to try this out. That's what started it, with some fire and passion. I just want to win. Winning is all I care about in everything I do. I know a lot of other people feel the same way. When you want competition, you want to play against the best people, you see that and you attack it."

That fiery passion is still on display each time Rostampour gets on the court. It's something he picked up ever since he was a kid watching his childhood hero and has become his brand and style of play as well.

"That's [me] growing up in Minnesota," he explained. "When I grew up, I'm watching Kevin Garnett for the Minnesota Timberwolves. Everybody from Minnesota in that era, we grew up watching greatness and the greatness that was displayed is the passion for the game. That's everything."

"That's trash talking respectfully. I'm going to trash talk with you because I respect you. I know you're a good player. Let me see if I can get into your head. I want to scream, I want to show my fans how much I care about this game. I want to dive for a loose balls. I want to show you  that I'm giving everything I have for every single play. I don't take plays off. I'm going to scream, I'm going to roar, I'll be alive on the court."

"It's not to show that I'm disrespecting you, it's for myself. To be honest, it's to show that I'm into the game. If I'm not doing any of these things, then you know that mentally I've checked out of the game."

All things considered - the killer's mentality, the howling - it's not hard to see why Rostampour named this particular canine predator as his favorite character.

"I'd say a wolf," he said. "Coming from Minnesota, a lot of what I like is from my hometown. We are the Timberwolves, the north. We have the most wolves in the US. Just being a wolf, how I play, it's kind of 'wolfy' and it's tattooed on my arm."

Rostampour's association with wolves fit in perfectly when he was given his jersey number for the national team. It's a small coincidence, but one that brightened Rostampour up with a smile.

"When I came to Iran, actually, my national team number, they gave it to me," he said. "I didn't ask for it and it was 20. The crazy thing about it is that I didn't like the number at first but then I learned about the Persian number and 20 is actually pronounced 'beast' in Persian."

"When I heard that I said, oh yeah that's my new favorite number for sure."

The journey for Rostampour to make his national team debut took time, but it's certainly been worthwhile so far. From playing in the NCAA Division 1 to playing professionally (and winning titles) in Slovakia, El Salvador, and Mexico, Rostampour finally got the chance to play for Iran during the World Cup 2019 Asian Qualifiers.

"It's a true honor, I love playing for the Iranians and these are my brothers and sisters over here, definitely."

"[It's] better than I ever expected to be honest. Before I even played for the national team, I had never even been to Iran before. Coming here, my first experience was just absolutely incredible especially that first game. My first game for the national team when we played Japan at home when we had the full capacity crowd. It was just unreal. I got goosebumps and I still  do when I think about it. It was definitely something I'll always remember, playing with guys  like Hamed Haddadi. This is a legend, not just in Iran, but in FIBA basketball."

"I grew up watching him when I was in high school, seeing him and these guys play for Iran. How these guys made Iran a champion in Asia and also letting the whole world know that Iran basketball is a major power. To see that and to be a part of it is something."

Meeting Haddadi in person was certainly a big moment for Rostampour, especially considering the background that they share with each other.

"He's so big, so right away it's intimidating, but it's just respect. When a person comes from a place like Iran and he's from the village area - he's like a village guy - and he comes and he makes it to the NBA, I mean this is what life is about. It's about doing things that are impossible and he did the impossible. He did it so this is great motivation for everybody, not just in Iran but from any type of place around the world that think they don't have a chance. Well, you do. it makes it a lot easier when you are 7'2", 7'3" but at the end of the day the guy is just one of the best basketball players ever alive."

Like Haddadi, Rostampour take much pride in representing the country. He's only done so far a couple of years, but he is certainly looking forward to it being a big part of his future.

"When you are playing for the national team, it's like you're putting on a super hero costume. It's almost like Spiderman when he puts on that suit - he's just a different person."

"You're just so focused on the task at hand. You're playing for millions of people. You're not just playing for yourself."

"Whether I have two points, whether have no points, it doesn't matter to me. When I'm on the court, I'm going to give you everything, so I'm not wasting my talent."

Playing for one of the best national teams in the world means that there is a lot of pressure. One slight slip here or there - as Iran did in their loss to Syria last November without the likes of Haddadi and Samad Nikkah Bahrami - and the pressure piles on just a bit more.

"In the future, we're going to have play without these guys, years from now. So I think it was a  great learning experience, win or lose. Obviously the losses hurt more than the wins and you want to try to get through the growing pains winning, but I think when we got there, I think everyone was in good spirits."

"Serbia lost in the Qualifiers, Lithuania lost. We were one of many big teams that got upset, so I don't think it's anything to worry about."

Rostampour delivered a one-liner that he feels should be able to assure them of their beloved team's future.

"Olympic Team."

Though he is more about living in the moment and not looking too far in the future about the prospect of officially being an Olympian, Rostampour shared how it felt in the moment learning they had qualified back in the summer of 2019.

"Just pandemonium, ridiculous."

"I was talking about in an interview that that World Cup had the lowest of lows. We lost three straight games, we were expected to get out of qualifications, and we lost those three straight games. So low and then to get back after all that adversity to come back and go 3-0 was just incredible in its own right."

"On the bench, one of the managers was on the phone and he was following the other game which was China. The Chinese people in the crowd, they knew. They were 20,000 strong cheering against us for the Philippines - shout out to the Philippines, they were playing their butts off, trying to stop us."

"When we found out that we just had to take care of business on the court, when we found out we were going to the Olympics, that was just ridiculous. These 12 guys guys, this coaching staff, we accomplished something that is historic. We'll be remembered forever. This is stuff you tell your kids about. Regardless of what happens in the future, those 12 guys were the ones that got us there."

"Definitely credit to the coaching staff and coach Shahintab. A lot of people put pressure on my guy but we already knew. The players believe in him and it just shows the greatness of him and the greatness of our leaders Haddadi  ad Samad to get us past that hump. I'm thankful that they get to go again because they deserve it."

Also expected in the future for Iran is a return to the Asia Cup where they went all the way to the Final in 2017. There's still some work left to do in the final Window of the Qualifiers and the fans are certainly expecting Iran to seal the deal soon.

Rostampour already has a short list of opponents he'd like to face in that setting.

"[I want to play against] Australia. Japan again, but I want Hachimura there, hopefully [because] he plays my position. I want to play Lebanon obviously. China, of course."

"I want to play against the champions! I want to play against the NBA  guys. I want to play against those guys. That's what we're living for. Let me play against the best talent. If I lose, I lose. If I win, I win, that's the sport."

When the time comes, fans can be sure to see Rostampour give it his all and do his best once again as he always had as a member of Team Melli.

"I had a Serbian coach from back in the day, he just told me we never 'must' do anything. 'Must' is not even a word that you should speak in your mouth. You just do the best that you possibly can and whatever happens you live with those results," Rostampour said of his Asia Cup 2021 expectations.

"For our group, I don't speak for everybody, but for my own sake, the expectation is to play Iran basketball and to do what we do in practice. Run the sets correctly, do the defensive assignments correctly. I sound like a coach almost! If it's boring, I'm sorry to speak like this, but just do your job basically. If we do our jobs, I do believe we will like the results. Just like every team, obviously, we want to win the whole thing, that's why we play this thing."

Most importantly, Rostampour is just hoping that basketball will be able to return to its full capacity with the fans flooding the stands come tipoff time.

"I hope we can get the fans back in there," he said. "The fans make basketball and the fans make sports, everybody knows this. Shout out to the Philippines basketball fans. These guys are all over FIBA Asia Cup, I see the comments!"

"We want the fans back in the stadium. It just makes for so much more excitement. I don't know if the media sees this, but some players go down with the fans and some players go up. To play with fans, the best players will always rise so I always love to play with the fans. I just hope that we get back to things being safe."

Make sure to check out the full talk with Michael Rostampour for more on his favorite movie, song, and basketball plays on FIBA Asia Cup IGTV!