It's been four long, sad decades for the Rice men's basketball program. There have been a few moments of levity -- the opening of Tudor Fieldhouse, Morris Almond's mid-range jumper, Willis Wilson's mustache -- but, by and large, the tale's been one of cumbersome academics and milquetoast community support.
In 2013, though, that was supposed to change. With Ben Braun's hiring a half-decade ago, a bumper crop of recruits suddenly started spinning through Tudor. Decades of grind gave way to sudden promise. On the backs of guard Tamir Jackson and forward Arsalan Kazemi, both of whom generated talk of professional play from their earliest days, 2013 was set as the year that Rice finally broke from the decades-long doldrums and jumped to something approaching respectability.
And then, everything collapsed. During the off-season, assistant coach Marco Morcos left, eventually taking a half-dozen members of the team, including Kazemi, along with them. (You may have noted Kazemi's name recently, as he led the 12th-seeded University of Oregon to an improbable Sweet 16 run.) Everyone noticed the smoke, but no one could pinpoint the fire. And then, last week, Sports Illustrated informed us why Kazemi, the first Iranian-born NCAA men's basketball player, and his compatriots had fled the program en masse.
It seems that Rick Greenspan, who landed Rice's athletic director position after the construction boom of the Chris Del Conte years, determined it would be funny if everyone within earshot knew that Kazemi, who'd played his first three years with Rice, was of a different nation, a different religion and, per Greenspan's penchant for stereotyping dark-skinned 19-year-olds, a different political bent:
In Kazemi's waiver request [to transfer], he claimed that Greenspan told Marcos to "recruit more terrorists" on multiple occasions. He also alleged that when talking in Arabic to another player that Greenspan asked if they were having an "Al-Qaeda meeting."
When Morcos wore a traditional Middle Eastern gown as part of a team function for Halloween, Kazemi alleged in the waiver request that Greenspan told the assistant, "All you need is a backpack and you are ready to bomb the school." On multiple road trips, Kazemi claimed that Greenspan directed airport security to thoroughly search the bags of him, [Egyptian Omar] Oraby and [Lebanese Ahmad] Ibrahim because of their Middle Eastern heritage.
Kazemi also accused Greenspan of telling him and other players in January 2012, "We only need one more guy to complete the Axis of Evil."
Another time, Kazemi alleged he was talking in a foreign language to another player and Morcos when Greenspan walked by and told them, "Stop speaking in this language because you could be plotting against us."
In addition to his offensive prowess, Kazemi's position at Rice was one of the more shining examples of the tolerance and diversity Rice attempts to boast of at most turns. Not only was he a fantastic face for the university -- he was easily one of the most approachable and unassuming members of the team -- but Kazemi's ambassadorship for Iran, and his work with Braun, a Jewish coach, allowed all those observing to see how easily sports can shift into something a bit more.
For what it's worth, it's entirely possible that these comments were meant -- poorly, ashamedly -- as something approaching jest. But for a student who was detained for six hours during his first landing in Houston, and for someone who's acted as much of a bridge for nations detached as anyone you'll potentially see during nuclear discussions in Kazakhstan this week -- for someone as open-hearted as Kazemi always seemed to be -- Greenspan's comments were something beyond shameful. They were despicable. They were loathsome. They made me ashamed to be attached to the Rice community, a sentiment shared by everyone with a similar background.
Slurs, of course, are hardly foreign to men's college basketball program. (See: Coach Mike Rice, Rutgers University.) Moreover, when it comes to public light that the university has been dealing internally with deleterious matters of race, religion and orientation -- and has failed to send the offending party packing -- more than one head will roll. (See: AD Tim Pernetti, Rutgers University.)
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
For those wondering why Greenspan -- who has been largely perceived as an empty suit since his hire -- is still employed, Rice circulated a statement on Thursday explaining its position. (Why it took a week to release the text, and why it was sent only to those in the "Rice community," is left open.) President David Leebron noted that the school had hired an outside firm to pore over the matter. Not only did this investigation purportedly bunk Kazemi's racial comments, but they also called out the NCAA for failing to conduct necessary, and potentially exonerating, investigations while allowing Kazemi's transfer:
First of all, when allegations of discrimination arise we take them seriously and investigate them carefully. That was the case when such allegations were made by a former assistant basketball coach whose contract had not been renewed, and subsequently repeated to the NCAA on behalf of two former student-athletes he was close to. After we first received notice of the former coach's allegations, we hired an outside law firm to conduct an investigation into those specific accusations. That investigation found no evidence of discrimination.
After the two basketball players obtained our consent to transfer to other schools last summer, those schools filed applications that repeated those allegations with the NCAA for a waiver of a rule that would have required the athletes to sit out a season. Based on our investigation, we filed our response to the NCAA demonstrating that the allegations of discrimination were false.
By its own admission, the NCAA granted the waiver without conducting an investigation or interviewing anyone at Rice. Indeed, in a subsequent letter, the NCAA stated that the "decisions were not a judgment on the athletics environment itself or any individuals," "the decisions were not based on whether the student-athletes' allegations are true or not" and "the [NCAA] staff did not determine, nor attempt to determine, that the environment in the Rice athletics department is ethnically or religiously intolerant." The waivers were granted solely on the basis of what the NCAA called the students' personal perceptions of an intolerable environment. We expressed our extreme displeasure to the NCAA for its careless and bewildering handling of this matter.
As it is, Rice still comes out with something more than a black eye in this situation. They sat on the information, allowing SI to break the waivers. They did nothing -- and still have done little -- to explain the abrupt departures of the half-dozen members of the program. (Whether they're protecting or distancing someone or something remains to be seen.)
Moreover, though, they let the team's finest squad in 40 years unravel in a matter of months. Braun had done remarkable work building the program to respectability. And then -- amid this racism, amid these claims and counterclaims -- it fell apart. Kazemi moves one. Rice returns to square one. Nothing is gained, and only more questions remain.