Former 'Eater chases NBA dream

The voice in Jonas Lalehzadeh's soul blares at public-address volume, announcing daringly, almost defiantly, his status as an NBA starter.

"From Irrrr-vine and I-rrran, a 6-foot-5 guard ..."

It is the kind of thing a little boy dreams, before he is bludgeoned by reality, or denied a single scholarship offer out of high school, or condemned to the bench more than once without even the simplest verbal acknowledgment by his coach.

It is also the voice that drowns out those chirping from the bleachers and the carping on the message boards, bent on questioning his ability to reach what he believes is his destiny.

"Sometimes people make proclamations that I'm going to do X," Lalehzadeh said. "But then you start to feel it, and I know it. It's not a matter of if I make it, but when I make it."

It for the former UC Irvine walk-on is the NBA, alongside the best basketball players in the world. Not sitting beside them, but playing amid them, draining three-point jumpers, shuffling to block their penetration on defense, and flicking assists to his teammates on the break.

"Say I get there and make it to the NBA," the 24-year-old Newport Beach resident said. "I'm not there just to play cards on the plane. At that point, I'm going to have a goal to be the best shooter on the team."

Realists still balk at this kind of optimism from someone who scored 30 points in parts of three seasons at UCI and averaged two points per game in his best season as a sophomore, when five of his 13 appearances came as a starter.

But the only reality Lalehzadeh acknowledges is the fact that he has spent the last two years on the Iranian national team and last season led the Iranian professional league in scoring at 20.6 per game.

He aims to earn a spot on an NBA summer league roster in the coming weeks, and upgrade to the professional league in China that begins in September. If he shows well in China, he hopes to then make a roster in the NBA Development League.

It's a methodical progression that mirrors the relentless refining of not only his game, but his body, with enough training sessions to thicken a day planner to encyclopedic proportions.

"We practiced twice a day, six days a week in Iran and I was always doing things outside of those workouts," said Lalehzadeh, whose summer "offseason" features a similarly robust regimen.

"I've been training very religiously, with three or four sessions a day," he said. "I have agility and basketball skills in the morning. Then I get a meal and rest, before doing some Olympic weightlifting. After that, I go to either UCI or [University High where he averaged 19.7 points as a senior in 2005-06] to get up my shots. And I do yoga on the beach on weekends."

Lalehzadeh started three varsity seasons at Uni, where he was twice the team MVP, a two-time all-league honoree, and had 56 three-pointers his final campaign. But aspirations of playing at a Division I college were quickly quelled.

"I didn't get a single phone call from a university," he said. "The only call I got was from [Irvine Valley Community College] and even that wasn't to invite me to play there."

But, unwilling to give up his Division I dream, he went to Brewster Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, where he shivered much more than played. But he continued to develop his game.

Upon his return, he attended Orange Coast College, but a broken wrist ended his playing career there before it began.

One year later, he received interest from some Division III (non-scholarship) schools and walk-on feelers from at least three Division I programs. He took the first offer he got from nearby UCI.

After failing to score in only five games as a freshman at UCI, then-UCI Coach Pat Douglass had enough confidence in him to start him five games as a sophomore. His teammates quietly lauded him as the team's best shooter, but a torn medial collateral knee ligament limited him to three games and four total points as a junior.

Having already obtained his bachelor's degree in business/managerial economics and done most of his work toward an eventual master's degree in criminology, Lalehzadeh passed up his final year of eligibility to seize an opportunity to try out for the national team in Iran, from where his parents emigrated to America as young students.

"I made the team in two weeks, and they suggested I play in the professional league there," said Lalehzadeh, who spent his first stint there in the capital city of Tehran. Last season, his second in Iran, he holed up in a hotel room in the desert city of Mahshar, where he donated 120 of his jerseys to area kids, then rendered them admirable attire by starring as a point guard.

Lalehzadeh said the isolation of Iran helped galvanize his pursuit of the NBA dream.

"I felt like I learned more about myself and I was able to focus more on what I needed as a person and as a basketball player to keep pushing forward," he said.

Lalehzadeh said he regularly nets five of six NBA three-point attempts during workouts and by resculpting his 205 pounds in the weight room and through diet [he doesn't touch rice, potatoes or bread] and drilling, he has improved his quickness, his primary physical limitation earlier in his career. A shooting guard in college and high school, he also said improvement in decision-making has enabled him to add point guard to his resume.

That resume has circulated on the desks of agents who have taken up his bidding with China and the NBA Summer League, said Lalehzadeh, who equates his salary in Iran to that of a lawyer and the projected compensation in China to that of a doctor.

But what remains Lalehzadeh's biggest asset is his unyielding faith in himself.

"When I was in high school, I said I wanted to play Division I. A lot of people said this kid is crazy. He's only 6-3, he's slow and he doesn't play the one. But I made it to Division I and even made the starting lineup, then I went and played pro. It has always been a grind, chipping away at the ifs, ands, cant's and buts, so this past year was monumental for me."

Upon waking each morning, he uses visualization and meditation to further cultivate his ambition.

"I focus on the workouts I'll be doing that day and I think about the bigger picture," he said. "I visualize myself as a starter in an NBA arena. I visualize the announcer saying my name. My parents used to tell me how goal-oriented I was as a kid. I would have these little projects with soap box cars or Legos and I wouldn't quit until it was finished. When I was at UCI, my teammates talked about our big dunkers as being physical specimens. They joked with me that I was a mental specimen."

Lalehzadeh said his former UCI teammates are among his biggest supporters and he has also received encouragement from UCI faculty members and boosters, as well as his fellow students.

"I have my education always and I value that, but at no point have I said, if this [basketball] doesn't work out, I'm going to do this or that," he said. "I think it's always good to have the ability to have a backup plan, but you can't really be thinking about that, because it diverts your energy. I spent so much energy just visualizing and manifesting this thing that the smallest look away or the smallest speck of energy directed away from [the goal] is not helpful at all. I believe I am good enough. And I believe you don't have to alter your vision for the confinements of someone else's mediocrity ... The people who think it can't be done only think so because they feel they can't do it."

Or maybe the naysayers have merely muffled their inner voice.

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