Sooren Derboghosian: Have game, will travel (a very long way)

Sooren Derboghosian. Courtesy photo / Drexel Athletics
Sooren Derboghosian. Courtesy photo / Drexel Athletics
Sooren Derboghosian. Courtesy photo / Drexel Athletics

Drexel’s Sooren Derboghosian may very well be the most seasoned traveler in all of college basketball.

From growing up in Iran to playing in competitions in New Zealand and India, basketball has allowed Derboghosian to travel to 21 different nations.

The experiences have given him a perspective beyond his 24 years and he’s never needed it more. In his first season with Drexel,the graduate student has only played eight games and is healing from surgery. The Dragons (5-14, 3-5) sit towards the bottom of the CAA standings in seventh place.

While his focus is on the season at hand, Derboghosian is also thinking bigger. He hopes to open America’s door to Iranian basketball and increase awareness of the sport’s growing popularity in the Middle East.

“I would like to help my basketball players back home and other Middle Eastern countries,” says Derboghosian. “To bring them to the States and let them have the chance that I had.”

Where it all began

Derboghosian is always surprised at the questions people ask him about his home. He is from, what he described as, a large Christian Armenian community in Tehran. And while the idea of Armenian Christians living in the Islamic Republic of Iran may surprise many, Iran and Armenia – which neighbor each other – have had contact for thousands of years, and Iran actually provided a safe haven for the Diaspora of the Armenian Genocide after World War I. Today, the Iranian government officially recognizes the Armenia Christian community.

If the history of how Derboghosian and his family came to live in Iran doesn’t surprise the common American already, consider that he also has been playing basketball since he was 5 years old.

The sport is actually thriving in the Middle Eastern nation, according to Derboghosian.

“People do play basketball and basketball is actually really famous, especially in my country,” says Derboghosian. “It’s actually the second sport after soccer.”

Derboghosian mostly followed the Iranian national team but fell in love with the game the way much of the international world did – by watching the greatest play.

“On the weekends when I didn’t have school, I would sit and watch NBA basketball and during my time, Jordan was the best player,” says Derboghosian.

Success came early for young baller. While attending Sahakian high school in Tehran, the big man was already getting exposure on Iran’s youth national teams. In 2007, the Iranian helped bring his nation the West Junior Asian Cup title. The next year, he not only won the Junior Asian Cup title but also helped Iran’s U-18 team win the FIBA Asian Cup Championship in front of his friends and family in Tehran.

In 2009, a year before he began his quest to play for his dream school UCLA, Derboghosian was invited to Auckland, New Zealand to play in the U-19 World Cup.

The center competed against prospects from Nigeria and a Team USA team that featured Klay Thompson, Gordon Hayward and Seth Curry. He distinctly remembers being matched up with former University of Georgia forward Howard Thompkins.

“It was a huge game for us playing against talented NBA future guys,” Derboghosian says. “…It was a great experience for me. It was competitive.”

The long road to UCLA

At age 18, Derboghosian was one of select few from Iran’s international squads to participate in Basketball Without Borders, a program designed to promote basketball throughout the world. With Basketball Without Borders, he traveled to India to learn from long-time coaches, participated in an “all-star game” between international players and engaged in the community.

“You would go through workouts in the morning, have meetings with the coaches and then talk about NBA life and what it takes to make it to the league,” Derboghosian says. “It was a great experience.”

Derboghosian always dreamed of playing for UCLA, and after his summer abroad, he set out to make that dream a reality, moving to the US. But to get to UCLA, he had to make a long layover first — two seasons playing at Glendale Community College in California, before successfully walking on to the Bruins. As a junior walk-on in 2012-2013, Deboghosian appeared in just four games, averaging 0.5 points and 0.3 rebounds, and didn’t see the floor as a senior.

Despite the amount of playing time he received, Derboghosian appreciated his two years at UCLA. Just like basketball, UCLA’s history of sports and academics is well known in the Iranian community, according to Derboghosian.

“Of course you know about the history,” says Derboghosian. “I mean I got a degree from there and that will sit with me forever.”

The 6-10 center made the only field goal of his Bruins career on a jump shot against Cal State Northridge. But he did earn the Faculty Athletic Representative Award, given to a player with the highest academic achievement.

He also had fulfilled his parent’s dream of seeing one of their children graduate from the prestigious university.

“It was a very great moment for me to see my parents,” Derboghosian says. “It was good to see them and it was great for them to see me graduate.”

Veteran perspective

Many college athletes would have seen the glass half empty after tasting their lifelong dream, as Derbogosian did by making the team at UCLA, only to spend their time watching their career from the sidelines. But according to Derboghosian, he has nothing to regret. Now, as he recovers from yet another injury, a torn meniscus, he reflects on those times.

“We went to China this past summer,” says Derboghosian. “For some of my teammates it was their first time traveling outside of the States so especially during the trip I talked about my experience going overseas.”

Even when he is not playing, the MBA graduate student still provides wisdom for a Drexel team that includes four freshman. In the midst of a tough stretch for Drexel, Derboghosian provides his teammates with a bigger picture perspective.

“It is a long road,” says Derboghosian. “We still have [games] left. It’s been tough but I would say that we go to practice to get better everyday and try to win.”

Whatever Derboghosian decides to do, whether it is playing ball or playing diplomat, his mindset supersedes that of your typical college student.

Just like his traveling, his perspective is worldly.

“Training all over in these countries and then playing here it has given me more perspective or more openness to myself and then open to others,” Derboghosian says.