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Jeff Eisenberg

Meet the UNI star making Farokhmanesh a household name

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Four years before he buried the shot that toppled juggernaut Kansas and assured his place in NCAA tournament lore, Northern Iowa guard Ali Farokhmanesh considered giving up the sport he loves.

His parents had sent out about 100 letters and highlight tapes to Division I and II basketball coaches, yet none had any interest in a skinny 5-foot-11 shooting guard from Iowa City whose own high school public address announcer often mispronounced his name.

"It wasn't that he was a little bit overlooked. He was overlooked," his mother Cindy Fredrick said by phone on Tuesday. "He didn't get a sniff. Not one Division I or Division II school even looked at him. For him it was very devastating and for us it was devastating. We understood that somebody had to see that he had a great heart, great work ethic and he was talented, too."

Everbody got a glimpse of Farokhmanesh's talent last week when his smooth jumper propelled Northern Iowa to its first Sweet 16 berth in program history. He sank a 30-footer with 4.9 seconds left to oust UNLV in the opening round and then another late 3-pointer two days later to send Kansas back to Lawrence, the culmination of a journey from overlooked high school senior to junior college standout to the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated.

What's most remarkable about his shot to beat the Jayhawks was that many argue he never should have taken it. Ninth-seeded Northern Iowa was clinging to a one-point lead with 38 seconds left in the game and plenty of time on the shot clock when Farokhmanesh pulled up in transition on a 2-on-1 fastbreak and swished the game-winning right-wing 3-pointer.

"I was just open on that side, they were trapping, and it came to me," Farokhmanesh said. "I was going to see if I could drive it. The he backed off so far that I thought I might as well just shoot."

It's a testament to Farokhmanesh's passion for basketball that he has grown up to be a hoops hero instead of a volleyball star. His mother previously coached volleyball at Washington State and Iowa, while his father, a former member of the Iranian Olympic volleyball team, assisted her at both stops.

Farokhmanesh grew up attending Washington State practices and matches, but volleyball was always secondary to basketball. Even as a toddler, he'd play balloon volleyball with his parents over a makeshift net in their living room for a few minutes when they got home from practice, then race downstairs to shoot hoops on a little Fisher Price basket.

"He has always been about basketball," Fredrick said. "He just enjoyed volleyball as a kid because he was around us all the time and we coached volleyball. But what people aren't getting is that he'd play volleyball with us, but the minute he could, he was down in the gym playing basketball."

That love of basketball continued to blossom for Farokhmanesh when the family moved from Pullman, Wash., to Iowa before his freshman year of high school when his mother landed the Hawkeyes' coaching gig. Farokhmanesh was so dedicated that he'd wake up at dawn to go shoot during the summer or drag his parents to the gym to rebound for him after Christmas dinner.

Farokhmanesh's work ethic allowed him to average 18.5 points per game as a high school senior, but it got him no closer to landing a college scholarship. Even Northern Iowa's staff saw him in high school and passed over him, only showing interest after he earned MVP of his conference at Kirkwood Junior College and led the team to a 32-3 record and third place finish at the national tournament.

When Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson went to see Farokhmanesh play at Kirkwood, the family initially didn't think he was that interested because he didn't come over to introduce himself immediately the way all the other coaches did. Then Jacobson suddenly appeared when Fredrick and her husband left the gym to walk out to their car.

"I turned around and he was standing there and he said, 'Cindy, Coach Jacobson. I'd like to talk to you about Ali because we want him,' " Fredrick recalled. "I was like, are you kidding me? It was really neat. He's very understated and I think Ali really liked that about him."

Farokhmanesh hasn't been a prolific scorer for Northern Iowa, but he's averaged nine points a game the past two years, improved on defense and shown the work ethic and ability to take direction you'd expect from the son of two coaches. Last summer, Farokhmanesh would get one of the assistant coaches to unlock the gym at 6:30 a.m. every morning so he could get up 500 shots before his 8 a.m. summer school class.

It's that repetition that Northern Iowa assistant coach P.J. Hogan believes gave Farokhmanesh the confidence to take the big shots he has hit in the NCAA tournament.

"This is my seventh year at Northern Iowa, and I can honestly say there's not a guy in our program who has been in the gym more than Ali has," Hogan said "He's a great example for the young kids in our program. You look at Ali and let's be honest, he's 5-11, 185 pounds, he's not much to look at, but he's obviously done pretty well for himself."

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