By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer, America.gov, WashingtonAli Farokhmanesh's clutch play brings victories to underdog team
Ali Farokhmanesh is living a dream. And he has Iranian Americans - and Iranians all over the world - rooting for him.
A few days ago, Farokhmanesh was a little-known student at a little-known university in the middle of the United States. He plays basketball, and his team has had a good year, qualifying it for the tournament that will determine the national college champion. In the final seconds of the first tournament game, he gave his team the victory with a dramatic, long-range shot.
Two days later, in the second game, he did it again.
Suddenly, the son of an Iranian volleyball player was a hero in the United States and beyond.
He's been on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine. He's been in the New York Times and on the sports cable channel ESPN and other TV networks. And he said the support of strangers - especially fellow Iranians and Iranian Americans - has been pouring in on his Facebook page and elsewhere. "I'm definitely embracing it. It's been an amazing experience," he said.
cover page of Sports Illustrated, March 29 issue - Farokhmanesh says he's
enjoyed the outpouring of support from fellow Iranian Americans and Iranians
To understand the excitement about Farokhmanesh, it helps to understand the level of interest in the annual tournament to crown the U.S. men's college basketball champion. At the end of the regular season, 65 teams are chosen for the tournament, which is played in arenas across the country over three weeks beginning in mid-March. The tournament, like the frenzy it inspires, is known as March Madness. A study by Microsoft found that about 60 million Americans fill out forms, called brackets, predicting which team will win each game; President Obama, an avid basketball fan, has made his predictions public.
The two victories for Farokhmanesh's team, the University of Northern Iowa, have been upsets - especially the second, in which it beat the University of Kansas, which was widely expected to win the tournament. That made Northern Iowa one of 16 teams left in the tournament, and after the next weekend, it hopes to be among the Final Four.
Farokhmanesh is the child of athletes and coaches, but their sport was volleyball, not basketball. Mashallah Farokhmanesh was once the captain of the Iranian national volleyball team; he arrived in the United States as a student in the 1970s. He met Cindy Fredrick about 30 years ago when she brought her high school team to the volleyball camp where he worked. They married and started finding university coaching jobs together.
Their son learned to play volleyball too, but as an only child, he turned to basketball: "That was the only sport you could play by yourself without waiting for somebody to show up," he said.
So his parents learned to coach him a little in basketball. Farokhmanesh said they would put broom handles in trash cans to represent opposing players so that he would learn to shoot over them. Today, at 183 centimeters, Farokhmanesh is short by the standards of American colleges with top basketball teams, but thanks in part to his parents and their broomsticks, he is used to shooting over taller opponents. "I didn't think I was going to be shorter than so many other players," he said.
His parents also would ask the basketball coaches at the universities where they worked for drills that would challenge their son.
"You never have to motivate this kid," Fredrick said. "He's a hard worker. He loves to practice."
The Northern Iowa team is known for tight defense and group efforts that have given it a 30-4 record. None of the players dominates the game; Farokhmanesh, a guard, averages 9.7 points per game, fourth on the team, and the leading scorer averages just 12 points per game.
"We're all best friends. We all hang out together. We all have a role to play," Farokhmanesh said.
Not even the attention he has received for his last-minute heroics has led to jealousy. "If somebody else makes a great play, it's like you made that play," he said. "It just happened that in the past two games the ball's been in my hands" as time was running out.
Farokhmanesh, 21, is a finance major but said he might stick with basketball after he graduates this year, at least for a little while. "I might possibly go overseas to play professionally while I'm young, or possibly coach basketball," he said.
He also would like to visit his father's side of the family in Iran, something he's never been able to do, to meet grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins he's never seen. "That would be a dream come true," every bit as much as hitting the winning shot in a big game in the national tournament, he said.
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