In true Iowa sports-hero fashion, overcoming long odds with perseverance and self-belief is a big part of the Ali Farokhmanesh story.
The six-foot (5-11?) Northern Iowa senior guard is on this week’s Sports Illustrated cover. As people have seen and re-seen, Farokhmanesh’s 3-pointer with 34 seconds remaining helped the Panthers beat Kansas last Saturday in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
That was two days after his 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left was the deciding score in the Panthers’ first-round win over UNLV.
Farokhmanesh’s family moved to Iowa City from Pullman, Wash., where he was a high school junior-to-be. His mother, Cindy Fredrick, had taken the volleyball head coaching job at the University of Iowa.
“Ali was bummed at moving,” West boys’ basketball coach Steve Bergman said, “but he came in during the summer and started playing ball with a nice group of kids here. It kind of got him transitioned.”
West went 41-8 in Farokhmanesh’s two years. He was a first-team all-state player as a senior, averaging 16.8 points and shooting 46 percent from 3-point distance. But no Division I college program offered him a scholarship.
“A couple of D-IIs offered him,” Bergman said, “but he said he was going to play D-I basketball. He said ‘If I have to go to a junior college, I will.’ ”
Farokhmanesh went to Indian Hills Community College in Ottumwa for a year, then Kirkwood.
“We recruited him hard when he was in high school,” said Kirkwood Coach Doug Wagemester. “I don’t know if I would have said at that time that he was a lock to be a D-I player.
“Things didn’t work out the way he wanted at Indian Hills, so he contacted us. We had a spot open, and I said ‘Yeah, we would take him.’ We hadn’t really seen him in maybe 18 months. When he got here, he had changed. You could see he had worked on his body. He was a better player than what I remembered. In pickup ball and at practice after that, you could see he had a chance to get to that (D-I) level.”
Farokhmanesh had a string of high-scoring games for Kirkwood in midseason and attracted attention from D-I mid-majors. Wisconsin-Milwaukee was interested. So was Rick Majerus at Saint Louis.
“One of the biggest factors to Ali was a chance to play with the same guys for two years,” Wagemester said. “At Saint Louis, he would have been the only upperclassman in his senior year. So it made a lot of sense to him to go to UNI.
“You’ve got to give him credit. That’s paid off.”
Wagemester and Bergman gush when they talk about Farokhmanesh, the person.
“When the best player on your team is your hardest worker,” Bergman said, “as a coach, you’ve got it whipped.
“When Ali was in his sophomore year at Kirkwood, Coach (Ben) Jacobson called me from UNI to ask me about him. I told him if he had any leadership issues, Ali will fix all that stuff. He will work as hard as anybody, and the basketball stuff is just a bonus.”
Farokhmanesh’s fame has given Wagemester another recruiting tool at Kirkwood, but the coach sees his former player as something much more than that.
“To me,” Wagemester said, “he embodies everything good about sport.
“He understands the value of hard work. He understands the value of team. He understands the value of teamwork. His spirit is so positive that it rubs off on everybody. You just can’t help but like the guy.”
Bergman listened to the UNI-Kansas conclusion on the radio while driving near St. Louis, heading home from a vacation in the South.
“I almost drove off the road,” he said.
“We saw the UNLV game in a restaurant in Alabama. We walked in, and there were 30 UNI fans there, people on spring break. I said I was from Iowa City. They asked if I was a UNI fan. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a kid on the team.’
“When that game ended, a bar-full of people went crazy.”
Wagemester couldn’t watch the Kansas game because he was coaching his team to victory in the third-place game of the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II national tourney.
“When the guy on the p.a. gave the score “Northern Iowa 69, Kansas 67,” the crowd erupted,” he said. “Obviously, all of the Kirkwood people at the tournament were very aware of Ali. Everybody was beaming.”
Wagemester and Bergman said they will go to St. Louis for Friday’s UNI-Michigan State game if they find good tickets.“It’s amazing,” Wagemester said. “It’s a great story. What a great story.”