He wasn’t a superstar, per se. The average basketball fan in Danville, Illinois, just didn’t possess the necessary manner of articulation for his surname.
Before Ali Farokhmanesh (FA-ROKE-MAN-NESH) became the golden boy of the 2010 NCAA basketball tournament, he was a sharpshooting All-American point guard that led Kirkwood CC (Iowa) to the semifinals of the NJCAA national tournament in Danville. His opponent that day was Steve Schmidt’s Mott Community College Bears, the reigning national champions and winners of 28 consecutive games.
Trailing by 13 in the first half, Mott bounced back in the second to defeat Kirkwood by 13, 71-58
Schmidt’s teams had developed quite a rivalry over the years, defeating Kirkwood three times prior in what Schmidt called “classics.”
“This game went back and forth and we were able to wear Kirkwood down with our depth and athleticism,” Schmidt said. “Our focus that entire game was to make things tough for Ali. We pressured him full court and kept rotating our guards on him to try to limit him from getting good looks. Ali had a good game (17 points), but was absolutely exhausted when it was over.”
Mott advanced to play in the title game the next day while Farokhmanesh and Kirkwood won the consolation game for third place. Much like Schmidt’s Bears, Farokhmanesh opted to stay an extra day in Illinois.
Coach Schmidt said he’ll never forget seeing a familiar face sitting behind his bench watching the Bears win their second consecutive national championship.
“(Ali) sat directly behind our bench and cheered for our team throughout the game,” he said. “I noticed it right away and pointed it out to my assistants. He seemed to be excited when we won the game and I made a point to shake his hand and thank him for supporting us like he did. I told him that he was a class act and great player, and wished him the best at Northern Iowa (he had already committed to UNI).”
Unlike UNLV and no. 1-ranked Kansas last week, Schmidt’s players and coaches were prepared for Farokhmanesh. They did their homework.
“We watched Kirkwood play during the week preceding our semifinal game,” he said. ” Ali was the heart and soul of their team. He had a great presence and ability to make everyone on his team better. He ran their team and if a big play had to be made, he was the one to make it. They had other talented players and were very well coached, but Ali was like Jeremie Simmons was for us — an All-American.”
The following month, Schmidt actually coached Farokhmanesh and two former Bears (Simmons and Thomas Kennedy) to victory in the NJCAA All-Star game in Phoenix.
“He was fun to coach — very respectful and fundamentally sound,” he said. “The reason I say that he’s my type of player is that he has a passion for the game and, I’m sure not everyone knows, he spends hours in the gym working on his game. He is a throwback type of player — self-made. You just don’t find many, if any, of these (players) any more.
“He left a lasting impression by how he handled a tough loss and then wished us luck and supported us. I will never forget that.”
In a pair of upsets in this year’s NCAA tournament, Farokhmanesh has scored 33 points and connected on nine 3-pointers — two of which will be considered among the most clutch shots of the tournament. Northern Iowa will face off against Michigan State on Friday night in the Sweet 16.
Editor’s note: Former Mott guard Lamarr Drake (Chicago) very nearly accepted a scholarship offer from UNI two years ago. Ben Jacobson, the coach at Northern Iowa, watched the first few days of the national tournament to evaluate Drake. He took an official visit to Northern Iowa a few weeks after the tournament, but opted to sign with Texas A&M in Corpus Christi. “I still wish he would have joined Ali at UNI,” Schmidt added.