Fardaws Aimaq is always positive, even in a challenging season

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NOTHING ABOUT THIS season has been easy for Fardaws “Daws” Aimaq.

The leader of a California Golden Bears team that is rebuilding under first-year coach Mark Madsen has endured adversity on the court in a difficult season.

For one, he’s playing for a team that has reached the NCAA tournament just once (2016) in the past 11 years. The Bears entered the week with a 8-12 record. They began the season losing 10 of their first 14 games, with half of those losses featuring opponents with sub-100 rankings on KenPom, including Pacific (345th). Despite this, the team continues to focus on the silver lining: Six of those losses finished with margins of three points or fewer, or ended in overtime. Currently, Cal, which is ranked second in the Pac-12 in turnover percentage, has won four of its past six games.

Through the difficult times, Aimaq and his teammates have remained optimistic, strengthened by the hurdles the year has presented thus far.

“What we’ve been doing, it’s going to work,” he told ESPN about the Bears’ season. “There is going to be a breakthrough. What we’ve been saying every single day is ‘opportunity,’ and each game is a new opportunity.”

While that’s not easy for any player to digest, the 6-foot-11 forward — who is currently sixth in the nation in rebounding (10.7 rebounds per game) and third in double-doubles (12) — has also experienced another challenge, as a Muslim man and the son of an Afghan refugee. Aimaq, who was born in Vancouver, said he often receives praise from members of the Afghan and Muslim communities who support him. He also revealed that whenever he opens his messages on social media, he often sees a lot of hate, too. Sometimes, it’s because of his performance on the court. Sometimes, it’s a reaction from Texas Tech fans still angered by his decision to transfer to Cal after last season. And sometimes, he said, it’s because he’s Muslim.

“It’s a slippery slope,” he said. “I don’t really go through a lot of my messages unless it’s a day when I’m bored and just looking through stuff. You have to try and do your part by staying focused on whatever is in front of you, and that’s just playing basketball.”

But when a fan crosses a line, it’s a challenge for any athlete to ignore.

During a November tournament in San Juan Capistrano, California, Aimaq said a man called him a “terrorist” multiple times as he walked toward his team’s bus after talking to family members in the stands following a 75-72 loss to UTEP. A viral, postgame video showed Aimaq in the stands as he confronted the person.

“You want to talk? You want to talk? I’ll slap the s— out you,” he said.

“You know, the first time I heard it, I just kept walking,” Aimaq said. “We’d just lost, and there was a lot of frustration. I was just thinking about the game, and I didn’t really process it until I heard it a couple more times. It was a big group and from there, it led to the incident that happened with the video being taken of that whole confrontation. I don’t remember, word for word, what I said. I just remember being frustrated.”

Madsen condemned the exchange and promised internal discipline for Aimaq. But he also told Aimaq, “I’m sorry you had to experience that.” His teammates consoled him, too.

“When I saw [the video], he and I immediately spoke and he told me right away what had happened,” Madsen said. “Knowing the context, obviously, it helped me understand the situation better.”

Madsen has known Aimaq for years, beginning when he recruited the forward to play at Utah Valley after Aimaq’s single season at Mercer. He knew Aimaq as a kind young man who played with Madsen’s kids after games. So seeing Aimaq’s demeanor on the video was a sign to the coach that something serious had happened.

“My main and my first message was that comments like that should never be made by a fan or anyone to another human being ever,” Madsen told ESPN. “But then as a coach, also just coming from the NBA, I’ve seen players impacted in a very negative way when things spiral out of control in the stands. So that was my main message to [Aimaq]. ‘Hey, no matter what happens, let’s stay out of the stands.'”

Aimaq’s father, Faramaz, told ESPN he was stunned when his son called and told him about the incident. Faramaz had fled Afghanistan as a teenager in the 1970s after his father had died in the Afghan Civil War.

“I lost my father, lots of family. I was 17, 18 years old,” he said. “It was really hard for me because it’s war. It was a bombing.”

He subsequently landed in Canada and built a new life for himself. He said his son’s experience hurt him both because he fought so hard for his family’s future but also because Fardaws has always been a positive and peaceful person.

“I told him, ‘Just ignore them,'” Faramaz told ESPN. “‘You go play hard.’ I give him a lot of credit because all the time [last season at Texas Tech], they used really bad words about my son. This is not fair. [A fan called my son] a terrorist. I have to be honest: On that day I was crying. It’s hard sometimes, you know?”

Fardaws trusted the discipline he has developed over the years to navigate the situation. He is the first player on the court before practice each day, and the last person to leave the floor. His childhood martial arts training taught him the value of controlling his emotions, adhering to diligence and relying on patience.

While he had every right to spend the rest of the season angered by what happened in November, he has chosen to move forward and not allow that moment to define his season.

“Obviously, I’ve forgiven the kid,” Aimaq said.

Madsen, who spent nine years in the NBA, including being coached by Phil Jackson with the Los Angeles Lakers, said Aimaq has grown as a leader, and it’s showing results. Cal’s recent wins include an 81-75 overtime win over Washington State in which Aimaq finished with 18 points, 14 rebounds and 2 steals.

“One of the things that makes him great is his passion for life,” Madsen said. “He’s a great human being. He’s a multiple-time team captain. He has great leadership, and he is such a hard worker.”

Aimaq’s college basketball career has been a journey. He is playing for his fourth school. At all of his previous stops, he transferred after his head coaches had either taken another job (Madsen) or been fired (former Texas Tech coach Mark Adams, former Mercer coach Bob Hoffman). But now, he believes he can end his collegiate career on a high note and pursue his dreams of making history as the first player of Afghan descent to play in the NBA. He’s not currently listed on any reputable NBA mock drafts, so his odds are slim. But he has never backed down from a challenge.

On Friday, after the team’s 73-71 win over Stanford, Madsen pointed to Aimaq (13 points, 12 rebounds) in the locker room and praised him for his effort.

“When we couldn’t get a bucket, we went to you, big fella, and you produced every time,” Madsen said.

Aimaq’s teammates all clapped and cheered.

“When it’s all said and done, if you have done everything possible in your power and it doesn’t work out, then that’s one thing,” Aimaq said. “You know, for us, the reason that we’ve been so positive is that we see a breakthrough coming.”

From Vancouver, Canada, meanwhile, his father admires his son’s resilience as he endured the trials this season has presented and continues to thrive.

“I am proud of him,” Faramaz said. “He’s my hero.”