SACRAMENTO, Calif. – The women’s tournament needs an Ali.
By now, there isn’t a corner of America that doesn’t know the kid from Northern Iowa with freon in his veins and a blank slate for a conscience. Ali Farokhmanesh grew up in Pullman sneaking off from his mom’s volleyball games –Cindy Frederick was the coach at Washington State – to shoot baskets, and then turned up this week having shot the Panthers into the Sweet 16 with two clutch game-winners, making him the face of an NCAA tourn- ament rife with upsets.
Well, the women’s tournament needs a face, too. It needs the face of possibility.
Here’s a nomination for Gonzaga’s Vivian Frieson. Is there a second?
Her cold-blooded shot Monday night took down Texas A&M and made the Aggies the highest seed ousted from the tournament – and the Zags the second-lowest seed in the Sweet 16. The idea Gonzaga could survive in such a game with Courtney Vandersloot committing a staggering 11 turnovers and Heather Bowman’s points and rebounds not adding up to 10 would have been preposterous had Frieson not delivered the game of her life.
The upsets that make March mad are made up of other miracles, big and small. And miracle workers.
“She deserves this attention,” teammate Tiffanie Shives said.
Even if some of it freaks her out a little.
“One of our freshmen was sitting in the COG and heard someone say they saw me driving,” Frieson reported, “and they were going to follow me so they could say congratulations, but they decided it would be too creepy. That was pretty weird to hear.”
So while the tournament needs her, Viv is not quite ready to go viral.
The reality is, as grand a stage as this is for Frieson and the Bulldogs – who will try to keep stoking the upset express tonight when they meet Xavier in the NCAA West Regional semifinals – it is not a No. 1 seed in her own bracket.
“The journey is amazing – it’s incredible,” she said. “But when I stop and think in the big picture, it’s something pretty small for me. As big as this is, it’s very important to me for my mom to see me walk down the aisle, walk up on that stage and get my degree.”
Julien Washington raised four children by herself, putting herself through school at Olympic College in Bremerton, landing a job at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Her kids had direction and discipline, food and care and clothes.
“And shoes, which wasn’t easy,” Frieson said, smiling, “because we grew so fast. I have a brother 6-foot-2, another 6-4 and a sister 5-10. We grew out of everything fast.”
Frieson is not matter of fact about what she had – not the least of it being opportunity – because she is not matter of fact about what she didn’t have, in particular a relationship with her father. Tyrone Frieson spent the first 16 years of his daughter’s life in an Ohio prison on a drug-related conviction (“it was something that was never discussed,” she said). She met him for the first time upon his release, and never again.
“We have a small relationship – very small, kind of like a distant friendship,” she said.
He will pop up on her Facebook page and there will be “scattered calls.” But she said he has never made an attempt to see her play, even when the Zags’ schedule took them to the Midwest or East “and for me, that was kind of a turning point. After all those years, I didn’t think the effort to have a relationship should always be on me.
“He’ll congratulate me on games, but other than that we don’t know much about each other.”
It’s impossible to know how much of that experience has shaped her, or even her game. She has been sustained by family support and found father figures in basketball coaches, from her youngest AAU days on up through Gonzaga coach Kelly Graves, who helped cajole her through a tumultuous first year in Spokane. But as Shives noted, “She’s one of those players who never backs down and has an edge to her.”
But not always a hard edge.
“Being the first in my family to graduate is important for my mother to see,” Frieson said. “It shows her that what she’s been doing has been right and that her sacrifices mattered. How I’ve done in basketball shows my discipline and hard work and that shows her, as well. But the fact I can do something no one in my family has done is more important than that.”
The face of possibility. Thinking again, maybe the men’s tournament needs a Vivian Frieson.