For Utah Valley University head basketball coach Mark Madsen, recruiting Fardaws Aimaq was a “no-brainer.”

During his official visit to campus prior to the 2019-20 season, the 6-foot-11 center from Vancouver, British Columbia, participated in a short workout that displayed his spring and athleticism, soft hands and skills in the post. Then the coach watched as his abilities translated over into a 5-on-5 pickup game.

Fardaws Aimaq is Utah Valley University’s 6-foot-11 center and a team captain this season. | Gabriel Mayberry, Utah Valley University

“It was an absolute no-brainer to offer him immediately and to put the full-court press on to bring him to Utah Valley,” Madsen said. “I could see right there that this young man is a special player.”

Although Aimaq had several options to go elsewhere, he liked Madsen and felt this coach could help him to achieve his dream of one day playing in the NBA.

It didn’t matter that the Canadian transferring from a school in Georgia might be the only Muslim playing college basketball in Utah County. Aimaq was all in.

“Once I got here, talking to him, the person and coach that he is, I knew I wanted to play for him and be here at UVU,” Aimaq said. “Faith didn’t factor too much into my decision. I respect everybody, I respect everybody’s faith.”

And so more than 30 years after his father and family escaped war-torn Afghanistan and landed in Vancouver, the young man who once earned a black belt in mixed martial arts signed to play basketball at Utah Valley University. After enduring his redshirt season and an unpredictable year brought on by COVID-19, the towering, bearded Aimaq is thrilled to be on the court playing with the Wolverines.

‘We knew we had to leave’

In 1989, Fardaw’s father, Faramarz Aimaq, was a 19-year-old living in Afghanistan with his family as the Soviet Union was close to ending a nine-year occupation, a conflict that resulted in great destruction and death. An estimated 1 million civilians perished, according to The Atlantic.

“I lost a lot of family in the bombing, including cousins, uncles. Lots of family passed away,” Faramarz Aimaq said. “Because of a bad situation, everybody tried to leave the country to go somewhere to be safe with their family. It was a really tough time. ... We knew we had to leave.”

The family joined a stream of refugees. They first made it to Hamburg, Germany, where some stayed. Faramarz Aimaq and others traveled to Toronto and continued on to Vancouver, where he and his wife have remained for the last 25 years. Today he works as a salesman of handmade Persian rugs.

Black belt to basketball

Faramarz Aimaq says height runs in the family. He stands around 6-foot-4 and other members of the family are tall, although his son Fardaws tops them all. This father knew his son was destined for giant-size stature when he was born with a long body and weighed nearly 10 pounds.

“All the family agreed, ‘Wow, big boy,’” he said.

When Fardaws was about 6 months old, Faramarz Aimaq started feeding his infant son tiny pieces of steak, chicken and other meats, which may have boosted his growth.

“Usually people don’t feed that to a baby but he loves food,” the father said with a laugh.

Growing up, Fardaws Aimaq was an active youth. He liked swimming and for about 11 years he was engaged in mixed martial arts, where he earned a black belt.

Becoming a black belt taught Aimaq about discipline and mental toughness, valuable lessons that have served him on the basketball court.

“There’s a lot of good players out there, but at the end of the day, what separates the better players is how they do things mentally, like confidence, positive self-talk and being mentally prepared,” he said.

Aimaq lost interest in mixed martial arts when he started playing competitive basketball in eighth grade, having risen to the height of 6-foot-3. That’s when he discovered his passion for playing hoops.

“That’s when I realized this is what I love to do,” he said.

Coming to Utah

As he continued to grow and develop his skills, Aimaq found success and individual accolades in high school before accepting an opportunity to play with the Mercer Bears in Macon, Georgia.

Utah Valley Wolverines center Fardaws Aimaq (11) warms up before game against the University of Utah at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Dec. 15, 2020. | Steve Griffin, Deseret News

During the 2018-19 season, Aimaq played in 29 games, starting five, and averaged 5 points and 5.3 rebounds a game. When the head coach was fired at the end of the season, Aimaq put his name in the transfer portal.

Programs like Washington State, Boise State, Houston, Southern Illinois and others showed interest in Aimaq, but he was drawn to Madsen’s NBA experience and coaching style. Everyone was welcoming and the whole experience was “fun,” he said.

“He’s someone I highly respect in all aspects,” Aimaq said of Madsen. “His word goes a long way.”

While Aimaq was poised to sign, Madsen recalls having some lengthy conversations with his father in which he made it clear he would do everything possible to support his faith and religious beliefs, from dietary needs to personal time, which has all worked out fine thus far.

“That’s one piece,” Madsen said. “We wanted Fardaws to be comfortable from a basketball perspective, an academic perspective, emotional, spiritual. I think UVU has been a tremendous fit in all those categories.”

Utah Valley University’s Fardaws Aimaq (11) dunks the ball during a game earlier this season with Adam State. | Jay Drowns, Utah Valley University

Faramarz Aimaq respected his son’s decision and has developed high respect for Madsen and his accomplishments.

“Coach Madsen is an awesome person and coach. I trust him and I trust my son,” he said.

Life as a Wolverine

After transferring, Aimaq redshirted the 2019-20 season. He described the year using words such as “long” and “mental grind.” More than anything it was difficult to watch his teammates suit up and play without him. He also missed his family.

Despite these and other personal challenges, Aimaq said he adjusted well to the Utah weather and living style. He feels at home in Utah County.

“It’s been good. I really can’t complain,” he said. “I’m excited that I’m out here.”

Mostly he’s focused on training and getting better. He told his coach about his NBA aspirations and requested Madsen push him hard each day. Madsen agreed to hold Aimaq to the highest possible standard.

So far, things appear to be moving in the right direction. As a scout team player in practices last year, teammates complained, “Coach, we can’t keep this guy off the glass. We can’t box him out,” Madsen said.

“He’s a rebounder. He does it with his timing, with his energy and his pure passion,” the coach said. “It’s a pleasure to have him in this program.”

Utah Valley University’s Fardaws Aimaq (11) and Trey Woodbury (4) box out a Westminster player for a rebound in a game earlier this season. | Gabriel Mayberry, Utah Valley University

Now in his sophomore season, Aimaq played the best game of his young career by posting a career-high 27 points and a school record 20 rebounds in a close loss to Wyoming on Dec. 12. While pleased with his individual effort, he’d rather have the victory.

“Obviously, it feels good to do that, but the win would have felt a lot better,” Aimaq said. “I’m going to try and break it again throughout the season.”

As of Dec. 23, Aimaq is the second-leading rebounder in the NCAA with 14.5 per game. He’s also averaging 15.5 points per game.

Teammate Trey Woodbury is Aimaq’s roommate. Along with finally getting to play with a “true big,” Woodbury admires his friend’s positive nature and appreciates how hard he works on both ends of the floor. When not playing basketball, they enjoy watching television, playing video games and deciding where to go eat. Aimaq likes seafood, tacos and occasionally veggie burgers.

“As our friendship has grown, we’ve grown together on the court, too. He listens to what I say,” Woodbury said. “I’m impressed with his willingness to sacrifice for the team and go as hard as he does on every play.”

Like Woodbury, Aimaq has earned the respect of his peers. He was named one of UVU’s team captains this season. His coach says he’s an unselfish player on the court who is also there for his teammates when they need support off the court.

“There have been moments when teammates have gone through tough times in our program, and Fardaws has been there for them,” Madsen said. “That’s been nice to see.”

Utah Valley University’s Fardaws Aimaq (11) pulls down one of his 20 rebounds against Wyoming on Dec. 12, 2020. | Erik Flores, Utah Valley University