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Erfan Nasajpour’s mother Fereshteh scratched and clawed to provide her four children with a better life.
Nasajpour admits it’s a story he doesn’t know too much about. It’s been over 30 years since Fereshteh fled war-torn Iran with four children, but even today it’s not something she wants to talk about.
"I don’t know how we got out. She was never straight up with me," Nasajpour told the Free Press in a phone interview.
This is the eighth instalment in a periodic series called Catching Up. Taylor retells the stories of former Manitoba sports icons while also providing an update on what they’re up to today.
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"I don’t know if we escaped, if we actually got tickets, or if we like bootlegged and hid in trucks. I don’t know. Who knows the story? My mom does but she won’t tell me."
When Nasajpour was around three years old, they ended up in Greece where they lived in a little basement that came with some unwanted roommates such as cockroaches, rats and cats. But Fereshteh wanted better for her children, so in 1991, the family moved to an apartment building in downtown Winnipeg that was sponsored by the Immigration and Refugee Community Organization Manitoba (IRCOM).
Once in Winnipeg, things still weren’t easy, but Nasajpour’s escape, and path to more opportunities in life, was basketball. In middle school, he never missed a day going to the YMCA. Nasajpour would always play against older guys, which provided to be valuable experience as it taught the five-foot-nine point guard how to excel against bigger and stronger players.
The hype began to build at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute where his resume included a 42-0 season in Grade 10, a provincial banner and a Basketball Manitoba player of the year award in his senior year, leading to Nasajpour scoring a scholarship with the University of Winnipeg Wesmen in 2002.
On the hardwood, he was making his family proud, but when he was away from the game, it was a whole different story. He was skipping class, hanging with the wrong crowd and getting involved with drugs and drinking. He failed every single class in his first year and was suspended for the following season due to his poor academic performance. He was allowed to practice with the team but that was it.
"It hit me when they took basketball away from me. They took my passion away from me and I couldn’t play," said Nasajpour, now 36.
"You’re practising and practising, it’s like you study, study, study and you don’t get a test and get no certification. You don’t get no satisfaction, you know what I mean? I think that’s what sparked that change was ‘Hey, no more basketball for you.’ I was privileged. I got a full scholarship, a free ride, and I’m messing it up. And I think back, my mom travelled all this way with four kids on her back so I could hang on the streets? Like what? I wanted to be grateful to her for her sacrifices and make her proud."
Most people in the local basketball community will remember him for being the face of the Wesmen program until his final season in 2008. He was a two-time second-team All-Canadian and averaged 22 points and six rebounds per game in his final two seasons. But his incredible turnaround in the classroom might just be his most impressive accomplishment as he went on to become an academic All-Canadian the year after he failed everything. The suspension, along with some tough love from his older brother Ali, ended up being the wakeup call that he needed. The psychology major got to the point where he took his schooling seriously even in the summers when we was playing on the Canadian university national team.
"I remember reading a psychology textbook in the summer when I was with the university national team when we were playing in Turkey. This tournament was like three weeks long and I was reading my university textbook in the middle of summer while playing these games because I was dedicated. I failed and failed and failed every class so I wanted to redeem myself," Nasajpour said.
Nasajpour spent five summers with Canada Basketball as he also suited up for the junior national team out of high school. It was at these tournaments where Nasajpour would get to test himself against the best young talent in the world, even a couple of future NBA all-stars.
"That gave me a lot of confidence that ‘Hey, I’m not too far from these guys.’ I remember against Team USA against Chris Paul I stole the ball from his hand two times in a row. So, I knew I could play against these guys," Nasajpour said.
"Coming back to Canada, it felt like I was on a different level physically and mentally."
After his final year at the U of W, Nasajpour returned home to play professionally in the Iranian Basketball Super League before retiring in 2018. While winning two league championships over there was great, Nasajpour cherishes his time overseas for more important reasons than basketball.
"That was a great blessing for me because I was lost. I had no culture. My pants were hanging down to my butt. Real gangster wannabe. I had no culture so this was a blessing. Aside from making the money and playing pro and this and that, going back to my home where I was born to discover who I am, that gave me culture and understanding of who I truly am," Nasajpour said.
"That’s where I found my wife and I have a family now so I needed this. People ask me if I could’ve played in the NBA or if I could’ve gone here and there and I’m like ‘Yeah, I think so.’ I’m not the biggest guy and maybe I had some disadvantages, but it happened for a reason. I was blessed enough to get my education, go play overseas and discover who I am."
It also allowed him to repay his mother for everything she sacrificed for the family. After his third professional season, Nasajpour bought his mom a house in Lindenwoods.
"It was a dream come true. Fifteen years struggling. The people that came to that IRCOM building, they would live there for two years, learn the system of how Canada works and then they’d move on. We stayed there for 15 years man because we got comfortable," Nasajpour said.
"We never had a vehicle or anything. So when I was able to do that for her, I didn’t make it a big deal, but obviously I felt really great inside."
But his mother isn’t the only person Nasajpour has helped as he now makes a living assisting others. He’s a certified trainer, nutritionist and mental health coach that has dedicated his new career to helping people get into the best shape of their lives both physically and mentally. He now lives in Toronto, but Nasajpour stays connected to Winnipeg. During the COVID-19 lockdown, he teamed up with Attack Basketball to provide free online training for nearly 300 Winnipeg athletes. His online coaching services can be found at https://procoach.app/fitfamlife.
Nasajpour is also a father to two daughters, Persia, 9, and Erline, 3, and married to his wife Celine.
Considering where his story began, it makes Nasajpour’s success on and off the court that much more inspiring.
"I hear that a lot from a lot of my friends and people that I talk to. When I played in Iran, we’d go to a lot of hotels and there was a security guard at every door and some teammates were like ‘Erf, have you even thought about it if you never left this country you would be one of these guys working in the front of the hotel?’ But I never really think about it," Nasajpour said.
"Yeah, I went through a lot, but I thought I could make it. Maybe other people thought I couldn’t, but when you overcome odds, that’s what people see. I just found it as some challenges that I had to overcome. Some big, some small, but it’s been fun man."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.
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