Beginning in 1915, fleeing the genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire during the First World War, thousands of Armenians immigrated to Southern California. The first community was established in Glendale, CA, a city ten miles north of Los Angeles. Throughout the 20th century, subsequent waves of immigrants were forced to flee their homes due to civil unrest in the Middle East and Europe.
Today, the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area is home to the second-largest Armenian community in the world. The only larger group is in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. Approximately 200,000 Armenians live in the LA metro area. The center of this vibrant community continues to be Glendale, CA. Here, the Armenian diaspora proudly displays its history and diverse culture, including its deep passion for athletics.
Nobody epitomizes that passion for athletics within the community more than former Aztec Narbeh Ebrahimian. Like his idols, Kobe and Magic, Ebrahimian is simply known in the Armenian community in Glendale by his first name, Narbeh. Anyone connected to basketball in the region is well aware of Ebrahimian’s journey through the ranks that eventually led him to become a member of the SDSU Men’s Basketball team from 2011 through 2013.
Ebrahimian’s basketball journey started at age six when he played in youth leagues like Homenetmen Ararat, a worldwide Armenian athletic organization with a large chapter in Glendale. He inherited a robust sports background, particularly from his father and grandfather, that also included soccer and tennis and fueled his love for any type of physical activity.
With the help of his father, Ebrahimian studied tapes of the 80s Showtime Lakers. “I modeled my game after Magic, somebody who is more versatile, could play different positions, distribute the ball, and make people around him better,” Ebrahimian told the East Village Times in an exclusive interview.
That versatility proved crucial to Ebrahimian’s long-term success. At Crescenta Valley High School in La Crescenta, CA, he was an all-Pacific League point guard and team captain. He commends his high school coach, Shawn Zargarian, for instilling a very disciplined and fundamental-based system “to play the right way.” which helped him as he progressed to higher levels where he would need to use his high basketball IQ to succeed against bigger and more athletic players.
While Ebrahimian received some scholarship offers and interest to play college basketball, he was more focused on pursuing a kinesiology degree with basketball “the cherry on top.”
He decided to stay local and attend Glendale Community College (GCC) for two years, where he showed off his all-around game. Listed at 6’3”, he played power forward. “I was guarding guys that were much larger than me, but on the way back, they had to guard somebody who was playing more as a guard from the perimeter. I feel like Magic had that same versatility in that sense,” recalled Ebrahimian. He was team captain for the Vaqueros and was selected to the first team all-Western State Conference.
With his primary focus on obtaining a kinesiology degree, he once again bypassed any thoughts or discussions about playing Division II college basketball and transferred to SDSU. “It was my number one choice. Their kinesiology program is fantastic, and it is an impact major there,” stated Ebrahimian. Making his decision easier, San Diego was not too far away from home, which he, his parents, and his girlfriend definitely appreciated.
While he had no expectations about playing basketball at SDSU, he was very eager to try out for the team as a walk-on. So eager, in fact, Ebrahimian’s snuck into Viejas Arena through the back door and waited on the court in the dark for two hours before anyone else arrived to turn on the lights.
He felt it was important to show up early because he was taught that “if you’re on time, you’re kind of late in that sense” and “if you want something real bad, you go after it in any way possible.”
In charge of the walk-on tryout, that day was SDSU Men’s Basketball Assistant Coach David Velasquez. His first impressions of Ebrahimian were, “Wow! This guy is different than most walk-ons, just his size, body, and his ability to elevate. He was in phenomenal shape. You could tell he really wanted to make the team. He could easily not just fit in but help us down the line, and he did.”
Prior to the tryout, Velasquez received a call from Ebrahimian’s coach at GCC. While the call heightened his awareness about Ebrahimian, he was quick to point out that Ebrahimian “earned [the spot] clear as day, and everyone that was at the walk-on trial would tell you that.”
Velasquez’ journey to SDSU has similar parallels to Ebrahimian. Out of high school, Velasquez considered heading to junior college to play basketball until a family friend, Mike Montgomery, the basketball coach at Stanford at the time, not only recommended that he go to SDSU so he can learn from an amazing coaching staff that would help lead him into a future coaching career, but Montgomery also called Coach Fisher to put in a good word for Velasquez, much like Ebrahimian’s coach did.
Given his walk-on status, Ebrahimian stated it was difficult for him to get accustomed to not getting much playing time. After “being the guy” on his high school and junior college teams, he was now the last guy on the bench. But he believed going into the situation with no expectations helped him find his role on the team. His mentality was to use practice to impart as much value to the team as he could.
“I’m going to be the best guy during practices to see if I can lift the rest of our guys up to challenge them to the best of my ability…and that was my concentration when I would go in. I always prided myself on the defensive end, so I was going to get out there and guard Jamaal [Franklin] to the best of my ability and make him better,” recalled Ebrahimian.
Remembering Aztec Nation
Ebrahimian has many great memories from his “amazing” two years at SDSU and playing for a legendary coach like Coach Fisher.
He will always remember The Show singing Happy Birthday for him at the conclusion of an Aztec basketball game in his senior year and how they brought so much energy and life to Viejas Arena. “I think it was the most mind-blowing thing I had ever seen,” recalled Ebrahimian when asked about The Show.
“Their energy uplifts people, and it really raises people to the next level. Whatever you’re doing in life, if you bring that energy, there is no doubt that you’re going to be successful because there is no greater feeling than that adrenaline pumping, feeling those endorphins and going out and performing at anything you do, whether it’s basketball, school, work, or family. Bring the same energy that The Show had to anything you do in life and apply it just that way.”
He still keeps in touch with a number of the players on the team through Snapchat and Instagram since some of them play overseas and sends encouraging texts to the current coaches prior to all of the SDSU games.
His favorite Aztec moment is undoubtedly when Coach Fisher pulled his parents into the locker room following a game and told them that he was awarding their son a scholarship. It was an emotional moment for Ebrahimian and his parents, not just for the financial benefits but for the achievement for all the hard work he had put in.
“It made it all worth it for me,” Ebrahimian said, “to be able to get my degree and to be able to do what I loved at one of, arguably, the highest levels in college basketball. It was so sweet. Seeing the emotion on Coach Fisher’s face, translating that to my parent’s faces and then to my feelings, that was so special.”
The Path Ahead
Ebrahimian knew his path after college was always to dive deep into personal training and fitness. He was initially presented with professional basketball opportunities, not only from overseas leagues but also from the Armenian National team. He declined those offers because he did not want to put his life on hold to pursue them.
“I always wanted to start my own business. I’m like a workhorse every day…put in hours and hours and hours of what I do. I felt like it was the right decision to move back [to Glendale], get my life started,” stated Ebrahimian.
He began working at O Wellness under a mentor in the industry, but after a couple of years, the time was right to branch off and start his own company. He created Performance Academy in Glendale in 2017 to “provide training for all levels, whether you’re somebody that’s looking to get in shape with group classes or an athlete who is looking to work on their basketball game, skill level wise,” Ebrahimian said.
Ebrahimian notes that his strength and cardio sculpt-based adult group classes have become the core of the business. Still, he also offers group programs for kids and personalized one-on-one training for adults.
Similar to most small businesses, Performance Academy was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent statewide closures that forced Ebrahimian to shut down the gym for at least eight months and find alternative ways to continue to help his community. He asked himself, “what can I do to stay relevant within the fitness community?” The answer was to start a YouTube channel and provide free classes called Workouts by Narb.
Not only was he able to stay relevant within the fitness community in Glendale, but he also received an unexpected worldwide audience as well. “It was really sweet because we had people from all around the world join. There were people in France, Lebanon, Canada, New York, Chicago…it was really a humbling experience for me because, yes, I was putting in the time, yes, it was for free, but at the same time, that was super satisfying. People were actually taking the time to set up this thing at home at a time where things are closed, and people are stuck at home. People were saying this was the highlight of their day.”
Ebrahimian notes his resourcefulness ended up paying off as a valuable marketing tool. Once he was able to reopen the gym, he noticed a lot of new clients attending his group classes that he had never seen in the gym before who had found out about Performance Academy through Workouts by Narb.
While Ebrahimian has hired a couple of basketball trainers at Performance Academy, he is looking to expand and hire additional trainers to take a load off his shoulders so he can focus on larger scale opportunities such as camps and programs for kids, teens adults, or college athletes.
“When your mind is working day to day, it’s hard to start planning for those larger-scale events which could impact more people,” he said. “It’s being able to take a step back, analyze the whole business itself and then, of course, building new facilities, expanding out, bringing on new trainers, and just kind of creating this community of fitness, wellness, athletics that could benefit kids, adults, any age person.”
This past fall, Ebrahimian used his platform to give back to his homeland and the Armenian people that had helped him immensely over the years. When the Armenian population in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh was attacked by Azerbaijan in September, Ebrahimian started a fundraiser, Workout for Armenia, by live-streaming a workout on his YouTube channel and included an in-depth explanation of the regional conflict and the resulting death and destruction caused in the Armenian communities. He hoped to not only raise funds to help the displaced families but to raise awareness of the situation to his non-Armenian audience primarily.
Within a few days, he raised over $10,000 and donated it through Armenia Fund. “I was just doing my part, a small part of the bigger cause, and I know people were struggling and needed it. So hopefully that got to where it needed to get to,” stated Ebrahimian.
Whether it is being the best player on the team, being the last player on the bench, running his own business, and trying to help his community, it is evident that Ebrahimian strives to work as hard as he can and always puts his best foot forward.
From the outside, Ebrahimian is a stunning success story where hard work has taken him from a walk-on at SDSU to a pillar of his community. To those on the inside who have had a front-row view of his exploits, Ebrahimian has achieved near-celebrity status because each of his successes is a celebration of an amazing group of people who faced the worst of humanity and, against all odds, created what is best about us. To the Armenians in Glendale, no last name is needed. He is Narbeh.