CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Eight short months ago, Ashley ShahAhmadi was covering high school baseball games and track meets at the local ABC affiliate in Jackson, Miss. — and desperately working on an exit strategy.
At 26, after four years of working small ones, she had to land a bigger job soon, she'd decided — or move back home to Georgia, in with her mother and younger brother, and start over.
Then in May, Atlanta-based Fox Sports South hired her as a digital host and producer. Four months later, she was tapped to host pre- and post-game coverage of Hornets home games. And in December, longtime Hornets sideline reporter/analyst Stephanie Ready announced she was leaving.
And there it was: Her dream job, open. She'd been imagining this — not kind of this, not sort of this, but exactly this — ever since she was in the seventh grade. But was she ready?
'That has to be the coolest job'
In case you're wondering, she pronounces ShahAhmadi so it rhymes with comedy: "SHAH-meh-dee."
(For the record, though, the traditional way to say her last name is "Shah-AHK-meh-dee," with a throat-clearing 'kh' sound. "I just Americanized it to make it easier," she says.)
Her father, a native of Iran, emigrated to the United States when he was 14 and grew up to marry Cheryl Rebischke of Saint Cloud, Minn. Ashley, the middle of their three children, was born two years after her brother Aryon and seven years before her brother Brandon. She learned a bit of Persian from her grandmother, but otherwise, there wasn't much Iranian influence on her life; if the family went to religious services, it was to Catholic church on Christmas and Easter.
It's always been a tall family — Ashley, Aryon and Brandon are 5-10, 6-3 and 6-6, respectively — and they've always been basketball fans. But Ashley was the one who took the game most seriously.
Although she developed into a shot-blocking force as a forward at Marietta's Kell High School, she calls a middle-school game — in which she scored half of her team's points — her most memorable moment as a player.
And it was an NBA game she attended as a middle-schooler that was the seminal moment in her life, she says.
She was in seventh grade, with the whole family at an Atlanta Hawks game (her first), in great seats, thanks to a work connection of her dad's. So it was easy for ShahAhmadi to spot the sharply dressed woman holding the microphone up to the Hawks' head coach courtside.
"In my head, I was like, 'That has to be the coolest job ever.'"
Cheryl ShahAhmadi remembers it like this: "Ashley goes, 'Mom, that is what I want to do. I want to be a sideline reporter in the NBA.'"
Cheryl didn't think much of it at the time.
Yet, she says, Ashley stayed steadfastly focused on the dream — through her father walking out her freshman year of high school; through Cheryl's struggle to raise three kids, paycheck to paycheck, as a waitress who worked nights and weekends; through Ashley working at Chick-Fil-A all through high school and college to help pay her tuition at the University of Georgia's broadcast journalism school.
And in 2014, ShahAhmadi graduated and started looking for work. The first job she landed covering sports was in Meridian, Miss. — a city whose entire population wouldn't fill up Spectrum Center (where the Hornets play) twice.
It's about as far away from an NBA sideline as a sports journalist could get.
Starting at the bottom
But, she says, it was a fantastic opportunity for a newly minted college graduate. At WTOK-TV, she was on-air five nights a week, anchoring the 6 and 10 o'clock sports reports, and got to cover college teams at Alabama, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Southern Miss (plus a fair amount of high school sports).
The pay and the schedule were not so fantastic.
Her salary was $22,000 a year, and while $22,000 stretches a lot farther in Meridian, Miss., than it does in Atlanta or Charlotte, it still wound up stretching ShahAhmadi pretty thin. And with working late most nights, Monday and Tuesday as days off, and little vacation time, she rarely drove the 4-1/2 hours home to see the family.
She lived like this for two years. Then: another job in Mississippi — and another two years. In 2016, she made it to a bigger market, Jackson, Miss., but now it was six hours home and ... she'd about had it.
Near her contract renewal date this spring, ShahAhmadi made her daily call to her mother, and unsuccessfully fought back tears. "I just kind of feel like I've plateaued here," she told her mom. There was nowhere higher to go in Mississippi. She was stuck.
'Literally jumping for joy'
She wasn't going to settle for anything, she says: She really was prepared to move back home while she kept looking.
But in April, she got a lead on a digital reporting job at Fox Sports South in Atlanta. She combined a short trip home (for brother Aryon's wedding) with a meeting with Randy Stephens, executive producer at Fox Sports and its affiliates.
She told him about her love of basketball and her childhood dream of working an NBA sideline as a reporter. "She was also well aware," Stephens says, chuckling, "that that's not (the job) we were talking about."
Still, he was impressed by her passion, initiative and stick-to-it-ness in Mississippi. So he hired her as an Atlanta-based reporter and host, focusing on Fox Sports South's internet and social media presences.
This wasn't the job she'd dreamed of, but it felt like a dream job: In her first months, she was sent to Washington D.C. for the Major League Baseball All-Star Game and to Cooperstown for Atlanta Braves great Chipper Jones's induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
So when Stephens asked her to start commuting to Charlotte to host Fox Sports Southeast's pre- and post-game Hornets shows — joining analyst/sideline reporter Stephanie Ready — she had to pinch herself again.
"11-year-old Ashley is literally jumping for joy," she tweeted on Sept. 24. "Ever since I went to a Hawks game as a kid and saw the hosts/reporters, I have dreamed of the day I would be able to cover a NBA team."
Of course, she had originally been a bit more specific than that — which makes what happened less than two months later more incredible.
On Dec. 12, Ready announced that she'd be leaving for a job at Turner Sports at the end of the week, after working Hornets games almost exactly as long as ShahAhmadi had dreamed of being an NBA sideline reporter.
How many NBA sideline reporting jobs are there in the world? A few dozen, maybe?
Well, one was finally open, and ShahAhmadi was in the exact right place at the exact right time.
A happy ending ... and beginning
Whether you've seen ShahAhmadi on TV or in person at a Hornets game (she and her on-air partners broadcast live from the pop-up booth on the Spectrum Center concourse), two things probably stood out.
One, her look isn't typical. "It's always like, 'You're not from around here,' as soon as they see my last name," she says. "But also just 'cause I have olive skin and darker hair. No one ever guesses Persian. ... So that's a nice conversation-starter."
Two, smiling's her favorite.
"Her on-camera personality is, I think, really something that everybody enjoys," Stephens says. "She's always so bubbly, and so enthusiastic, in every situation.
"It's almost — " he pauses, then laughs. "You know, I never want to discourage people from being happy, but I'm sometimes telling her, 'Calm down. Not so much.'"
But she does have much to be excited about.
She's no longer living paycheck to paycheck. She shares a roof again with family members, yet she also gets some space, with all the trips to Charlotte, a city she's quickly fallen in love with. And after spending four years rarely seeing the outside of Mississippi, ShahAhmadi is about to become a very frequent flier, since her new role requires her to travel with the team.
Oh, and did we mention she's finally, really, truly in her dream job?
"It's insane. I mean, it's insane," ShahAhmadi says, after wrapping up her first night in her new job as an NBA sideline reporter, a Dec. 19 Hornets win over the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I'm just so grateful... I cannot believe that this is my job. I can't believe I made it."
As she says this, she's not literally jumping for joy — not like 11-year-old Ashley, who most certainly is — but 26-year-old ShahAhmadi is smiling a smile that viewers will be seeing a whole lot more.
Information from: The Charlotte Observer, http://www.charlotteobserver.com