HILLSBOROUGH, NJ - Last week, it was NBA legend Shaquille O'Neal in an Instagram message lavishing praise on the nurses and doctors in the Intensive Care Unit at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital/Somerset in Somerville.
This week, it was Charles Barkley's turn to reach out on social media after hearing from his friend and fellow NBA All-Star Jayson Williams.about the good deeds extended to the community by Akhtar Farzaie, owner of Bella Pizzeria in Hillsborough.
Here's a link to the Facebook video Barkley sent to Farzaie:
"Bella Pizzeria, Charles Barkley here. Hey man, my boy Jayson Williams tells me you guys have been doing some amazing stuff during this pandemic.
"This has been awful and sad for everybody but I just want to thank you guys for doing what you do. Keep up the great work. Hey listen, really appreciate it especially during this time of real financial ruin for a lot of people.
"Thank you guys for what y'all are doing. Bless you."
Farzaie responded on his Facebook page:
"Wow humbled by this!! On behalf of our beloved Community of Hillsborough & Bella Pizza THANK YOU NBA Hall of Fame Legend Charles Barkley for your kind words!"
A Somerville resident and graduate of Somerville High School in 2000, Farzaie's successful business model is based on quality ingredients and hearty Italian dishes - and an eagerness to give back to the community, from sponsoring youth athletic teams to giving away free pizzas as birthday gifts.
He's extended himself even more during the COVID-19 pandemic, giving away free coupons to local supermarket employees. He drops off food once a week to the SHIP homeless shelter in Somerville and the Ozanon homeless shelter in New Brunswick.
He's been preparing meals and making deliveries to shut-in senior citizens and kids who had relied on school lunches that were no longer available. He's taken care of entire families that needed help
More recently he met with Somerset County Sheriff Darrin Russo and agreed to supply free pizzas throughout the county to help kids celebrate their birthdays; the Sheriff officers deliver the pizza, complete with sirens on their arrival.
"I've worked my butt off and done everything I could to make the business grow; any time the community needed me for something, sponsorships, coordinating fund-raisers, charities for athletes, I had the platform, I've been able to do that, and there's lots of good that came from that," Farzaie told TAPinto last week.
Here's a link to that story, published on May 9: :
Soon after, word about Bella Pizzeria reached Williams, a former member of the New Jersey Nets and Philadelphia 76ers and resident of Hunterdon County; Williams' charitable foundation was formerly located at 36 E. Main St. in Somerville.
Williams and Barkley were teammates on the Philadelphia 76ers and have remained friends.
Barkley was a dominant player during his career in the NBA; he played for the Phoenix Suns, Philadelphia 76ers and the Houston Rockets. He was also a member of the 1992 USA Olympics "Dream Team which won the Gold Medal and included O'Neal, Michael Jordan and other NBA legends. He was the NBA's Most Valuable Player in 1993, and an 11-time member of the NBA All-Star Team between 1987-1997.
He has since become a celebrity spokesman, is an NBA analyst on television, and has hosted "Saturday Night Live" three times.
Farzaie met Williams during a pick-up basketball game at the Somerville YMCA several years ago, where he also met former New York Knick Charles Oakley, with whom he has become friends. They share a passion for working in the kitchen; photos of Farzaie and Oakley together hang on the wall of the pizzeria.
"I was just like, 'wow' when I went on Facebook," Farzaie said. "Charles and Jayson were are close, the played in Philadelphia together, that's the connection. I didn't think it would get that far, but to get to an NBA Hall of Famer, a member of the Dream Team in the Olympics, it just gives you more fuel; this is why you do it, it inspires others.
"This shout out is about Hillsborough, not just to Bella, it was to the community of Hillsborough," Farzaie said. "I came here in 2005, a 23-year-old kid taking a chance, and Hillsborough welcomed me with open arms."
Bella Pizzeria is located at the corner of South Branch Road and South Mountain Avenue.