From Gabrielle Union, Queen Latifah, 2 Chainz, and Dwayne “The Rock’”Johnson — singers, actors and rappers have often bragged about their athletic accomplishments. #ShowMeTheReceipts, a recurring feature at The Undefeated, will authenticate those declarations. In this installment, we verify actor Mahershala Ali’s receipts.
As the player development manager for the Washington Wizards, Kamran Sufi doesn’t have a lot of time to watch much television. But he’ll try to make an exception on Sunday night about the time the Academy Award for best supporting actor category is announced.
“’I’ll be interested,” Sufi said. “I want to see what happens with Hershal.”
“Hershal” is Mahershala Ali, the Academy Award-winning actor who is favored to win his second Oscar on Sunday for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley in the movie Green Book. But before Ali played Shirley, or Cottonmouth (Luke Cage), Remy (House of Cards) and Juan (Moonlight) he was known as Mahershala Gilmore, a Division I basketball player at Saint Mary’s College of California, just outside of Oakland.
Ali played four years at Saint Mary’s, with his best season coming as a senior when he averaged seven points and 1.8 rebounds in 27 games as a starter. His college career ran parallel to Steve Nash at Santa Clara, which means the two-time NBA MVP faced off against the 2017 Academy Award winner for best supporting actor in the movie Moonlight at least twice a year for four years.
That 2017 Oscar earned Ali, a 6-foot-3-inch guard known for his slashing ability on offense and his tenacity on defense, the privilege of being the first Division I basketball player to win an Academy Award.
“If there’s a player I would compare him to it, would be Marcus Smart,” said Sufi, who was a year behind Ali at Saint Mary’s. “Wasn’t a great 3-point shooter, but did just enough to keep you honest. A solid defender who was physical. Hershal was competitive, and he always played hard.”
Remember how LeBron James entered the NBA with a man’s body? That was Ali when he entered Saint Mary’s, a solidly built guard who was a standout player at Mt. Eden High School in Hayward, a city just under 20 miles south of Oakland.
“In terms of the look of a ball player, he had ‘it,’ ” said Ernie Kent, the head basketball coach at Washington State who was about to enter his second year as the head coach at Saint Mary’s when he recruited Ali. “His body was very developed, and once he got into the weight room with us, he got stronger and stronger. We tried to turn him into a point guard, but it would have been a lot better had we just left him in the off-guard position.”
That’s the position Ali played in high school, where he was a key player on the Mt. Eden High School team that played for a state championship during his sophomore season (losing to Servite High School from Anaheim in the 1990 CIF Division III state title game played at the Oakland Coliseum).
Ali was part of the Mt. Eden team that was stacked the next year, rising to No. 1 in the state Division III rankings going into its February 1991 game against Hayward, the No. 1 ranked Division IV team.
That game is always a huge crosstown rivalry. But in 1991 there was added drama as Ali had emerged as a key player for Mt. Eden after leaving Hayward, where he played on the junior varsity team as a freshman and was expected to be a key contributor once he made the varsity.
“He really should have stayed with us, but he went to Mt. Eden because his stepdad wanted him to become the focal point of the team,” said Gerald “Juma” Walker, who ended his career as the No. 2 all-time prep scorer in California. “We played a more free style of basketball, while at Mt. Eden they had a Bobby Knight-style coach that had them playing like robots.”
That robotic team went on to beat Hayward rather easily, 78-56, that night before an overflow crowd. Walker, a Bay Area legend who played for four years at San Francisco, led all scorers with 25 points that day, Ali scored 14, leading five Mt. Eden players in double figures.
“They were restricted,” Ali told the San Francisco Chronicle after that game. “I don’t think anyone’s played that kind of defense against them.”
That’s a comment that Walker said held true when it came to Ali. “Hersh was like a Trevor Ariza-type player: athletic, strong defender who would hit the open shot. And he would dunk on somebody from time to time.”
To be an effective player in the Bay Area during that era of the late ’80s and early ’90s — which featured Jason Kidd, Lamond Murray and Drew Berry — you had to be tough. In a 1991 sectional semifinal, Ali and his teammates helped hold Murray — who played 12 years in the NBA — to 19 points (which was 10 points below his scoring average) in a Mt. Eden win.
In 1992 Ali, a co-captain at Mt. Eden, was named the prep player of the week by The Daily Review newspaper in Hayward. The newspaper credited Ali with “being the defensive leader”on a team that was limiting opponents to just 46.5 points a game.
“Every region has players that play different ways, and [Ali] wasn’t your typical Bay Area player,” said Hashim Ali Alauddeen, co-founder of the Oakland Soldiers youth basketball organization. “He played a game like he was playing football: nonstop aggression. Determined. Never passive.”
It wasn’t just Ali’s aggressive play that allowed him to fit right in at Saint Mary’s. He connected immediately with his teammates because of his hair-cutting ability. “He’d come to our room — or we’d go to his — and would charge us $5 for a haircut,” said Troy McCoy, a forward at Saint Mary’s for two years. “I’m a picky guy, but he had skills. I let him cut my hair.”
Ali was also considered the best dressed player on the team. “I’d get up at 8 in the morning and throw on some slip-ons and sweats for class, and [Ali] was putting on a nice outfit to look presentable,” Sufi said. “He always had interests that were outside of basketball. Not only was he into fashion, he also wrote poetry. He just had a different energy about him.”
Which made it easy for Ali to detach himself from the game as playing time, early in his career, was scarce due to more refined players occupying most of the playing time in front of him. As he reflected on his time at Saint Mary’s in an essay he wrote for the school’s website in 2011, Ali said that by the time he graduated, “I no longer thought of myself as an athlete.”
He elaborated on that during a 2017 interview with NPR, as he explained his shift toward acting. “At a certain point, basketball became the thing I was doing the most, but it was really in my periphery. It was really a focus on how to, in some ways, keep moving in this direction towards something that allowed me to express myself in a way that sports didn’t.”
That direction was leading him to acting, which Ali put his energies into at Saint Mary’s. After graduating from Saint Mary’s, Ali left for the opposite coast to attend New York University, where he eventually earned his master’s degree in fine arts.
His first noticeable role came in 2001, when he appeared on the television series Crossing Jordan.
“Someone called me at home and told me to turn on NBC, and I see him on Crossing Jordan,” McCoy said. “If he’s on something, I watch it. I really liked him in Benjamin Button, and he was outstanding in Green Book. I stopped watching Luke Cage after they killed him off.”
Over time, the roles became more significant to the point where Ali is today: one of the top actors in the business.
“I give him credit because here was someone who had a vision, and he pursued it at an early age,” Kent said. “He just blossomed to the point where he’s one of the best actors out there.”
Ali was able to connect those acting skills with basketball in 2017 when he narrated the CBS opening for the NCAA national championship game.
As a former D1 baller, Mahershala Ali understands the stakes tonight. He'll set the tone in our National Champ game tease, tonight on CBS. pic.twitter.com/TO4bAXWob9
— March Madness TV (@MarchMadnessTV) April 3, 2017
While he says he no longer plays, Ali stays connected with this college teammates regularly via group chats.
“All of us who played at Saint Mary’s are close,” said McCoy, who hosted Ali on his recruiting trip to the school. “We know what everyone’s doing, and we support one another.”
Which is why many of Ali’s college teammates — even if they’re not television or movie fans — will likely tune into the Academy Awards to catch the best supporting actor category.
“I remember when he became involved in theater, and you could see the rush he got from doing that replaced his rush of playing basketball,” McCoy said. “It’s amazing to see him in the acting game as one of the best.
“I don’t care about award shows,” McCoy added. “But I’ll be watching.”