Before he was delivering Oscar-worthy performances on the silver screen, Mahershala Ali was proving he had game at center court.
The 6-foot-3 actor played Division-1 basketball in the mid-1990s for Saint Mary’s College in North Carolina. Then named Mahershala Gilmore, Ali averaged 7 points in four seasons during his time at Saint Mary’s. Afterwards he went on to study acting at New York University, and changed his name to the one that would be etched in gold twice over by the Academy in recognition of his superior talent.
Ali won his first statuette for his role in 2016’s Moonlight, becoming the first Muslim actor to ever receive such an honor, and collected his second last Sunday for his portrayal of pianist Don Shirley in the controversial film, Green Book .
The commitment he displays in both films is apparently nothing new. Ali’s former teammate, comedian Reggie Steele, told The Washington Post, “No matter what play you were running, you could count on him to be where he was supposed to be when he was supposed to be there.”
His former assistant coach, Silvey Dominguez, called Ali “a young man that played his rear end off every possession.”
Another of his former teammates, Josh Unruh, said he had, “just had a sort of grinder’s work ethic.”
“There was a side of Mahershala that was more of a deeper thinker, writing poetry, writing lyrics, really committed to his studies,” Unruh added.
Ali wrote of the experience on Saint Mary’s website back in 2011, revealing that he “resented” playing basketball when he was matriculating.
“I’d seen guys on the team get chewed out, spat out, and I was personally threatened with being shipped off to the University of Denver. All in the name of wins and productivity,” he wrote.
It looks like Ali’s pivot to acting was the best thing to happen to his career and his wellbeing.