Mahershala Ali has come to dominate the award season in recent years with her phenomenal twists in Green Book and Moonlight. While film buffs are familiar with Ali’s impressive resume, few know that the Oscar winner was once an accomplished basketball player in college, making him the first Division I star to win an Academy Award.
According to the NCAA, Ali, who passed through Hershal Gilmore at the time, was recruited from St. Mary’s College (SMC) in California and attended school on a basketball scholarship after graduating from high school. Ali played for the Gaels from 1992-93 through the 1995-96 seasons. He scored 348 points during his 97 games and stood out in his senior season when he averaged 7 points, 1.8 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game.
However, after his years with the team, Ali was not the same. “I went to SMC with a basketball scholarship. But when I graduated, I no longer considered myself an athlete,” Ali wrote for the SMC website in 2011. “Honestly, I felt a little bit resentful of basketball at the end of my time there.” I had seen boys from the team being chewed up, spat on, and I was personally threatened with being sent to the University of Denver. All in the name of profit and productivity.”
“In a nutshell,” he added, “I came to SMC wanting the fullest experience as a student-athlete, and left wanting to experience life as an artist and a complete person.” It was then that Ali decided to continue acting.
I didn’t have “the focus or the mindset” for the sport
At St. Mary’s, Mahershala Ali was disappointed by the way the school treated its players. As he told Rolling Stone, he had been recruited on the premise of education and family, “but when we got there, you suddenly felt disposable, like a product,” he said. That seemed callous to me. Especially as black boys, I think we feel betrayed.”
Finally, Ali acknowledged that although he was an “OK” player, “I don’t think I had the focus or the mindset that would sustain a successful sports career,” he said for The Guardian. “I was trapped between the worlds, where I think my mindset was more suited to the arts than athletics.”
“I experienced a very clear and tangible transformation while I was in college,” Ali wrote in 2011. “I started writing and interpreting my poetry. I competed in poetry and began to take my studies more seriously… I did better in college because I began to understand how I learned, just as the concept of ‘finishing’ began to take root. I can’t say I withheld much of the information from my classes, but I understand how I learn and understand the beginning, middle, and end, which in turn leads to completion. I can’t think of two more powerful or useful tools in the ‘real world’.”
Ali went on to study drama at New York University, but his big break didn’t come until he moved to Los Angeles years later.
He risked everything to become an award-winning actor
While Mahershala Ali found success early in Crossing Jordan, the True Detective actor gained notoriety when he landed a role on Netflix’s House of Cards. However, although the role helped Ali gain traction, he realized that he deserved more, financially, and professionally.
As Ali said to Rolling Stone, he did not earn nearly as much as actor Kevin Spacey, which prevented him from moving up in business, and he was not creatively satisfied, so he had to take drastic measures.
“I was exhausted by … I don’t mean the lack of opportunity, but the kind of opportunity,” Ali said. He would receive offers to do two or three scenes, with a good grade from the director. “but I felt I had more to say.”
Ali felt that he was destined for something bigger, so he asked the producers to let him go. “[In] basketball, I had coaches who played me on the job. But you know your natural position is to shoot the guard,” he added.
“I think they were surprised. Most actors don’t say, “I want to be out of your hit show” [but] I just felt like a leader.” And he was right! Ali reserved Moonlight the year he left House of Cards – and the rest, as they say, is history, proving that bold moves can be worthwhile.