The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Before Mahershala Ali was an Oscar favorite, he was a college basketball role player

Mahershala Ali, former lockdown defender, at the 91st Academy Awards Nominees Luncheon earlier this month. (Danny Moloshok/Invision/AP)

As with the landslide majority of former college basketball players, his name lurks mostly in archived game accounts and bygone box scores. Around the mid-1990s, he once “scored five of the first seven points of the second half” or once amassed “perfect 10-for-10 shooting from the free throw line.”

Then, as with players not boffo enough to land one of the 400-some NBA jobs yet boffo enough to play basketball for a scholarship, the name vanishes. It completes its stay in the sports consciousness and goes on to wherever they all go.

On Sunday night at the Academy Awards, this 6-foot-3 former lockdown defender from Saint Mary’s, that Northern California school often seen grappling with its ravenous conference brother Gonzaga, appears favored to go up the steps again. A second such climb in only three years would place him alongside 35, including Marlon Brando, Bette Davis, Denzel Washington, Elizabeth Taylor, Robert DeNiro and Jane Fonda, who have claimed Oscar twice.

The Mahershala Gilmore who averaged 1.4, 2.2, 3.1 and 7.0 points in four seasons at Saint Mary’s, who then studied acting at New York University, changed his name in 2000 to Mahershala Ali. Two Februarys ago, he won Best Supporting Actor for his work in “Moonlight,” then gave an acceptance speech that felt as if his every cell bubbled with grace and dignity. Come Sunday night, he could win again for his role as complicated pianist Don Shirley in “Green Book.”

Before all that or “House Of Cards” or “True Detective,” he played for Mount Eden High in Hayward, Calif., where they called him Hershal and where he gave Coach Ron Benevides a grand total of zero worries. “Hell, if you had kids like that, you’d coach till you’re 90,” said Benevides, retired and following his 9-year-old granddaughter’s games. “His personality was great. He was interested in school. You didn’t have to make him go to class. He wasn’t the star of the team. He was one of those guys who would do what you asked him to do.”

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The Gaels teams from 1992 to 1996 went 11-16, 13-14, 18-10 and 12-15 under Ernie Kent, the current Washington State coach who also helmed Oregon to two Elite Eights. Those four St. Mary’s teams reached none of the cherished 64-team brackets of March. They struggled, not the worst fate for anybody who would enter the rejection-rich vein of acting.

Their future big-screen presence had a presence valued on American campuses. Two-season teammate Reggie Steele, who plies one of the world’s most daring jobs (comedian) around San Francisco and beyond, remembers Gilmore as in “tiptop shape” and as a collaborator: “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.”

Assistant coach Silvey Dominguez, nowadays at Montana State, remembers Gilmore as “a young man that played his rear end off every possession,” and teammate Josh Unruh said, “He could guard because he was just in a stance all the time. Just had a sort of grinder’s work ethic.”

Unruh, who founded a clothing company in Oregon, roomed with Gilmore on Unruh’s recruiting trip in summer 1993 and later for two college years, their bond restating sports’ peerless capacity to assemble, say, a white guy from Salem, Ore., and an African American guy from the East Bay. Gilmore would spend the summer of 1995 working in Oregon, living with Unruh in one of Unruh’s grandparents’ guesthouses, joining big family dinners and once reading his poetry to Unruh’s family.

“There was a side of Mahershala that was more of a deeper thinker, writing poetry, writing lyrics, really committed to his studies,” Unruh said. “It didn’t matter if it was an 8 a.m. class or what he was doing, he was just dressed to the nines, always, just clean, always. . . . It looked like the dude spent a couple hours getting ready. I’d catch him at 1 a.m., 2 a.m., lining his hair up.”

Teammates envied his body, which Unruh called “six-packed and yoked,” even as “he was not on some crazy workout plan that I ever saw, and this guy was cut up.”

Lately, Unruh texted Ali a link to a 1995 Saint Mary’s-Gonzaga game and cracked, “I’m surprised there’s not more than 54 views of this, given the fact there’s a future A-lister.”

Ali replied: “I’m surprised there’s 54 views.”

Even amid a warmth among teammates, Gilmore had spotted the cold side of college sports, repeating his misgivings about feeling “disposable, like a product,” in interviews, as with Rolling Stone’s Josh Eells in November. On the Saint Mary’s website in 2011, Ali wrote: “Honestly, I kind of resented basketball by the end of my time there. 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.”

Yet as if to uphold the very purpose of college, he wrote of his own “very clear, palpable transformation,” competing “in poetry slams” and gaining, academically, a thorough understanding of “the concept of ‘finishing.’ ”

A theater professor, Rebecca Engle, had seen him on a diversity panel and encouraged him toward acting, and by senior year, post-basketball, he starred on campus in George C. Wolfe’s “Spunk.” Steele remembers being wowed and remembers Gilmore telling of how he adored even rehearsal.

Dominguez remembers his wife saying afterward, “You know what? That guy’s going to make something of himself.”

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