For Toronto’s Ahmed Ali, it was never a question of basketball skill and athletic ability in his journey to the NCAA. What drove him to the top was knowing he represented possibility for his Somali-Canadian community.
“There’s one thing I can’t do, is take anything for granted. I know this could be taken away from me in a second. It’s bigger than me. It’s what motivates me,” he says.
Ali didn’t take a traditional path to college ball. There were many times he was discouraged from that reality. From being overlooked in high school, to falling into depression after losing his brother, to being told he’d never play basketball again, crushed dreams and loss has been a constant.
But his ongoing fight, despite all obstacles, led him to be recruited by Washington State in 2018.
“It was like a dream come true for our entire family,” his brother Yusuf Ali said. “We saw him at the NCAA level, playing on the biggest stage. It brought a smile to all of our faces. He’s living out my dream, my family’s dream and every Somali kid’s dream.”
Growing up in an immigrant household as one of 10 siblings in Lawrence Heights — one of Toronto’s toughest neighbourhoods — his mother worked as a personal support worker and his father as a taxi driver, to provide for the large family.
It’s a community that’s often forgotten, and only remembered for poverty, drugs and gun violence, Ali says. For the 24-year-old, it’s the place he calls home, and where he fell in love with the game.
Ali is five-foot-11, a height that’s often overlooked in the basketball world. He went unnoticed by scouts as a high school player and was unranked at one point. No one batted an eye when he put up impressive 40-plus points against some of the top prospects in the country.
“I remember telling him you are an underdog, everything that people celebrate you for, you’ve earned,” Adeel Sahibzada, his former prep coach, now mentor and close family friend said. “No one’s giving you a loan, there’s no praise, there’s no expectation.”
With zero college offers almost halfway through his graduating year, Ali kicked it into high gear. In Dec. 2015, he scored a masterful 103 points for his high school team, John Polyani Collegiate Institute, becoming one of two Canadian basketball players to ever earn 100 points in a high school game. He made headlines across the world.
“If I didn’t score 103, I don’t know what I’d be doing right now. That day really changed my entire basketball career.” Ali said.
Ali’s next goal was to play in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). First, he’d have to spend two years at the junior college (JUCO) level, due to his academic standing. For many athletes, JUCO is the last chance into the NCAA. For Ali, those pivotal years in JUCO were devastating. In the summer of 2017, right after his first season at Eastern Florida State, he lost his brother Said to gun violence back home. Ali wanted to give up on everything.
He was the “glue” that kept him and his family strong and “one of the happiest human beings who had the power of uplifting anybody in the neighbourhood,” Ali says. Growing up, his brother called him the best point guard in Canada.
Carrying his brother’s spirit helped him get back in the game. “Every single time I’m down in life, I think of him. He’d want me to be positive,” says Ali.
Returning to the court, Ali would be named to the NJCAA Division I All-America second team and crowned the Mid-Florida Conference Player of the year, leading his team to a 30-5 record. He also set a school record for most threes made all-time. Even hometown hero Drake recognized Ali’s game, donning an Eastern Florida jersey with the number 103 during a performance to show love.
Then, the NCAA schools came calling. At first, he committed to Kent State, but after a coaching change, he decided to transfer to Washington State, where he would start in 24 games. In his first season, he locked in points in double-figures 10 times while recording a career-high 18 points, seven assists, and three steals against USC. He was starting to prove that he belonged on the global stage.