At 7-foot-2, Salah Al-Mejri is larger than life. A Tunisian professional basketball player for the NBA Dallas Mavericks and a representative of the Tunisian national basketball team internationally, he has made a name for himself nationally and globally. In his story Al-Mejri shares his journey to the NBA, challenges he’s faced in the league and his community impact back home.
Growing up as kid in Tunisia, my first passion was soccer.
I played competitive club soccer until I was 18, going undrafted in 2008 and then competing overseas for nine years, including with Real Madrid. I even became friendly with Cristiano Ronaldo, attending some of Real Madrid’s soccer practices and having annual Christmas week dinners with the team. I didn’t start playing basketball until around age 18. But from the beginning, I was hooked.
There was barely any organized basketball in my country growing up, which meant my first exposure to the game came when I was a teenager — already pushing seven feet — and without resources or fanfare.
That’s changed now, though, in part because of my exposure at the NBA and my international work with the Tunisian team. I have had the opportunity to take Tunisia farther in international competition than the country has ever been, and that’s a big deal for that part of the world.
In fact, I owe a lot of my success to Tunisians’ support. The Tunisian national team had a press conference for me when I joined the NBA. It was a big event for us. And I had like three million calls on my phone from radio, TV, newspapers, everything.
Everything was new for me for when I first joined the NBA — the culture was new, the language was new.
I spoke English, but not American English. And basketball was totally different from the basketball I was playing before — four or five games in one week. And things go quickly. You can go from being in the D-League to starting. It happened to me. It was not easy, especially because nobody from my country played in the U.S. But I always had my support from back home, and I had a goal. As I improved, I wanted to improve the lives of others.
Working with the NBA, we had three camps in three different cities in Tunisia this summer . Everybody was happy with that. We gave a player a scholarship to a small university in Los Angeles. We have four players now in the U.S. that play in Division I. The kids were happy to meet me, and it’s always good to play pickup games with them. The U.S. Embassy Tunisia helped us a lot, too with donating 250 jerseys for the campers and arranging a visit to the SOS Children’s Village Gammarth orphanage.
Last summer I also participated in Basketball Without Borders in Angola and plans to do the same next summer in South Africa. I want to see the sport’s popularity continue to increase, and I want to have a lot to do with it. My passion for the game doesn’t just end on the floor.
But my exposure isn’t just changing things back home. It’s hopefully changing how the world views Arabs.
Every media — TV, radio, newspapers, social media, everything — was talking about, “Salah is the first Arabic player to go to Real Madrid, soccer or basketball.” It was really big, but then when I came to the NBA, it was not a rumor; it was sure. But the media still couldn’t believe it. A lot of people ask how I got here.
I admired Zinedine Zidane growing up. He’s a retired French soccer player and current manager of Real Madrid. He played as an attacking midfielder for the France national team, Cannes, Bordeaux, Juventus and Real Madrid. Zidane was named the best European footballer of the past 50 years in the UEFA Golden Jubilee Poll. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of the game.
Similar to Zidane, I came from humble beginnings and stressed the importance of kids having proper role models and mentors. In many ways I hope my work ethic emulates Zidane’s tenacity. Zidane grew up in the projects of Marseille in southern France. In 1998, Zidane led France to its first World Cup trophy scoring two goals and defeating the defending champions Brazil.
We need more stories like Zidane’s journey to be shared, and that’s why I’m happy to share my story in hopes of inspiring the future generation. I have a very simple message for today’s youth: Anything is possible, so long as you put in the work. There are many lessons to be learned from NBA players, but perhaps the most valuable is not only to enjoy what you’re doing, but to celebrate the fact that you have the chance to do it to begin with.