Salah Mejri plays basketball with the kind of intense, youthful passion you wouldn’t expect from a 30-year-old, and that isn’t a bad thing. His fire gives him confidence and the self-belief it takes to be the first player from Tunisia to play in the NBA. There was barely any organized basketball in his country as he grew up, which meant his first exposure to the game came when he was a teenager — already pushing seven feet — and without resources or fanfare.
That’s changed now, though, in part because of his success at the NBA and international level. Mejri has taken Tunisia farther in international competition than the country has ever been, and between his time with the Mavericks and also Spanish superclub Real Madrid, he’s become one of the most successful players ever from North Africa.
His personal achievements and fame have certainly catalyzed the growth of the game in that region of the world. This summer, he ran three camps with the NBA and Jr. NBA in Tunisia. He participated in Basketball Without Borders in Angola and plans to do the same next summer in South Africa. He wants to see the sport’s popularity continue to increase, and he wants to have a lot to do with it. His passion for the game doesn’t just end on the floor.
That natural enthusiasm made him a good fit for the Mavs’ Jr. NBA clinic earlier this week, held on the main floor at American Airlines Center. Fifty elementary and middle schoolers from the City of Dallas Parks and Recreation, under the guidance of Mejri and coaches from the Mavs Basketball Academy, ran through dribbling and shooting drills, played knockout, and listened to Mejri share his story of how he made it in the sport despite the limited resources available for up-and-comers in his native Tunisia. NBA players, for example, never visited.
“When I was that age I was playing soccer, and whenever I’d see a player on the TV, I’m already happy,” he said. “So I imagine if I saw them in front of me, I might pass out, I don’t know. (The kids are) very lucky to have an NBA player playing with them, being around them. It’s very important.”
The kids were understandably in awe of Mejri. He’s an NBA player, which is usually good enough to widen the eyes of any youngster. But on top of that he’s 7-foot-2, which makes his larger-than-life status grow even taller. His message to the kids, several of whom hope to play competitive basketball in the future: Anything is possible, so long as you put in the work.
“I’m lucky to be playing basketball, but I’m giving almost all my time to basketball,” he told them. “Playing, working out, exercising. To dedicate all that time to something, it’s really hard. But if you’re passionate about it, it’s a sacrifice you need to make.”
Mejri’s late start in the sport only came because his father helped to run a local club. He played alongside his dad, uncle, and brothers in what turned out to be quite the family affair. He also eventually played for his school’s team, where to say he dominated would be an understatement. The second-year Mav would soon shift the majority of his time and focus to basketball, a wager which paid off: Offers came from Europe, and Mejri launched a pro career. Before that, however, he was studying to be an engineer — and without the success he enjoyed at his school, those offers from Europe might not have come.
“If I wasn’t in school, they would never have seen me,” he said, urging the kids to stick with their studies. “So if I wasn’t in school, there’d be no basketball, no NBA, nothing.”
Then the games began, and Mejri joined the kids for a few games of knockout. The 7-foot-2 center towered over his competition, and any time he’d come close to losing — or, maybe, when he was just a bit bored — he’d swat the kid’s shot into the third row, then he’d shrug his shoulders or laugh with the recipient of his rejection. But Mejri did fall victim in two of the games.
“I cheated,” he admitted. “I blocked their shots, but I still lost. They have a lot of energy and they are excited to play, so that’s why they beat me.”
Intellectual capability aside, I think Mejri might have seen some of himself in the kids. Several teammates, most notably Dirk Nowitzki and Justin Anderson, have positive attitudes and seem to love the game. But Mejri in particular seems to be enjoying life in general, including but not limited to basketball; he’s just happy to be here, happy to have made it, and happy to have the chance to pursue his passion day in and day out. He laughs more than anyone in the locker room and, like Nowitzki, Mejri’s trash talk is more likely to make an opponent laugh than provoke anger. This is a 30-year-old man who has fun for a living, and for an afternoon he shared that unadulterated joy with 50 kids one-third his age and height.
There are many lessons to be learned from NBA players and coaches, 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.