Alireza Shafiei, better known as Ali by his teammates and coaches, doesn’t exactly fit the mold of the typical elite basketball prospect. He’s relatively short, coming in a little under six feet tall, he’s built more like a linebacker than a point guard, and he was born and raised in Iran.
On a Hillcrest Prep team littered with incredible athletes with almost superhuman abilities, Ali more closely resembles your average high school basketball player. Yet watch him play and all questions on how he is part of this team, much less actually get play time are answered. He plays defense like a rabid dog, typically guarding his opposition the full ninety four feet of the court. He invades his matchup’s personal space with aplomb, nestling himself right underneath the chin of his typically taller opponent. And if that wasn’t enough, he never shuts up. Sometimes it’s words, other times it’s just incoherent noises coming out of Ali’s mouth. Regardless, it is always loud and it is always right in somebody’s ear.
He seems to take special pleasure in guarding players who have been granted the incredible God-given gifts he was not. Kyree Walker is Hillcrest’s best player and is one of the top sophomores in the country. When the end of practice rolls around and scrimmages begin to take place, Ali always seems to finagle his way into guarding the 6’6 Walker, despite the sizeable difference in height and talent. While Kyree often bests Ali in their duels, they are not as one sided as one may assume. Ali gets the better of Kyree more times than Walker would probably like to admit, and his efforts have not gone unnoticed.
Coach Howard Thomas rarely played Ali in the first few games of the season, but has quickly grown to rely on the tenacious point guard for key minutes off the bench.
“He really just brings so much energy,” said Thomas. “He’s had several games where we’ve injected him when we’re a little sluggish and he immediately just comes in and is this Energizer Bunny. He gets the other guys so hyped up.”
Ali’s journey to America was not an easy one. To call the relationship between Ali’s home country of Iran and the United States tense would be an understatement, and it was only worsened by the emergence and eventual victory of President Donald Trump. Iran was one of the six Muslim-majority countries President Trump banned immigrants from. While thankfully the ruling was shot down months before Ali was planning on moving to the States, it was not the most welcoming of gestures. Anti-American sentiments were already present within Iran, as the country has boycotted over 200 American products. Regardless, Ali was determined to make his way to the United States, and despite the odds he was going to try and make his dream a reality.
“It was really hard,” said Ali, referring to the immigration process. “Everybody back home told me it would be impossible to get a visa, but I went and applied and for some reason they gave me one. It was a miracle.”
Hillcrest Prep provided a basketball oasis for Ali. Through a system of international scouting and friendly working relationships between coaches, Hillcrest is able to find top international prospects and bring them to Phoenix. Bringing international players to Phoenix is more than just a basketball decision though. The likelihood of Ali and players like him getting into top universities, through basketball or just purely academics, has skyrocketed now that they are in the states.
“My goal for now is to get into a good school,” said Ali. “If possible, I’d like to play basketball in college and then who knows. Why not the NBA?”
If Ali were to make the NBA, he would join Hamed Haddadi as the only two Iranian players to ever suit up for an NBA team. While it is clearly not a huge emphasis in Iran to produce NBA-caliber players, Ali believes the style of basketball played in Iran compared to that of America’s limits the possibilities of any players emerging from his home country.
“Here in America, there is a much bigger emphasis on scoring and being selfish,” said Ali. “Everybody is looking to create for themselves. In Iran, we played for each other. We passed the ball a lot more and played more team basketball.”
Overall though, Ali reports the transition from Iran to the United States has been a good one. When asked what he misses most, his answer is his family without hesitation. He says he rarely talks to them due to the time change, which makes it even harder. It’s not exactly clear if his parents fully comprehend his decision to come to America to play basketball, but he says they support him none-the-less.
Culturally, Ali reports a relatively quick and seamless assimilation. While his English isn’t perfect, it can be kind of broken at times, it is still incredibly impressive for someone who came to this country in September. He laughs off the idea of any sort of language barrier, reminding me that Iranian school children are taught English from a very young age. Yet there are still some things in America that manage to surprise even someone as confident and comfortable as Ali. When asked what his favorite new food is, he has to think for a while but eventually comes up with an answer of Mexican food. He proceeds to go on a long and poetic spiel about the beautiful intricacies of the first taco he ever enjoyed, how the way the meats and cheeses and spices came together it was unlike anything he had experienced back home. While it is obvious Ali pines to see his home and his family again, he also makes it readily apparent that he is adjusting better than anyone could’ve expected.
Of the four international players currently on Hillcrest’s roster, Ali is certainly one of the more vocal and outgoing. He seems to have a unique and genuine connection with seemingly every player. Off the court, his teammates appear to take pleasure in educating Ali in the ways of the American teen. Every first brings a new round of excitement and laughter for all.
“For the other guys, learning about where Ali is from is always comedy,” says Thomas. “For him, so many things are new like hot dogs, music, girls, all that stuff is brand new to him and we’re just not used to that. I remember the first time he had macaroni and cheese. Those are like huge deals to him. For us, it’s just comedy watching how he gets so excited for stuff that’s so routine for the rest of us. It’s always funny with Ali, because we never know what’s new to him. Every time we’re with him and we do something and it’s the first time for him we have a great time. He’s like a kid in a candy store. It’s funny, but I also know it’s a great experience for him.”
The perspective a player like Ali can provide for his Hillcrest teammates is immeasurable, and despite his impressive talents on the court his affect may be more heavily felt off of it. He is usually calm and collected, but when he needs to be he can be jovial and gregarious. He is one of the more liked players on the team, and at times can provide leadership for a team that is sometimes lacking. While he may not realize his own importance, he does comprehend just how good Hillcrest can be and speaks excitedly about their potential this season.
“This is a really, really fun team,” says Ali, who is almost giddy with excitement. “There are so many really good guys, it’s really great. This team won it all last year, and I think we can do it again.”