“The Real MVP”
If you follow basketball, the first thing you’ll notice about Ziyan Ali, captain of the 2021-22 A&M Consolidated High School boys basketball team, is his remarkable resemblance to NBA standout Trae Young. The two share similar hair styles, soft facial features and a propensity for knocking down the three-point shot in critical situations.
On the occasion the two might someday meet–Young is Ali’s favorite player–the College Station native could easily pass as Young’s peer. At 6-3, Ali stands two inches taller than his 23-year-old idol, and at 18 years of age, Ali already carries a more muscular build. “I like him a lot,” Ali says of Young, “and I think I have the ability to some day play like him.”
In that quest and with high school now behind him, Ziyan Ali is side-stepping college to attend SPIRE Institute in Geneva, Ohio. Basketball is one of SPIRE’s many high school and post-graduate preparatory programs designed to groom young people for greater opportunities at the next level. On a wall in Ali’s bedroom at the College Station home he and his brother share with their parents–who immigrated to the U.S. from India–hangs a framed poster depicting SPIRE standouts past and future. Next to a digitally manipulated image of Ali in a SPIRE jersey he has yet to officially don is an action shot of SPIRE Academy graduate LaMelo Ball, who averaged 20 points per game last year for the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets.
On the poster, both players wear the number one.
After leading the Consol Tigers to a 24-8 regular season record his senior year and averaging more than 17 points per game, Ali garnered some scholarship interest from smaller schools. Given the significant improvement he showed his last two years of high school, Ali decided to pursue an extra year of play at the “prep” level, hoping the experience might bolster his chances of attracting the attention of larger colleges with bigger basketball reputations.
“I visited some of the small colleges who showed interest,” Ali says, “but I just couldn’t see myself being at any of those places. Then I visited SPIRE, and I was like, ‘Wow, this is awesome!’
“The facilities are awesome. The coaches are awesome. They want you to get better. And on top of that, they didn’t offer me any fake promises. They didn’t tell me. ‘You're a hundred percent going to play.’ They were the only program that didn’t make any promises they might not be able to keep.”
In a 2020 YouTube video, Gravelle Craig, a member of the SPIRE basketball staff, described the goals of the program.
“Here at SPIRE, we strive for excellence in everything we do,” Craig says, “on the court, off the court, performance, nutrition and academics. Our number one goal is to prepare our young men for the next step in their life. And for most of them, that’s college.”
While Ali physically resembles Trae Young, his basketball story is akin to that of yet another NBA superstar, Kevin Durant. When Durant won the NBA Most Valuable Player Award in 2014, he famously gave credit to his mother, Wanda, as “the real MVP’
“You wake me up in the middle of the night in the summer times, making me run up a hill,” Durant said in his acceptance speech, “making me do pushups, screaming at me from the sidelines of my games at 8 or 9 years old.
“We wasn’t supposed to be here. You made us believe. You kept us off the street. You put clothes on our backs, food on the table. When you didn’t eat, you made sure we ate. You went to sleep hungry. You sacrificed for us. You the real MVP.”
In many respects, Ziyan’s mother, Fatima–who goes by “Rozy” in the U.S.–has taken numerous pages out of the Wanda Durant playbook. While Ziyan’s parents live in an attractive two-story home in the Pebble Creek golf-course community of South College Station, Rozy has been the guiding and motivating force in her son’s basketball journey.
“The reason my mom enjoys that I have a passion for basketball is because when she was young she was a really good dancer,” Ziyan says. “But her family was extremely poor and couldn’t afford for her to chase her dream. So, she had to miss out on potentially having a career in dance because they didn’t have the money.
“She always tells me, ‘I never want you to go through that. If you don't realize your dream, at least you can say you tried.’ She didn’t have that same opportunity”
Rozy and her husband, Nayeem, moved to Texas in 2000 after the death of their first child in India. A botched medical procedure claimed the infant’s life. By then, Nayeem’s brother, Nasir, had already settled in the Bryan/College Station area. Both men now own successful local businesses.
After moving to Central Texas, the Ali’s had two more sons. Mohammad, who goes by “Mo,” is completing his studies in business at Texas A&M University. Ziyan, four years younger than Mo would like nothing better than to also attend Texas A&M…as a member of the Aggie basketball team.
He hopes SPIRE can help him realize that lofty aspiration.
Rozy Ali remembers a trip she made with Ziyan to Walmart when he was maybe four years old. A stroll through the toy department generated little enthusiasm from her son, but when they reached the sporting good section, Ziyan’s eyes lit up. Rozy wound up buying her boy an assortment of balls. At home, the ball which attracted almost all of his attention had a pebbled surface and was orange in color.
Ziyan Ali started playing organized basketball in kindergarten.
“He was MVP that first year!” Rozy says, still filled with pride at her son’s early exploits on the hardwood.
By the fourth grade, summer-league coaches had taken notice of Ziyan. Rozy recalls a coach from Houston showing particular interest in her son.
“He watched him and then tapped my back,” Rozy says. “And he said, ‘That is your son?’ I said yes. ‘Can you give me your number so we can talk about him?’ The coach called and asked if I could bring Ziyan to Houston to try out for his team. I said yes.
“Ziyan was 10 years old at the time. He tried out for the team and was selected. So, twice a week that summer, I have to take him to practice in Houston. I also have to take him to games: all over the Houston area, in Austin and in San Antonio.”
By the time Ziyan was 14, Rozy’s summer basketball road trips were taking her and her son to Indiana, Ohio, and other destinations throughout the Midwest. A year later, Ziyan spent a week at a prestigious basketball camp in Las Vegas. He eventually joined the Houston Topguns, an elite summer program Rozy credits for much of Ziyan’s high school improvement. As a Consol senior, Ziyan was selected all-district, all-region and the 19-5A Offensive MVP.
“I tell him,” Rozy says with a laugh, “I’m your mother. I’m your friend. I’m your GIRLFRIEND, because I am always there for you.”
There through both good times and the occasional less-than-stellar performances.
When asked who has been the most supportive person along his basketball journey, Ziyan Ali emphatically answers, “My mom. One hundred percent.”
“I remember this past season,” Ziyan continues, “when we were at Magnolia West High School for a game there. We were supposed to win, but we lost. I had around 20 points and felt like I had played a pretty good game, although I definitely could have played better.
“Mom came onto the court–this was after the game was over–and she let me have it pretty good. The other team was celebrating and she was really upset that I wasn’t more disappointed with the loss. She told me I hadn’t given my all on the court that night.
“When I'm doing good, she's with me,” Ziyan says. “And, when I'm down, she's there to lift me up. She always tells me the truth, like, ‘Z, you're doing good, but you gotta go work on this,’ or, ’Z, you played a good game, but you need to go work on that.’
“She didn’t know anything about basketball until after she moved to America. Most of her side of the family still don’t understand basketball and for a long time they thought both of us were wasting our time with the game. But, Mom is always there for me.”
Rozy Ali may not have known basketball until her young son started showing promise in a kindergarten league, but she does know the thrill of athletic competition.
Growing up in the town of Maregaon, in the Maharastra state of India, Fatima, as Rozy was then known, took up a game called kabaddi.
A popular contact sport in the Indian subcontinent region, kabaddi combines the best of rugby with the game of “tag.” A player, called a “raider,” runs onto the opposing team’s side of the field and tries to “touch out” as many opponents as possible…without being tackled. In many parts of India, kabaddi is a big deal. A pro league debuted in 2014. That season’s championship match was watched by nearly 100 million Indian viewers.
Fatima was good at the game, but the uniform required of players as she advanced through the ranks became a problem for her family. In the end, Fatima’s was forced to give up her kabaddi career because wearing shorts in public went against her Muslim faith.
Although Rozy Ali fully supports her son’s enrollment at SPIRE–tuition there runs more than $40,000 a year–she will miss “being there” for her son on a day-to-day basis. What that’s meant in the past has ranged from the tens of thousands of miles she’s driven to get Ziyan to practices, games and camps throughout Texas and across the country, to 4 a.m. alarms for local workouts at the Texas A&M recreation center. There, with Ziyan before anyone else arrived, Rozy often joined her son on the court, not to point out flaws in his game, but to simply return balls to him after both made and missed practice shots.
So, what will Rozy do now with all her new free time? Well, certainly there will be trips to the Cleveland area to watch Ziyan play. The plan is for him to attend SPIRE for one year and then, hopefully, move on to college ball.
And, Rozy will be “moving on,” too.
“I started taking dance classes”–ballroom dancing–“about three years ago,” Rozy says today, “I think of this as something that Ziyan has given to me. We have the same genes, the same passion for what we love most. I’m very proud of what he’s done and his example has led me back to dancing.”
Rozy is also part of a local “Bollywood” troupe which will be performing in the Houston area this fall. In that, she will be realizing a dream that was cut short in her childhood.
Two years ago, Ziyan Ali presented his mother with a poem for her birthday. In it, he wrote, “Life without you would be like Hazel without Augustus,” a reference to the terminal-cancer storyline featured in the 2014 film, The Fault in Our Stars. “Sure I would get through it, but life wouldn’t be the same.”
In his final stanzas, basketball-playing son paid a fitting tribute to the mother “who made us believe.”
I remember when they said I couldn’t
The couldn’t became could
And the whole time you were screaming
“I knew my baby would!”
When I go through adversity
You’re the only person I’ll ever need
When I’ve done something wrong
You’re the only person I’m scared to see
Because after what you have done for me
Mama, you are the real MVP.