This season, Poly basketball star Rahim Ali has a chance to make history as the first four-year starting point guard to lead a Maryland public school team to four straight state championships.
Poly coach Sam Brand raves about his 18-year-old floor general, how his basketball skills and IQ blend perfectly with his toughness, maturity and confidence in helping the Engineers to three straight Class 3A state championships.
“Rah has always been someone that every time he plays basketball, it looks like he’s playing for a reason, playing with a greater purpose," Brand said.
What is that reason?
It’s found on every pair of basketball shoes Ali has worn since his days at Mt. Washington Middle School. Each has the initials ‘CTL’ or the name ‘Tiffany’ written on the outside or stitched inside the tongue.
“I know his mother is a major driving force in that purpose," Brand said.
On Nov. 26, 2014, Chantille Tiffany Land-Ali died after a lengthy battle with metastatic breast cancer. She was 36 years old. Rahim was 13 at the time, in the seventh grade.
“It’s something a lot of young people don’t have to deal with,” Ali said. “When my mom passed, it was hard for me and I really didn’t want to play basketball anymore. But I found a way to use it to my advantage because I know she’s here with me and that’s the reason I play hard. That’s why I don’t take any plays off or take any games for granted. It motivates me in a way that I can’t even speak of or explain.”
His father, Dante, has seen what his son can’t explain.
One of Ali’s biggest strengths on the court is his efficient play — he enters his senior season with 680 points, 546 assists and 301 rebounds — and it’s on the rare occasions when he struggles that Dante Ali takes note.
“There’s little things that he does on the court that lets me know that he’s always being pushed and always being reminded of his mother,” he said. “Sometimes, if he gets down or maybe the game is getting away, I may see him holding his head down. But I know she is in his thoughts and maybe he’s praying to his mother or asking her for guidance.
“He’s learned how to search for that inner strength in his own way and a lot of times when he does, he comes back rejuvenated, refreshed and refocused. His game typically turns around.”
Ali has been surrounded by All-Metro talent throughout the team’s championship runs, from graduates De’Vondre Perry to Demetrius Mims to current standouts Justin Lewis and Brandon Murray.
As a freshman, he recalls how Perry, now playing at Temple, took over the state tournament when he was a senior to bring home the program’s first title. Mims, now at Towson, successfully took his turn as team leader the following year.
Now, it’s Ali’s turn.
“The roles change,” he said. “Freshman year, I was watching and picking up things from the upperclassmen because I knew one day it would be my time to be the leader and everybody is going to be looking up to me. And that’s the crazy thing — the three years went by so fast and I’m not looking up to anybody. It’s on me now.”
The 6-foot Ali, a standout student who has received scholarship offers from Towson, Loyola Maryland, Mount St. Mary’s and Sienna, with many other schools showing interest, savors the responsibility.
As point guard, he considers his teammates family, and all the time spent together in the offseason creates a bond that sets the team up for success.
Ask Ali for an assessment on any teammate — Where does he like to get the ball on the floor? Can he be jawed at for motivation? Does he thrive more with a confident pat on the back? — and he quickly provides one.
Brand is appreciative.
“The beautiful thing about having a point guard that is so mature is you can take a step back from coaching because he’s like a coach on the floor running the show,” he said. “Over the years, Rahim has grown to the point where I’m really looking forward to being able to coach with him more than to coach him this season.”
Time and time again, Lewis says Ali is his favorite point guard to play alongside.
“He plays hard and is always pushing me to go harder,” said Lewis, a two-time All-Metro forward who has committed to Marquette. “His passing ability is through the roof. But it’s not only the way he can pass. He opens up the floor based on his ability to pull up and hit open shots. I love playing with him — he brings energy to every practice, every game.”
Since tournament play began under the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association in 1947, a school has won four straight state championships four times. Dunbar accomplished the feat three times, and Fairmont Heights once.
None of those teams had the same starting point guard through their respective four-year runs.
Ali can be the first for Poly, which opens the season as the The Baltimore Sun’s No. 1 ranked team, and many believe the Engineers are clear favorites to make it four straight.
When Ali talks about the chance to win four straight state titles, the word “we” is always used.
“It’s a family here and not about one individual person. That’s big for us,” he said. “So it’s not all about our individual stats. As long as we get the win at the end of the day, that’s all that matters.”
Ali says it will take focus from the entire team and staying away from complacency. And, most importantly, going day by day.
“My mom is with me all the time,” he said. “It’s definitely comforting to always have someone watching over you, so I feel protected at all times no matter what I do. Whatever the situation is, I know I got my mom with me, my father with me, my whole family and my Poly family.”