The legend lives on two generations later
Nearly every day for the past four years Nevada Union basketball standout Tyler Smith has walked down the sidewalk, reached for the handle and pulled open the doors of his high school gym. But for him, it’s not just any gym – it’s Grandpa’s gym.
On May, 31, 1968, the Nevada Union High School gym was christened Albert Ali Gymnasium after a man whose athletic accomplishments and love for the community and its youth are still the stuff of local legend.
But the youths that would have been so dear to Ali’s heart – his four grandchildren – never had the pleasure of running up and down his court with him in the stands watching. Albert Ali died at the age of 40 due to complications resulting from a hard-fought battle with rheumatoid arthritis.
His daughters Tami and Robin were just nine and 13 years old at the time. While Ali was able to watch his daughters play softball, volleyball and basketball in their younger years, he never had the pleasure of meeting his four grandchildren Alisse, 24, Kellen, 22, Chad, 20, and Tyler, 17.
In fact, he never even saw the gym named in his honor as he was blind by the time the facility was named in his honor.
To this day, Robin remembers vividly a scene that took place when Tyler was a freshman playing varsity basketball with Chad, who was then a senior.
“I was sitting at the edge of the bleachers closest to the door and I sat and watched Tyler and Chad run up and down the court together,” Robin said with emotion dripping from her words. “And as I looked into the foyer I could see the picture of dad looking into the gym. It was a sweet, wonderful moment for me.
“How proud and happy it would have made him to see the kids play.”
Grandpa Ali is no longer with the family physically, but his spirit and the memories of him have continued to live.
“I never met my grandpa, but of course I’ve heard the stories from teachers and people who even played with him or who he coached,” Tyler said slowly. “It feels special to hear about him.”
All four Ali grandchildren played basketball in his gym at one time or another, but it was Chad and Tyler who ended up playing throughout all four years of high school.
Alisse, a tennis standout and the 1998 recipient of the Albert Ali Award for Nevada Union’s best senior athlete, won a Sac-Joaquin Section singles title her senior year. She then went on to play tennis at the University of California, Davis.
Her younger brother Kellen chose the same sport, finishing up a successful career at the University of California, Santa Cruz last spring with his team winning the Division III NCAA team tennis title.
Despite playing other sports such as football while growing up, basketball was always the top choice for Chad and Tyler.
No doubt Ali, a three-sport athlete in football, basketball and baseball, would have been overjoyed to watch his four grandchildren succeed in their respective sports.
In 1947 Ali, a halfback, led the Grass Valley High School football team to an undefeated season and a Sierra Foothill League Championship. During the winter of his senior year he was named the “outstanding basketballer” of the SFL after his team went 20-5 and won a league Championship.
During that senior year he was named the Most Valuable Player of the Placer (now Kendall Arnett) Tournament – and nearly 60 years later, on Dec. 30, 2005, Tyler accomplished the same feat in the same gym.
Ali’s daughters feel that Albert and Tyler seem to share a kindred spirit of competitiveness wrapped up in a cool, calm demeanor. And while Tyler is nearly a foot taller than his grandfather was in high school – there’s no mistaking a physical resemblance between the two with their dark features and wide eyes.
Entering Ali Gymnasium for practice or for games is a normal routine for Tyler, sometimes making him forget that the gym and its namesake is such an important part of his family.
But nearly every game, as Tyler silently sways from side to side as he listens to the national anthem – quite often it is his grandfather who appears in his thoughts.
And each time Smith exits the gym, no matter how many people are waiting to talk to him about another stellar performance, he always takes the time to look up at the picture of his grandfather smiling down upon him as he walks into the dark, cool Grass Valley night.
To contact sportswriter Stacy Hicklin, e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4244.
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