Queen Latifah: Baller or nah? We checked out whether the ‘Girls Trip’ actress really could ball in high school

From singer Brian McKnight to actress Gabrielle Union to rapper Master P, singers, actors and rappers have often bragged about their athletic accomplishments. #ShowMeTheReceipts, a bimonthly feature at The Undefeated, will authenticate those declarations. In this month’s installment, we verified rapper Queen Latifah’s receipts.


Nine years after winning her first state title with Irvington High School, Dana Owens asked everyone to clear out space on the floor so she might ask Seattle SuperSonic Shawn Kemp if he would have this dance with her.

She waved everyone off. She was feeling confident she could handle the NBA All-Star forward all by her lonesome and didn’t need any backup for this one.

Just before halftime of the 1994 MTV Rock N’ Jock B-Ball Jam, Owens, also known as Queen Latifah, called out Kemp and implored him to take her on one-0n-one. Kemp was more than happy to oblige. (Fast-forward to 6:56 through 8:04 in the video above.)

He wiped his hands along his shorts and down his jersey before dribbling the ball between his legs a few times. As Kemp started to make his move toward the basket, Owens pickpocketed the SuperSonic. She took several dribbles toward her basket as the 6-foot-10 forward pursued her. Owens took off from mid-paint and sent up a layup that rattled against the backboard and around the rim before sinking to the bottom of the net.

Triumphant and defiant, Owens lifted her arms in victory, and the crowd, announcers and her teammates erupted into cheers.

“I don’t fear nobody out here! Nobody,” Owens said into the camera.

Said her former high school coach Vinny Smith, who was watching the game: “We saw it. She had the athletic ability, and she could do things like that.”‘

These days, Queen Latifah is gracing the cover of Essence magazine and starring in the new movie Girls Trip, which hit theaters on July 21. She earned an Emmy nomination for her lead actress role in HBO’s Bessie in 2015. All of that, along with her career as a rapper and TV host, comes after the time when she was running wild on the hardcourts and blacktops in New Jersey.

When Smith met Owens as a sophomore transfer in 1985, he already knew she was going to be a key member of his soon-to-be championship team.

After spending her freshman year at a Catholic school, Owens moved on to Irvington, where she was immediately added to a stacked varsity team.

“My first thought of her when she came was, ‘This is going to be a good player,’ ” said Smith, who worked with Owens’ mother, also a teacher at Irvington. “She had two sides: She had a desire … a vision, and she was fun.”

Smith, who coached Irvington’s girls’ basketball team for four years and led it to back-to-back state championships in 1985 and 1986, recalled one game in which Owens’ personality as an entertainer shined through.

The team was playing a game on TV, and the coach called a timeout. The starters took a seat on a bench, and people who weren’t in the game made a semicircle behind Smith. As he was coaching up the starters, Owens heard the song the band was playing in the gym, so she started dancing behind the coach.

She turned around looking at the band and began to dance and sing along with the band, paying the coach’s instruction no mind at all. But while Smith was in the midst of coaching, he wasn’t aware any of this was happening because he had his back to her. It wasn’t until Smith got home that night and saw the game on TV that he realized what was taking place.

“Oh, boy, we had some fun with her,” Smith said as he chuckled. “We just harassed her the next day in practice. We said, ‘We want a replay!’ ”

But that kind of energy often came in handy for the team. If the players were having a hard practice and got stressed out, then Smith would give the team a break, have the girls form a circle and ask Owens to hop in the middle and drop a beat.

“All the way back then, she was outstanding,” Smith said of Owens’ ability to beatbox and perform. “She could sing, she could dance, but she would do that beatbox thing, and we’d all just relax and enjoy it and have a lot of fun and laugh at her and with her. And it just broke our practice for us, and then we went back to work.”

While Owens’ reputation as a jokester preceded her, on the court she was no one to mess around with. Smith often inserted Owens into the rotation as a sophomore to defend the better players on the other team.

“What she did for us all the time was the opposite of what you would think her personality was,” said the retired educator. “She was my enforcer.

“That was her key part of the game. I mean [it] would be unfortunate if I had an opponent that was like maybe getting too many rebounds. I’d call Dana over off the bench, and say, ‘Dana, 23 is getting too many’ … 23 didn’t get any more rebounds after that.

“She was physically tough. She was a strong player. She had a nice shot. She could ball.”

The only problem was Owens was playing behind an upperclassman — the No. 1 recruit in the nation, Tammy Hammond — who would go on to star for USC the season after Cheryl Miller graduated. Hammond finished her career the semester before Lisa Leslie joined the Trojans. Owens described Hammond as her best friend in her biography Queen Latifah.

Smith said Owens helped out in every way she could. She hustled all the time and always did her best to help with team morale. She worked hard, and when she played, she played a lot and she played well.

Queen Latifah, formerly known as Dana Owens (third from top right) with her 1985 championship team.

Courtesy of Vinny Smith, head coach of Irvington girls basketball team

Where Owens needed to improve was in handling the ball, which she wasn’t expected to do a lot of as a forward.

Smith recalled Owens’ junior year, in which the team was playing East Orange in the county championship. The coach put Dana in — Hammond got into foul trouble — during a full-court press, and she came up with three steals in a row. It turned the tide for Irvington, which ran away with the game after that.

“She was a good-size girl — height, weight, shoulder width and strength — who was not overweight,” Smith said. “None of them were overweight, because I ran the hell out of them. None of them was out of shape. They were just ready to play. And she had the athletic ability. So that’s why I did not hesitate to use her as a sophomore or a junior — and much, much more as a junior.”

Of the two championships Irvington won, Smith explained that the first one was the more challenging title because the team had to overcome heartbreak before the beginning of the state tournament.

In the last three seconds of the county championship, Irvington lost the game because of a controversial call, Smith said. But he wouldn’t give the girls a break to feel sorry for themselves, as the team still qualified for the state playoffs. The players were put through rigorous practices to keep them focused on the task at hand and not looking back at what had happened.

“What we did then is that I said, ‘Today is a new day. Today is a new tournament. The state tournament. We start all over. We have six games to win the state champs. Let’s work on that. Now, we may not be good candidates because we lost with three seconds, but we can be the state champ and be better than a team that beat us because we know we are so good together,’ ” he recalled of the pep talk he gave the team as they started practice for their first state championship.

Irvington’s second championship season ended with a 71-61 win over Hightstown in the New Jersey state final.

Our conclusion? She’s legit. Queen Latifah’s receipts get a passing grade from us.

Mahershala Ali: Baller or nah? We checked out whether the Oscar nominee could really ball back in the day

From Gabrielle Union, Queen Latifah, 2 Chainz, and Dwayne “The Rock’”Johnson — singers, actors and rappers have often bragged about their athletic accomplishments. #ShowMeTheReceipts, a recurring feature at The Undefeated, will authenticate those declarations. In this installment, we verify actor Mahershala Ali’s receipts.


As the player development manager for the Washington Wizards, Kamran Sufi doesn’t have a lot of time to watch much television. But he’ll try to make an exception on Sunday night about the time the Academy Award for best supporting actor category is announced.

“’I’ll be interested,” Sufi said. “I want to see what happens with Hershal.”

“Hershal” is Mahershala Ali, the Academy Award-winning actor who is favored to win his second Oscar on Sunday for his portrayal of Dr. Don Shirley in the movie Green Book. But before Ali played Shirley, or Cottonmouth (Luke Cage), Remy (House of Cards) and Juan (Moonlight) he was known as Mahershala Gilmore, a Division I basketball player at Saint Mary’s College of California, just outside of Oakland.

Before he won an Oscar, Mahershala Ali played college hoops at Saint Mary’s College

Ali played four years at Saint Mary’s, with his best season coming as a senior when he averaged seven points and 1.8 rebounds in 27 games as a starter. His college career ran parallel to Steve Nash at Santa Clara, which means the two-time NBA MVP faced off against the 2017 Academy Award winner for best supporting actor in the movie Moonlight at least twice a year for four years.

That 2017 Oscar earned Ali, a 6-foot-3-inch guard known for his slashing ability on offense and his tenacity on defense, the privilege of being the first Division I basketball player to win an Academy Award.

“If there’s a player I would compare him to it, would be Marcus Smart,” said Sufi, who was a year behind Ali at Saint Mary’s. “Wasn’t a great 3-point shooter, but did just enough to keep you honest. A solid defender who was physical. Hershal was competitive, and he always played hard.”

Remember how LeBron James entered the NBA with a man’s body? That was Ali when he entered Saint Mary’s, a solidly built guard who was a standout player at Mt. Eden High School in Hayward, a city just under 20 miles south of Oakland.

“In terms of the look of a ball player, he had ‘it,’ ” said Ernie Kent, the head basketball coach at Washington State who was about to enter his second year as the head coach at Saint Mary’s when he recruited Ali. “His body was very developed, and once he got into the weight room with us, he got stronger and stronger. We tried to turn him into a point guard, but it would have been a lot better had we just left him in the off-guard position.”

That’s the position Ali played in high school, where he was a key player on the Mt. Eden High School team that played for a state championship during his sophomore season (losing to Servite High School from Anaheim in the 1990 CIF Division III state title game played at the Oakland Coliseum).

Ali was part of the Mt. Eden team that was stacked the next year, rising to No. 1 in the state Division III rankings going into its February 1991 game against Hayward, the No. 1 ranked Division IV team.

That game is always a huge crosstown rivalry. But in 1991 there was added drama as Ali had emerged as a key player for Mt. Eden after leaving Hayward, where he played on the junior varsity team as a freshman and was expected to be a key contributor once he made the varsity.

Mahershala Ali in his high school uniform for Mt. Eden.

Courtesy of Mt. Eden HS

“He really should have stayed with us, but he went to Mt. Eden because his stepdad wanted him to become the focal point of the team,” said Gerald “Juma” Walker, who ended his career as the No. 2 all-time prep scorer in California. “We played a more free style of basketball, while at Mt. Eden they had a Bobby Knight-style coach that had them playing like robots.”

That robotic team went on to beat Hayward rather easily, 78-56, that night before an overflow crowd. Walker, a Bay Area legend who played for four years at San Francisco, led all scorers with 25 points that day, Ali scored 14, leading five Mt. Eden players in double figures.

“They were restricted,” Ali told the San Francisco Chronicle after that game. “I don’t think anyone’s played that kind of defense against them.”

That’s a comment that Walker said held true when it came to Ali. “Hersh was like a Trevor Ariza-type player: athletic, strong defender who would hit the open shot. And he would dunk on somebody from time to time.”

To be an effective player in the Bay Area during that era of the late ’80s and early ’90s — which featured Jason Kidd, Lamond Murray and Drew Berry — you had to be tough. In a 1991 sectional semifinal, Ali and his teammates helped hold Murray — who played 12 years in the NBA — to 19 points (which was 10 points below his scoring average) in a Mt. Eden win.

In 1992 Ali, a co-captain at Mt. Eden, was named the prep player of the week by The Daily Review newspaper in Hayward. The newspaper credited Ali with “being the defensive leader”on a team that was limiting opponents to just 46.5 points a game.

“Every region has players that play different ways, and [Ali] wasn’t your typical Bay Area player,” said Hashim Ali Alauddeen, co-founder of the Oakland Soldiers youth basketball organization. “He played a game like he was playing football: nonstop aggression. Determined. Never passive.”

It wasn’t just Ali’s aggressive play that allowed him to fit right in at Saint Mary’s. He connected immediately with his teammates because of his hair-cutting ability. “He’d come to our room — or we’d go to his — and would charge us $5 for a haircut,” said Troy McCoy, a forward at Saint Mary’s for two years. “I’m a picky guy, but he had skills. I let him cut my hair.”

Ali was also considered the best dressed player on the team. “I’d get up at 8 in the morning and throw on some slip-ons and sweats for class, and [Ali] was putting on a nice outfit to look presentable,” Sufi said. “He always had interests that were outside of basketball. Not only was he into fashion, he also wrote poetry. He just had a different energy about him.”

Which made it easy for Ali to detach himself from the game as playing time, early in his career, was scarce due to more refined players occupying most of the playing time in front of him. As he reflected on his time at Saint Mary’s in an essay he wrote for the school’s website in 2011, Ali said that by the time he graduated, “I no longer thought of myself as an athlete.”

He elaborated on that during a 2017 interview with NPR, as he explained his shift toward acting. “At a certain point, basketball became the thing I was doing the most, but it was really in my periphery. It was really a focus on how to, in some ways, keep moving in this direction towards something that allowed me to express myself in a way that sports didn’t.”

That direction was leading him to acting, which Ali put his energies into at Saint Mary’s. After graduating from Saint Mary’s, Ali left for the opposite coast to attend New York University, where he eventually earned his master’s degree in fine arts.

His first noticeable role came in 2001, when he appeared on the television series Crossing Jordan.

“Someone called me at home and told me to turn on NBC, and I see him on Crossing Jordan,” McCoy said. “If he’s on something, I watch it. I really liked him in Benjamin Button, and he was outstanding in Green Book. I stopped watching Luke Cage after they killed him off.”

Over time, the roles became more significant to the point where Ali is today: one of the top actors in the business.

Mahershala Ali poses with his Oscar for best supporting actor.

EPA/NINA PROMMER

“I give him credit because here was someone who had a vision, and he pursued it at an early age,” Kent said. “He just blossomed to the point where he’s one of the best actors out there.”

Ali was able to connect those acting skills with basketball in 2017 when he narrated the CBS opening for the NCAA national championship game.

While he says he no longer plays, Ali stays connected with this college teammates regularly via group chats.

“All of us who played at Saint Mary’s are close,” said McCoy, who hosted Ali on his recruiting trip to the school. “We know what everyone’s doing, and we support one another.”

Which is why many of Ali’s college teammates — even if they’re not television or movie fans — will likely tune into the Academy Awards to catch the best supporting actor category.

“I remember when he became involved in theater, and you could see the rush he got from doing that replaced his rush of playing basketball,” McCoy said. “It’s amazing to see him in the acting game as one of the best.

“I don’t care about award shows,” McCoy added. “But I’ll be watching.”