For Former Cal Tech Stand-Out Al-Rayes, Playing For Qatar a Dream Come True
By David Demaria / Contributing Writer
The 2017 FIBA Asia Cup began Tuesday in Beirut, Lebanon, and for young Qatari big man, Nasser Al-Rayes, the opportunity to represent his country internationally is an important one. “Representing my country is a dream come true,” the Cal Tech alum told Arab America. “I’ve always wanted the chance to play basketball at a high level, and playing for my country was definitely a part of that dream.”
Al-Rayes was born and raised in Doha, Qatar. He attended the prestigious American School of Doha, where he was a three-sport athlete, starring in basketball, volleyball, and track and field. Al-Rayes holds the 400m record for his high school, and won the MVP in both basketball and volleyball in his senior year, earning Scholar Athlete of the Year honors.
Al-Rayes took his high school success to Cal Tech where he majored in Mechanical Engineering and would eventually lead his team in both scoring (13), and rebounds per game (8.5), earning first-team All-SCIAC (Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) honors in his senior year, and becoming the Cal Tech all-time leader in blocked shots with 192 over four years. Despite his success, Al-Rayes admits he struggled at first to adapt to the American game. “High school basketball in Qatar is nowhere near as competitive as basketball in the U.S.,” mentions Al-Rayes. “The biggest challenge for me was the physicality. I simply wasn’t ready my freshman year from a physical standpoint, so I spent a lot of that offseason going to the weight room to get myself to where I needed to be.”
The hard work paid off for Al-Rayes, who was instrumental in helping to turn around a struggling Cal Tech basketball program. “For me, our biggest accomplishment was the step we took my sophomore year, where we snapped a conference losing streak. Although we were knocked out of the playoffs by that point, we won three of our last four games, giving our seniors their first ever conference wins. Doing that for them was incredible.”
“Every season after that we were just one spot out of the playoffs and we were true contenders to win our conference.” Al-Rayes partially wanted to play at Cal Tech for the purpose of helping the program improve. “My main goal when I came to Cal Tech was to make it a competitive team again and win the conference title by my senior year. Even though we came up just short of that, what we accomplished in those four years was amazing.”
While Al-Rayes excels on the court, his ambitious personality and drive to excel off the court, are what make him such a unique individual; he draws his inspiration from people who have combined academic achievement with athletic excellence. “I’ve always been a curious student, wanting to understand the world around me as much as my abilities allow while maintaining a strong basketball regimen,” says Al-Rayes. “People who manage to do this are my idols because they don’t necessarily need to play basketball.” Exactly, who does Al-Rayes most admire? According to him, “I admire people like John Urschel, who just retired from the Baltimore Ravens, who balanced playing football at an elite level while getting his Ph.D. in mathematics from MIT. I also admire even someone less famous, like Jimmy Bartolotta, MIT’s all-time leading scorer in basketball. Those are people I truly respect and admire and who I’m trying to model my life after.”
Though his appetite for basketball success remains high, Al-Rayes has other ambitions off the court that he plans on achieving after his playing days are over. “My main ambition for basketball is simple,” says Al-Rayes. “Reach my potential.” Al-Rayes has extremely good speed for a 6’10” center and has an excellent shooting stroke, which could make him a legitimate target for professional clubs in Europe or the Americas, but Al-Rayes knows he can still work harder at perfecting his craft. “I personally believe I have a ways to go from where I want to be, but I have no doubt in my mind that I’ll reach it,” Al-Rayes says with confidence. “I have a lot I want to prove to myself, so I really want to spend this time out of school perfecting my basketball ability and envisioning where I can take my athletic career.” His post-career aspirations are equally as impressive. “Down the road, I want to also challenge my intellectual abilities,” says Al-Rayes. “I’m fascinated by science and technology and my dream someday is to get deeply involved in this facet of today’s society. This could mean additional schooling or work at a tech company, in the near future; once I decide to hang up my jersey, of course.”
Al-Rayes mentions admiring his friends who are doing things in the technology world. “I’m definitely torn sometimes between basketball and technology,” Al-Rayes admits. “I have friends getting amazing jobs at companies like Google, Facebook, and Uber. I also have friends with amazing basketball careers overseas, so at times, I feel like I’m sacrificing one of my passions for another.”
Still, the 22-year-old Al-Rayes hopes to make basketball his bread and butter for now. “I’ve come to terms with wanting to play basketball at this stage of my life and putting a hold on my non-basketball career,” says Al-Rayes.
Qatar begins group play today, Wednesday, with an important match against Iraq, and Al-Rayes is cherishing the opportunity of playing for his country at the FIBA Asia Cup. “Participating in a world-class tournament, like the FIBA Asia Cup is amazing, both because of the atmosphere and the level of play. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever partaken in and I’m really excited to have this opportunity,” says Al-Rayes. He continues:
“Wearing Qatar across my chest makes it much better; representing my home is truly special.”