It’s around 11:30 a.m. at The New York Edition hotel last Monday, and the Mavericks have just returned from their shootaround to prepare for the Knicks that evening.
All of the players have retreated to their rooms, except for Salah Mejri who stays in the lobby for another 30 minutes to meet with a Tunisian father and his children, who have driven up from Philadelphia. That’s the kind of unique role Mejri has played in several NBA cities being the league’s first and only player ever from Tunisia.
Mejri was a late bloomer to the NBA, after having played competitive club soccer until he was 18 (as a midfielder), going undrafted in 2008 and then competing overseas for nine years, including with the world-renowned Real Madrid. Mejri even became friendly with Cristiano Ronaldo, attending some of Real Madrid’s soccer practices and having annual Christmas week dinners with the team. Then in the summer of 2015, the Mavericks signed the 7’2″ center to a three-year contract.
In an extended interview with the NBPA at the hotel that morning, Mejri opened up about his journey to the NBA, how he landed in Dallas, challenges he’s faced in the league, his community impact back home, cell phone game competitions against his Mavericks teammates, what really happened with Gregg Popovich last season and much more.
NBPA: You played competitive soccer through your teenage years and were involved with pro basketball overseas before coming to the NBA at 29 years old. So when did you first have that thought you could make it to the league?
Salah Mejri: When I went to Belgium [in 2010 with the Antwerp Giants], the agent who brought me there and the coach were, like, “You are a business for us. We’re going to make you go to the NBA. You can do it.” The coach was, like, “There are not a lot of 7’2″ guys with your quickness and with your toughness.” Before that, I never believed that I can go and play in Europe. And I never believed that I could go to the NBA. So I started to work hard in Belgium. Some [NBA] scouts came to see me in practices and the games.
NBPA: Any scouts from the Mavericks?
SM: The Mavericks saw me with the national team in 2010 before I went to Belgium, and they offered me to play in the D-League. But I was, like, “No, I don’t want to.” After two years in Belgium, I came to work out with some NBA teams: first the Knicks and then Denver. It was in 2012 before the Olympics. Then I played in the summer with Utah in Orlando, but I didn’t play a lot. I did good things—nice blocks, nice dunks—but I was, like, “I’m not going to make [the NBA]. It will not happen based on my age. I was 26.”
In Europe, I was happy—I was playing for Real Madrid. And then my second year in December  with Real Madrid, Cleveland called. And Real Madrid said no. Then the Mavericks called [in 2015]. I was almost signing with Panathinaikos [in Greece as a free agent]—I had the contract on my phone—and then my old agent, the one who brought me to Belgium, called and said, “I have the Mavericks for you.”
NBPA: What was your reaction?
SM: It was big for me. It was big for everybody. It was like the most famous sports event in my country and in the Arabic countries. I remember when I was about to sign with Real Madrid, it was crazy—and it was just a rumor. And this was crazy, too.
NBPA: When you say “crazy,” in what way?
SM: Every media—TV, radio, newspapers, social media, everything—was talking about, “Salah is the first Arabic player to go to Real Madrid, soccer or basketball.” It was really big, but then when I came to the NBA, it was not a rumor; it was sure. But [the media] still couldn’t believe it.
NBPA: What was the craziest response about your going to the NBA?
SM: The [Tunisian] national team had a press conference for me. It was a big event for us. And I had like three million calls on my phone from radio, TV, newspapers, everything.
NBPA: How did you manage all of that?
SM: In the beginning, I was trying to answer everybody, but then I stopped. I remember when we had media day with the national team, and all the media came to me. And the coach was not happy with that because [he thought] other players were going to get jealous.
NBPA: With your success, how are you helping grow basketball back in Tunisia?
SM: [Working with the NBA and my business team at Wasserman], we had three camps in three different cities this summer. Everybody was happy with that. We gave a player a scholarship to a small university in Los Angeles. We have four players now [in the U.S.] that play in Division I. The kids were happy to meet me, and it’s always good to play pickup games with them. The U.S. Embassy Tunisia helped us a lot, too [with donating 250 jerseys for the campers and arranging a visit to the SOS Children’s Village Gammarth orphanage].
NBPA: Which three cities?
SM: Tunis, Nabeul and Sousse, where I played for five years [before Belgium]. We can’t do a camp in [my hometown] Jendouba because there’s no arena, and many people don’t play basketball.
NBPA: Do you have ideas to change things there?
SM: Yeah. They have a girls’ team and we send some jerseys and balls. I want to visit them, too. We’ll be back big next year. We are thinking about doing a couple of visits there, or bringing people from these small cities [like Jendouba] to a big city.
NBPA: How’s the overall talent level in Tunisia?
SM: We are targeting three or four kids, and they’re really tall. They’re 15 years old and 6’11 and 7’0″. I worked on a program for their coaches to work individually with them, so they can get better. And I talked to the NBA about having somebody go to see them every two or three months.
We also have a federal team in Tunisia for players 15 to 20 years old. They have special school courses and sports classes, and they practice two, three times a day for five years. And when you are 20, you are ready to play. Working with the D-League, I will try to bring the top five or six [players] of the federal team to play there.
NBPA: So how’s the vibe for you in your second NBA season?
SM: It feels like a little bit more comfortable than last year. Last year, I got here knowing nothing. I was experienced playing basketball, but not experienced enough to play in the NBA. So everybody was treating me like a rookie. I hated it. Things are different, so I’m enjoying it, I’m happy to be there. But still, when you have 15 players on the team, you have to fight every day for your minutes and for your spot.
NBPA: Last year, what were the big surprises about being in the NBA?
SM: Everything was new for me—the culture was new, the language was new. I spoke English, but not American English. And basketball was totally different from the basketball I was playing before—four or five games in one week. And things go quickly. You can go from being in the D-League to starting. It happened to me. It was not easy, especially because nobody from my country played in the U.S.
NBPA: How did you keep yourself mentally prepared for your name to be called at any moment?
SM: That’s harder than playing the game itself, because you play a game and you have 17 points and nine rebounds, but then the next [four] games you don’t play at all. I had bad thoughts, but I was mentally ready every game because [my teammates] helped me. They were, like, “Don’t give up. It will not be always you in the D-League or you’re player No. 15. Once you get your chance, you have to be ready.” And I was ready. I’m the kind of player who likes the challenge. I was also talking to Mike Procopio, [the Mavericks’ director of player development], and DK [Don Kalkstein, the team’s director of sports psychology], before every game.
NBPA: What were both of them telling you?
SM: Every road trip, [the players] have to meet individually with both of them, and we talk about what happened [the previous] week, where we are with the coaches or with the trainers, or something in your life personally, everything. Nobody would know about [what we talked about] unless the coach needs to know about it. They were, like, “You have to be ready and don’t feel like you’re out of the team. We need you. It’s only you and JaVale [McGee] who can protect the rim.” They were helping me a lot with everything.
NBPA: You play with a lot of energy and personality. Where does that come from growing up in Tunisia?
SM: When I was a kid, I hated losing—even when I played a stupid game on the street, anything. I always wanted to win, and 90 percent of the time I won. And if I don’t win, sometimes I cry, I get angry and I’m anxious about it. I’m passionate about the things I’m doing. Even when I play video games at my home, it’s like a challenge for me. So that’s what brings energy. Another thing is to show the coach that he’s wrong that he didn’t play me. That’s a challenge, and that brings energy.
NBPA: Which games are you good at off the court?
SM: On my phone, I have BB Racing and a card game called Pineapple. It’s like poker and I play against my teammates. I’m playing Dirk [Nowitzki], I’m playing coaches, playing everybody [on the Mavericks]. Out of 10 games on my phone, I’m winning seven. I’m beating Dirk.
NBPA: [Mejri shows the NBPA the Pineapple game.] Your avatar looks like Stan Van Gundy.
SM: It’s Pablo Escobar. I love that show, [Narcos]. He likes challenges. He was like the richest guy in the world, but he didn’t care. He wanted to be president. I like challenging things.
NBPA: Speaking of personality, you were especially animated after a big dunk last season against the Spurs, appearing to talk to Gregg Popovich while running back on defense. What really happened there?
SM: [laughs]. That got big out of nothing. So what happened is [Boban] Marjanovic dunked on Jeremy Evans in San Antonio and he looked down to him. And then I dunked on [Marjanovic]. It got me excited, too. Dunking on a 7’3″ guy doesn’t happen every day. [Popovich’s] reaction made it look like I’m talking to him. I was talking Arabic actually, but not to him. I was, like, “Let’s go!” in Arabic.
I told Boris Diaw after the game, “Tell your coach I was not talking him.” Because when I went to the locker room and opened my Twitter, it was like blowing up. I was, like, “Wow, I didn’t do anything.” He’s a big coach. It’s like Dirk. I’m not going to talk trash to Dirk. These are legends.
NBPA: You had a Tunisian friend drive up from Philadelphia to see you today. Across the country, how have you connected with your fellow countrymen in different cities?
SM: Everywhere I play, there’s Tunisians and I sometimes see flags in the stands. It’s crazy to see. They hit me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. A lot of people say, “Hey, how are you? We are coming tonight to see you.” Some of them ask for tickets, some of them ask to see me. The guy I saw today is a great guy. We started to talk here and then we met in Tunisia. He lives in Philadelphia, so he drove today with his kids to watch me play. We are friends and his kids are very happy to see me. There is another one that lives in Philadelphia and they’re friends, and he’s coming with him to the game.
NBPA: How many cities have you been able to directly connect with Tunisians?
SM: I went to Houston and there was a guy. His wife cooked for me twice—last year and this year. I have a family in Phoenix, and it’s very funny because one of them ended up marrying my sister. It had nothing to do with me. And I had like 20 girls and boys last year in San Francisco coming to cheer for me after the game, in front of the hotel. And I’m, like, “What’s going on?” It was crazy.
NBPA: Do you cook Tunisian food?
SM: I just learned how to cook here. I Googled it, I put it on YouTube and I saw recipes. And it was good, it was decent. I cooked for my girlfriend and she thought it was horrible in the beginning [laughs]. Then she went to Tunisia and she compared the two and she was, like, “Oh yeah, it’s good.” She can cook a little bit, too.
NBPA: What dishes do you like to make?
SM: It’s similar to here. It’s like a pasta with tomato sauce, but it’s not that easy. You have to make the sauce and that’s the hard part. You can make it with meat or with chicken, with fish, too. I think I’m the best after my mom [laughs].