At UConn, Thabeet goes on

Photo Connecticut’s Hasheem Thabeet, right, blocks the shot of Western Carolina’s Brandon Giles during the first half in Storrs, Conn., on Nov. 14, 2008.
(AP Photo/Fred Beckham)

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His basketball prowess has yet to earn him a penny. Still, by the time Hasheem Thabeet’s plane touched down in his native Tanzania two summers ago, the crowd had become so large that police closed the street leading to the airport.

Thabeet has met multiple times with his country’s president and has spoken at five orphanages throughout his native land. Some of the children Thabeet talked with had AIDS. Most lived in poor conditions. On his final stop, Thabeet learned that an entire home of 50 could be fed for a mere $50 a day.

And so, before he left, Connecticut’s 7-foot-3 center saw to it that each child would receive breakfast, lunch and dinner the following day.

“I just wish,” Thabeet said, “that I could’ve done more.”

Thabeet will get that chance. Barring an injury, the 270-pound junior is expected to be among the top 10 selections in this summer’s NBA draft, meaning he’ll become an instant millionaire the moment commissioner David Stern calls his name.

Thrilled as Thabeet will be to advance to the next level, folks will be equally excited in Tanzania, where Thabeet’s No. 34 Connecticut jersey is sported regularly by the fans who view him as a national hero.

Never has Tanzania been able to boast a sports figure as well known as Thabeet, who earned Big East Defensive Player of the Year honors last season after averaging a national-best 4.5 blocks.

Despite playing just 72 college games, Thabeet has become a pioneer in a country with zero basketball tradition. Tanzania’s national team has qualified for the FIBA African Championship just once in the past 46 years. Until recently, most of the youths in Thabeet’s hometown of Dar es Salaam hoped to become soccer stars.

“Now, when I go back, it’s mind-blowing how many kids are out in the streets playing basketball,” Thabeet said. “They’ve come a long way.”

So, too, has Thabeet.

Hasheem Thabeet said he can be “the most dominant player in college basketball.” It’s a form of confidence that Thabeet hardly carried six years ago, when he stepped onto a court for the very first time.

“I was scared,” he said.

“I picked up the ball, shot a free throw and it was good. Lots of people were looking at me and laughing because I was so much taller than everyone else. But they were all like, ‘You can play. You can do it.’ That’s how it all started.”
– Hasheem Thabeet, on his first experience playing pickup basketball as a 6-foot-8, 15-year-old.

Although his first love had always been soccer, Thabeet was fascinated each time he stopped by the playground to watch adults play pickup basketball games. Because he stood 6-8 at age 15, it only seemed natural when one of the men asked Thabeet if he’d like to participate.

“I picked up the ball, shot a free throw and it was good,” Thabeet said. “Lots of people were looking at me and laughing because I was so much taller than everyone else. But they were all like, ‘You can play. You can do it.’ That’s how it all started.”

It only took a few months for basketball to become Thabeet’s passion.

Eventually he began making daily trips to an Internet café, where he performed searches to find the websites of various small colleges throughout the United States. Thabeet sent emails to each school’s basketball coach, asking if he’d have any interest in a 6-foot-8 teenager with a heart as big as his 7-5 wingspan.

“I [reached] one of the Loyola colleges – I don’t know which one – and they said, ‘You are Muslim. You can’t come to our school,’” Thabeet said. “It made me think I couldn’t go to any Christian school in the U.S. After that I stopped sending out emails.”

It didn’t matter.

Soon after, a man named Oliver Noah saw Thabeet play in a high school tournament in Kenya. Noah is an American businessman who scouts African players for prep schools. Noah convinced Hasheem’s mother that her son would have college scholarship opportunities if he moved to the United States to attend high school.

Photo Hashem Thabeet guards Rob Jones of San Diego during the first round of the 2008 NCAA Tournament on March 21 in Tampa.
(Doug Benc/Getty Images)

Just like that, Thabeet found himself in California – his first of three stops before signing with Connecticut. On his first visit to campus, Thabeet walked into the gym for the Huskies’ game against Louisville sporting a pair of sunglasses and a white velour sweat suit. He was quick to earn the affection of his teammates, who nicknamed him “Hollywood” and joked that he was “Americanized.”

“He imitates everything he sees on campus or on TV,” forward Jeff Adrien said. “You wouldn’t even know he was [foreign] except for the way he talks.”

Adrien chuckled.

“He’s just a typical, 7-3 college student,” he said.

Thabeet said he learned English from the missionaries who used to visit his church in Tanzania and from watching “Family Matters” and “The Cosby Show” when he was little.

“And I listened to Puff Daddy,” Thabeet said. “A lot the things that are popular in America are popular in [Africa], too.”

At UConn, Thabeet has done his best to remain active in campus life, where it’s not uncommon for him to stop and talk with strangers as he walks to class. Thabeet is quick to give an autograph, and he’s been known to show up at soccer and volleyball games to cheer.

But only when he has a free evening.

Last fall, for the third time, Thabeet went to New York for a meeting with Tanzanian president Jakaya Kikwete, who was in town for the opening of the UN General Assembly. Thabeet showed up wearing a suit and tie – a far cry from the jeans and baseball cap he sported during their previous encounter.

“When you grow up as a player, you have to grow up as a person,” Thabeet said. “It’s been a long process, but I think I’ve done that.”

Hasheem Thabeet said he wants his game to be “old school.” He watched tapes of some of basketball’s all-time great centers – guys such as Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – and hoped that his game will some day resemble theirs.

“If he went to the NBA he could probably be [contributing] right now because he can block shots. But two or three years down the road, he’s going to be one of those special players in the NBA, because there aren’t that many 7-3, 270-pound athletes. He can run, he can dunk, he can block shots and rebound.”
– Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, on Thabeet’s pro future.

Thabeet has showed maturity and patience when it comes to honing his skills.

While Thabeet could’ve easily jumped to the NBA after his freshman and sophomore seasons, he’s chosen to remain at Connecticut to learn under longtime Huskies coach Jim Calhoun.

“If he went to the NBA he could probably be (contributing) right now because he can block shots,” Calhoun said. “But two or three years down the road, he’s going to be one of those special players in the NBA, because there aren’t that many 7-3, 270-pound athletes. He can run, he can dunk, he can block shots and rebound.

“He’s a great story of what happens when a kid stays in college.”

Not that the decision to remain in school was easy. Connecticut went an uncharacteristic 17-14 during Thabeet’s freshman season, a finish that left him both frustrated and questioning his future in school.

“I really thought about leaving,” he said. “I didn’t believe in myself. We were losing a lot of games and I didn’t see myself getting any better. I wanted to get college over with and try the NBA.

“But there were a lot of guys entering the draft – a lot of experienced big men like the guys from Florida – so I decided to come back for my sophomore year. I couldn’t have made a better decision.”

Thabeet’s scoring average improved from 6.2 points to 10.5 as a sophomore, when he helped lead the Huskies to a 24-9 record. Projected as a first-round draft pick, no one would’ve blamed Thabeet had he chosen to turn pro.

Especially considering his family situation.

Thabeet’s father died when he was 17, leaving his mother, Rukia, to support the family. Thabeet said Rukia sells African clothing. He has a younger sister named Sham and a younger brother named Akbar, who plays soccer at St. Thomas More Prep in Oakdale, Conn. – just 45 minutes away from the UConn campus.

Photo Hasheem Thabeet blocks a shot by Gonzaga forward Larry Gurganious.
(Greg M. Cooper/US Presswire)

“[Coach Calhoun] told me I could leave if I wanted to leave,” Thabeet said. “He gave me a bunch of information and I decided to stay. The decision I made was the right decision. I know people that say, ‘Oh, he might get hurt,’ but I don’t listen to them. I’m excited about our team. It’s mind-blowing how good we could be this year.

“We’re a scary team.”

No. 2 Connecticut has won its first eight games and is considered the favorite to win the most competitive conference in basketball – the Big East. If the Huskies accomplish the feat it will be largely because of Thabeet, who’s averaging 14.5 points and 12.5 rebounds after snaring just 7.9 last season.

Although he still needs to work on playing with his back to the basket, Thabeet’s teammates said he’s 10 times more aggressive than he’s been in the past.

“He’s able to do a lot of things he couldn’t do when he first got here,” point guard A.J. Price said. “That’s because of all the extra work he put in over the summer. When he came back he had the attitude of, ‘I want to get better. I want to help UConn win.’ You can see it in him. He’s very humble.”

Thabeet plans to remain that way once the inevitable happens on draft night this June. The riches that accompany being a first-round selection will be nice – but so, too, will be the increased influence he’ll have in foreign lands.

Thabeet has said he’d like to work with Basketball Without Borders, which runs programs in various countries using basketball as a universal language. Perhaps some day Thabeet could be to Tanzania what Olajuwon was to Nigeria.

Thabeet’s main hope is that his emergence will lead to opportunities for others. Africa has long been considered an untapped resource for college and professional basketball players, with many top talents going unrecognized.

“There are a lot of kids there that no one knows about,” Thabeet said. “They don’t get opportunities. There’s no infrastructure and no good training or facilities. Hopefully I can go back there some day and run some camps.”

He paused.

“The good thing,” Thabeet said, “is that, even without all of that, everyone there believes they can play basketball now. And they know it’s not something you’re born with, but something you have to work at. They’ve seen that through me.”