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Tanzania: Hasheem Thabeet joins Yokohama B-Corsairs
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He's Come A Long Way - Jul 21, 2006

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UConn's Thabeet Travels New Road

(By MIKE ANTHONY, Courant Staff Writer)

Hasheem Thabeet looked beaten. Curtis Kelly got the ball in the paint, hesitated, drove right and created what appeared to be a clean look at the basket. But with Kelly leaning in, Thabeet shuffled his feet and backpedaled. Without jumping, he reached back with his left hand and blocked Kelly's shot, sending the ball straight down to the court and starting a break in the other direction.

"He's just unique," UConn coach Jim Calhoun said a few days later. "He's going to change games."

This was only a late-night pickup game at Gampel Pavilion last week, a couple of days after the eight UConn freshmen had arrived on campus. It is a time to get acclimated, a time to grow individually and collectively before the work begins in earnest. It's a time to measure the balance between raw ability and needed growth, a time for first impressions.

"He's just a beast," guard Jerome Dyson said.

Thabeet is 7 feet 3. He is 268 pounds with a well-proportioned body. He's a decent athlete with an innate ability to defend and block shots. He has been playing organized basketball for four years, so he is further behind on the learning curve than some of his new teammates. There's ample reason to believe he'll be somewhat of a project, but he's among the biggest, if not the biggest, player in UConn history.

"In probably two years, he'll be maybe the most [influential] player in all of college basketball," Calhoun said. "Give him two years."

In the meantime, no matter the pace of his progression, Thabeet will remain unique for reasons beyond the court.

Originally from Tanzania, Thabeet speaks three languages: English, Swahili and a little French. He hopes to major in linguistics at UConn, a handful of schools that began to take notice when Thabeet burst onto the recruiting scene as a senior at Cypress Community Christian School in Houston, where he spent two years. Now he's at UConn, still in relative disbelief.

"Four or five months ago," Thabeet said, "no one knew me like now."

Four years ago, his involvement in basketball consisted only of an occasional walk to a court near his home in Tanzania. He was 15, about 6-8. He would watch older players compete for local clubs. One day, a coach approached him and asked why he didn't play. Thabeet explained he was scared to play against adults and, besides, he had no equipment.

Given sneakers and proper attire, Thabeet stepped to the free-throw line, made his first shot and thought to himself, "Yeah, I can do this." A year later, he was sending letters to various colleges in the United States - none like UConn.

"Those coaches who got me started, they told me you can go play basketball in the States," Thabeet said. "I went to the Internet, sent e-mails to small colleges. Small, very small, like some of them might not exist anymore."

He kept his goal in mind even through heartbreak. Just when Thabeet, who has no family in the U.S., was working toward his move to Houston, his father died unexpectedly in April 2004. His father, Thabit Manka, was a diabetic, though Thabeet said he died from an unrelated acid digestive problem.

"That made me start finding any way to get out," Thabeet said. "I know nobody is going to be able to help my mom but me. Right now, she doesn't have a job. ... Now I play for her and my father."

Thabeet hopes his mother, Ruki, can move to the United States in the next year or so.

Flashes of greatness suggest he might have a professional career ahead of him. The first time a member of the UConn staff went to see him was during his junior year, Thabeet said, and he was ejected for nearly retaliating after being hit by an opposing player. Thabeet  

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