GOOGLE WOULD behis gateway to the U.S. That's what the 17-year-old Tanzanian believed when, inthe summer of 2004, he walked into an Internet café in Dar es Salaam, did asearch for "Colleges in US" and clicked indiscriminately until he cameacross the magic word: basketball. He knew coaches weren't scouting a countrythat had never exported a top Division I prospect to America, so he'd e-mailthem: Hello, Sir. This is Hashim Thabit Manka from Tanzania. I am 213cm....
Today he appearson Connecticut's roster as Hasheem Thabeet, a 7'3", 265-pound freshmancenter who in nine collegiate games has already established himself as one ofthe nation's most prolific shot blockers. In a Dec. 3 game against TexasSouthern, Thabeet tied Emeka Okafor's and Donyell Marshall's school record with10 blocks, though coach Jim Calhoun took him out with 4:28 left, saying,"We'll let him try to break [the record] against a Big East team."After swatting three more shots in Sunday's 89--73 win against Saint Mary's,Thabeet ranked third in the nation with 4.9 blocks per game while averaging 6.8points and 6.9 rebounds. The Huskies were 9--0.
While it's toosoon to tell whether Thabeet—as is custom in his homeland, he dropped hissurname after his father's death, and the i in Swahili is written as ee inEnglish—will be another Okafor, assistant coach Tom Moore says the affablegiant is already "a cult hero" on campus. Students bring fly swattersto games and chant, "You got swatted!" after each Thabeet block.
The few replieshe got to his random e-mails two years ago were not encouraging. Northern Iowasent a questionnaire but asked where in "Tasmania" he lived. One Jesuitschool wrote that it could not put a Muslim on scholarship, and Thabeet tookthat to mean he couldn't play at any U.S. college. "That e-mail changed mymind about basketball," he says. "I stopped going to [Makongo High]practices."
However, in thefall of '04, when Makongo was missing its center for a tournament in Nairobi,Kenya, his old team begged Thabeet to return. He acquiesced, and it led to hisfirst big break. Oliver Noah, a French businessman who organizes the NOGAAfrican All-Stars AAU team, was in the stands in Nairobi; though he believedThabeet was "extremely raw," Noah was impressed enough to offer to takethe teenager to the U.S.
With thepermission of his mother, Rukia, Thabeet left Tanzania the following Januaryand began an odyssey that took him to Stoneridge Prep near Los Angeles (whereNoah lived), then to Picayune (Miss.) High and finally Cypress CommunityChristian School in Houston for the '05--06 school year. (Thabeet says he lefthis first two schools because they couldn't determine which grade he should beplaced in.)
In Texas he founda stable home environment with Gary and Terry Jurney, host parents who had beento Africa on church missions, and a coach who was willing to help him refinehis game in Mark McClanahan. "I've never seen a kid improve sodrastically," says McClanahan, whose team would go on to win a 4A statetitle last season with Thabeet chipping in 16 points and four blocks agame.
Acting on afriend's tip, UConn assistant Andre Lafleur went to see Thabeet play in 2005.Lafleur was intrigued but worried that Thabeet would be too much of a project.Moore took another look during an AAU tournament that April and reported,"Hasheem was O.K.—he blocked 15 shots, but he could have had a lotmore."
"Wait aminute," Lafleur replied. "Do you realize what you just said?"Thabeet committed to UConn that June.
Like many of hisfellow freshmen, Thabeet has a new favorite website: Facebook.com, where heperuses the groups UConn students have created in his honor, such as We GotTha-Beet. Also, his iPod is engraved with HASHEEM THE DREAM: 34. (His nicknameand jersey number are nods to former NBA All-Star and native Nigerian HakeemOlajuwon.) Thabeet has yet to develop Hakeem's grace and agility but is alreadyprojected as an NBA lottery pick. To make that happen, e-mails won't benecessary.
Along with UConn's Hasheem Thabeet, these four playerscan be counted among the nation's most prolific shot blockers.
SEAN WILLIAMS, 6'10", Jr., F, Boston College
The nation's leading shot blocker (37 in his first six games) was more thanhalfway to the school record of 63 he set in 2004--05.
McHUGH MATTIS, 6'6", Sr., G, South Florida
The only guard among the top 25 shot blockers, he has been McHuge for theBulls, averaging 5.3 blocks per game (second to Williams).
STEPHANE LASME, 6'8", Sr., F, UMass
With 274 career rejections, the reigning Atlantic 10 Defensive Player of theYear is closing in on Marcus Camby's school record of 336.
CHAZ CRAWFORD, 6'10", Sr., F, Drexel
A two-time all-CAA defensive pick, he blocked seven or more shots in three ofhis first eight games and had a 4.3 average.
UPSHOT Thabeet, a freshman who had nine blocks against Fairfield (right), looks like a pro.