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3/12/2008 10:19:00 AM
One-On-One With Hasheem ... In Scrabble
Our lobby Scrabble setup.
NEW YORK -- Heads were turning in the lobby of Le Parker Meridien last night -- hotel guests doing double-takes on their way to the elevator, diners gawking as they left the famed hidden Burger Joint there, even UConn coach Jim Calhoun pausing to inspect the scene. "People keep looking at us, like, 'Is that what I'm thinking it is?'" said Hasheem Thabeet. It wasn't just that the Huskies' 7-foot-3 sophomore center was crammed into one of the low-slung, modern chairs, two days before his Big East tournament debut. It was that he was immersed in a game of Scrabble.
Thabeet and I had been talking about Scrabble on and off since I wrote a magazine story on him in December of his freshman year. He had told me then that his late father, Thabit Manka, who was an architect in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, had taught him how to play the game starting at the age of seven. Which means, essentially, that Thabeet has been playing basketball for nine fewer years than he has been playing Scrabble. (All in English, too: "They'd have to make a custom version, with 80 vowels, to play in Swahili," he said. "Every word ends in a vowel.")
Hasheem, making a move.
And so on Tuesday night, about an hour after the Big East's awards banquet, at which Thabeet was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year, we were sitting over a game board that I had brought over from Brooklyn in my backpack. I had been told by UConn's sports information director Kyle Muncy, who handled the logistics of the showdown, that Thabeet had said, only half-kidding, that "he would destroy me." I play frequently -- Scrabulous, on Facebook, is unhealthily addictive, and it's sort of a requirement of my job to have a firm grasp on the language -- so I did not cower at this. I honestly didn't know what to expect. Could he really back up that kind of talk?
Five turns into the game, Thabeet broke into a huge grin as he stared at his letters. "Ooh, I've got a good word here," he said. "The whole rack." He then carefully laid out F-R-I-E-N-D-L-Y -- it's not the easiest thing to position Scrabble tiles when your hands are the length of the board -- for 80 points (30, plus the 50-point bonus for a "bingo"). My 88-63 lead, which had been built on two three-letter bombs, T-A-X and Q-A-T, turned into a 143-88 deficit. And my question was answered: Yes, most definitely, Hasheem could back it up. I felt stunned, like one of those Big East guards who thought he had a clear layup, only to have it swatted into press row by Thabeet, who has blocked 141 shots this season. He played off this 80-pointer like it was no big deal: "That happens a lot. I can just look at my letters and see those things."
The finished board.
Trying to mask my sudden fear of losing to a 21-year-old who speaks English as a second language, I diverted the conversation back to the banquet Thabeet had just attended. Apparently he gave a speech in which he said, as a joke, "and thanks for the guards letting guys go by so I can block shots." They played a montage of his block footage, which became slightly awkward, he said because many of his victims were sitting out in the room, "and they were starting to stare at me." At this point, someone poked around a corner of the lobby and snapped a flash photo of us, then darted away -- almost like a hit-and-run paparazzo attack. Very strange, but, if I had randomly stumbled upon this game, I would probably have tried to take a picture of it as well.
All the while, I was scrambling to erase Thabeet's sizable lead; four turns and two triple-word scores later (on D-R-I-F-T-Y and S-T-R-I-P, with the S as a combo), I went up 195-188. Not to be outdone, Thabeet hit back with a 34-point, triple-word combo of B-R-I-G-H-T-S and L-O-B-S, which would be his only basketball-related word of the evening. I countered with 31 on a J-O and A-G-O triple, and Thabeet began heckling me about using the two-letter words. To a couple of people sitting nearby, he said, "I'm being cheated here! I have witnesses!"
Hasheem, contemplating a move.
Thabeet owns a travel version of the game, but said he doesn't exactly have a playing partner on the the Huskies roster -- instead, he tends to play with "random" people on campus. Only sophomore forward Gavin Edwards has been willing to play against Thabeet; and after getting beaten badly, Edwards would not agree to a rematch. I got the feeling that Thabeet is legitimately proud of his formidable Scrabble skills; the game was his favorite father-son pastime growing up in Dar Es Salaam.
He is slightly more proud of breaking Alonzo Mourning's 16-year old Big East block record, though; Thabeet finished the conference season with 94 swats, one higher than the 93 that 'Zo had for Georgetown. We talked about this for a while, as the last 10 or so moves went back and forth, and agreed that the record would probably not be broken for a long time -- that is, unless Thabeet comes back for his junior season in Storrs.
The final score of our game turned out to be as close as that Big East block race -- 293 to 292. I ground out the final two rounds with two-letter words (U-N, O-I), again drawing the ire of Thabeet, who had made a final push by adding E-D to my S-T-R-I-P from earlier in the game. I came out on top, but Thabeet had nearly played me to a draw. Given that he had won something a little more significant earlier in the night -- the defensive POY trophy was sitting up in his room -- I think he was content with this result. A man sitting just a couple of tables over, who had been curiously eyeing Thabeet, turned and asked, "Did you pick that board up from the front desk, or did you guys bring it?"
"Brought it," I said. The man nodded, accepting the answer but still looking more than a little bemused.