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GOOGLE WOULD be his gateway to the U.S. That's what the 17-year-old Tanzanian believed when, in the summer of 2004, he walked into an Internet caf� in Dar es Salaam, did a search for "Colleges in US" and clicked indiscriminately until he came across the magic word: basketball. He knew coaches weren't scouting a country that had never exported a top Division I prospect to America, so he'd e-mail them: Hello, Sir. This is Hashim Thabit Manka from Tanzania. I am 213 cm....
Today he appears on Connecticut's roster as Hasheem Thabeet, a 7'3", 265-pound freshman center who in nine collegiate games has already established himself as one of the nation's most prolific shot blockers. In a Dec. 3 game against Texas Southern, Thabeet tied Emeka Okafor's and Donyell Marshall's school record with 10 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 6.8 points and 6.9 rebounds. The Huskies were 9--0.
While it's too soon to tell whether Thabeet—as is custom in his homeland, he dropped his surname after his father's death, and the i in Swahili is written as ee in English—will be another Okafor, assistant coach Tom Moore says the affable giant is already "a cult hero" on campus. Students bring fly swatters to games and chant, "You got swatted!" after each Thabeet block.
The few replies he got to his random e-mails two years ago were not encouraging. Northern Iowa sent a questionnaire but asked where in " Tasmania" he lived. One Jesuit school wrote that it could not put a Muslim on scholarship, and Thabeet took that to mean he couldn't play at any U.S. college. "That e-mail changed my mind about basketball," he says. "I stopped going to [Makongo High] practices."
However, in the fall 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 his first big break. Oliver Noah, a French businessman who organizes the NOGA African All-Stars AAU team, was in the stands in Nairobi; though he believed Thabeet was "extremely raw," Noah was impressed enough to offer to take the teenager to the U.S.
With the permission of his mother, Rukia, Thabeet left Tanzania the following January and began an odyssey that took him to Stoneridge Prep near Los Angeles (where Noah lived), then to Picayune (Miss.) High and finally Cypress Community Christian School in Houston for the '05--06 school year. (Thabeet says he left his first two schools because they couldn't determine which grade he should be placed in.)
In Texas he found a stable home environment with Gary and Terry Jurney, host parents who had been to Africa on church missions, and a coach who was willing to help him refine his game in Mark McClanahan. "I've never seen a kid improve so drastically," says McClanahan, whose team would go on to win a 4A state title last season with Thabeet chipping in 16 points and four blocks a game.
Acting on a friend'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 lot more."
"Wait a minute," Lafleur replied. "Do you realize what you just said?" Thabeet committed to UConn that June.
Like many of his fellow freshmen, Thabeet has a new favorite website: Facebook.com, where he peruses the groups UConn students have created in his honor, such as We Got Tha-Beet. Also, his iPod is engraved with HASHEEM THE DREAM: 34. (His nickname and jersey number are nods to former NBA All-Star and native Nigerian Hakeem Olajuwon.) Thabeet has yet to develop Hakeem's grace and agility but is already projected as an NBA lottery pick. To make that happen, e-mails won't be necessary.