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Kikwete, who played basketball in the late 1960s and early '70s at secondary school and, recreationally, at the University of Dar es Salaam, was kind enough to insist that Thabeet keep the hat on, and offered advice rooted in hip-hop to encourage the young man's potential as a Tanzanian icon. "He told me to look at an example like P. Diddy," Thabeet says. "[Kikwete] said, ' Diddy started in just music, and now he's big, he has all these brands, all this other stuff. And he made it out of nowhere.'"
In basketball's global age Tanzania is still a hinterland. Its national team is a nonentity, having qualified for the biannual FIBA Africa Championships only once in 46 years. Augustine Mahiga, who heads the Tanzanian Mission to the U.N. in New York City, often meets with Thabeet at the Mission and says that once the big center reaches the NBA, "he will literally become a national hero overnight. It will cause a transformation of the sporting scene in Tanzania, with the whole country rallying behind him as a trailblazer into basketball." Even the Michuzi readers have come around: Responding to a March 3 post about Thabeet's growing notoriety, an anonymous commenter wrote, "Hasheem represent my man, do your thing to the fullest. Open 'em doors and let our boys and gals get to that land of milk and honey and start a sort of Bongo revolution from NBA, MLS to even Hollywood."
Remaining patient in the spotlight of an anxious homeland, Thabeet didn't turn pro last spring, wisely targeting the 2009 NBA draft, in which his stock could rise into the top 10. This also freed him to visit Tanzania for three surreal weeks in June. At Kikwete's behest, Thabeet served as an unofficial sports ambassador at the Leon H. Sullivan Summit, a 4,000-person antipoverty convention in Arusha that was also attended by the Reverend Jesse Jackson, actor Chris Tucker and NBA player Kelenna Azubuike. Following the summit Thabeet was trotted out to a press conference in Dar es Salaam by the Tanzanian Basketball Federation, which wanted to link itself to his success despite having neglected to bring him into the national team fold as a teenager or aid his quest to play in the U.S. (Both are sore points that Thabeet was bold enough to mention to the press.) In subsequent midday radio and TV interviews, Thabeet hatched impromptu hoops showcases by revealing his afternoon workout locations, so that by the time he arrived the courts had already been ringed for hours by expectant crowds.
In a speaking tour of five Dar es Salaam orphanages, Thabeet had little to say about athletics. He instead stressed to the children that they seize every possible academic opportunity. Thabeet's long-term plan is to found a nongovernmental organization that provides textbooks and scholarship funds to impoverished African children. He has considered calling it Dream to Reality, an ode to the nickname he inevitably acquired as a high school player in the city of Hakeem Olajuwon's Dream Shake. But the inspirational part of Hasheem's Dream, he says, is "not from a basketball move. The whole story about my life is a dream, going from Tanzania to Kenya, to L.A., Mississippi, Houston, UConn. It's what makes me unique. And who knows where I'm going to end up? I still have a ways to go."
IT IS the eve of Midnight Madness, and the dream is expanding, pulling the family back together. Thabeet is sitting on his couch when his iPhone lights up with a call from his 17-year-old brother, Akbar. "You win... Two to one?... You score a goal?... That's good, man!" Akbar is now 30 miles away, playing varsity soccer at St. Thomas More School in Oakdale, Conn., on a scholarship. They hope that their older sister, Sham, who came abroad to intern at the Institute for International Sport in Kingston, R.I., will soon land at a U.S. college.
Those who last saw Thabeet as a gangly teen on Dar es Salaam's asphalt would be stunned by the way UConn has rebuilt him. Project Hasheem was an outside-the-box effort led by assistant Patrick Sellers, who forced Thabeet to strengthen his hands by digging them into tubs of sand and to master balance drills from pros as small as Steve Nash (who stands on one foot while palming weighted balls) and as tall as Yao Ming (who sits on a backless rolling chair and receives passes without toppling over) to develop a better post game. The Huskies expect Thabeet to score more than the 10.5 points he averaged as a sophomore, and he, in turn, continues to think bigger: When the Yao drill comes up in conversation, he says, "You know how Yao is the face of China? I want to be the new face of Africa. Because I know I can do a lot of stuff back there, if I have the support."
Calhoun has suspected as much. "I think, in his heart of hearts, Hasheem wants to be a great basketball player," the coach says. "But he'd also love to be the guy for Basketball Without Borders in Africa, he'd like to take [Dikembe] Mutombo's spot and help other African kids."
It's no coincidence that two more African players, Charles Okwandu, a 7'1" sophomore from Lagos, Nigeria, and Ater Majok, a 6'10" freshman forward from Sudan, joined Thabeet's basketball family in the past year, chasing dreams of their own. "I'm confident in what I say, and I'm just real with them," Thabeet says of the recruits. "I am a good spokesman." Now, for the program; later, for so much more.
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