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Friday, June 26, 2009

A Sport and a Team Grows In Tanzania

Hasheem Thabeet will help the sport of basketball grow in Memphis and Tanzania

By Terry Lyons

NEW YORK – The ESPN television signal was beamed by satellite to entertain the young eyeballs in the United Republic of Tanzania as they witnessed sports history made at about 2:45am this morning in the sovereign state located in the central eastern portion of the continent. The local children, the teens and their parents were welcomed into a local restaurant to watch the cable feed of the draft proceedings since not many homes in Tanzania can afford the luxury of pay TV.

Hasheem Thabeet was in New York City, tucked awkwardly in the confines of Madison Square Garden’s theatre where he was thrilled to be chosen as the second overall pick of the 2009 NBA Draft. Thabeet, like Emeka Okafor, Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon before him, has been blessed with the talent and he now has the authority to make an impact in the NBA as the first player to hail from Tanzania. If Thabeet follows his continental cohorts, the good folks at Star TV might rethink their local programming strategy and add a few NBA games so the youngsters who’ve been kicking soccer balls can watch their countryman when he suits up for the Memphis Grizzlies next November.

Next year at this time, the soccer balls might become basketballs and the NBA will have another country etched into their list of nations and territories where the game is televised and where the local player development system can far outpace the league’s sales graphs for t-shirts and video games.

“When I first came in (to the USA), I never thought I would be able to make it in Division I basketball. I ended up at UConn and I was coached by Coach Calhoun. He pushed me since day one,” said Thabeet to the assembled media in the Garden’s back hallways near Seventh Avenue. “After my freshman year, I was young and I had to grow up and he prepared me mentally to believe in myself. He challenged me and I challenged myself to be man enough to go out there and play ball.

“I remember Coach Calhoun told me after my freshman year, if you leave after this year, it’s going to be the worst mistake of your life,” said Thabeet. “I had to believe him and trust him. I told my family that they can wait for a couple of years for me to be in the NBA. To me, this is a blessing.”

“I’m looking forward to this because I talk to the guys in Memphis everyday,” he said. “Rudy (Gay) and all the guys are pretty good friends of mine, and finally, I was chosen to go there. This is a great opportunity and I’m aware that not that many people get this type of opportunity. I’m happy and excited.”

Thabeet is often criticized for the limitations in his game. He is fully aware of the rules differences and the more difficult NBA rules which prohibit defensive players from standing in the lane for more than three seconds.

Thabeet did not hide from the critics, some which included the very NBA teams who interviewed him before the draft.

“Some of the NBA teams would ask me, what do you think is going to be the most difficult part of the NBA that you will have to adjust to,” he noted. “I told them, that in college, they let you stay in the paint and just block whoever comes in. In the NBA that’s a defensive violation after three seconds.

“Since college ended, I’ve been working on a lot of my offensive skills, shooting from 13-18 feet. I’ve been working on my footwork and I’ve been working hard everyday.

“Emeka Okafor is a good friend of mine and he is always telling me that the players in the NBA, although they might only weigh 235-245 pounds or less, are very strong. He told me that I have to be ready mentally and physically to be challenged by these guys,” said the 272-pound Thabeet.

Thabeet was realistic and determined in his vision of what might be awaiting for him in the NBA.

“I’ll just go out there and have fun and be happy. I was able to adapt and overcome a lot of stuff since I got the United States at the age of 14, so I believe this is not going to be as hard as a lot of people think.”

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