Memphis Grizzlies rookie centre, Hasheem Thabeet is not your average NBA player. He did not play basketball on the streets of his hometown from a young age (he first played when he was 15 years old). He did not dream of being an NBA player one day, as many others in the league did (he only started playing basketball as a means to an education). And he certainly did not come from a high basketball pedigree — to paraphrase his words, he played soccer on his local pitch, before sitting down to occasionally watch the other kids play basketball on the next court; it was only then that a local coach coerced him into giving basketball a try.
Thabeet is from Tanzania, a country on the central East coast of Africa, bordered by numerous countries including Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. As you may guess, this is hardly a basketball heartland. Rather, it is a country of over 43 million people, with a nominal GDP of just $520 per capita (for some comparison, the USA’s nominal GDP per capita is measured at $47,440).
The big man, standing 7’3″, will be the first Tanzanian to play in the NBA when he takes the court this season. The main sport of interest in his homeland is football (aka soccer) and according to wikipedia, “basketball is also played but mainly in the army and schools.”
Players such as Thabeet are inspiring, as they are not all about the money, the fame and the hype. Sure, everyone is human and it would be naive to think that these things do not play some part in the lottery pick’s psyche. However, the reasons that he finds himself in the States originally are a ringing endorsement for the student-athlete system — at least in certain cases such as his.
Watching the video below, we see how hard the decision was for Thabeet to leave his family behind, in particular at a time when his mother had experienced the death of his father just prior. The young man had to make a choice at the ripe age of 17, as to whether he stayed with his family as the man of the house, or he took up an offer to play high school basketball in the USA. He took the roll of the dice as he was so enthused about the opportunity to further his education in this way and was further spurred by the concept of a scholarship that would pay for his education.
After proving his mettle at Cyprus Christian High School, he went on to three great seasons at UConn and finally found himself ready to enter the NBA. He did consider leaving early, after his freshman season — with the obvious consideration of funding his mother, brother and sister back home.
After my freshman year, everybody was pressuring me about leaving or staying, so I sat down and talked to Coach Calhoun. He said, ‘If you leave this year, it will be the worst mistake you make in your life.’ I listened to him, and it was a good decision. I told my family that they can wait a couple more years, so that I can get to the point where I’m ready. If you watched me a couple of years ago, and you see me now, it’s way different. I went back and worked hard and got to know the team even better, got to understand what type of person I am and what type of player I am. Going back was a great move.
Not surprisingly, Thabeet is a great focus of inspiration for kids in Tanzania, who see his path as one they could take to a better future for themselves and their families. The following presentation from CNN Inside Africa, gives some insight into his path to the league. These are the types of players that I like to see succeed in the league.