U.S. Basketball Writers Association 2009 BEST WRITING CONTEST
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FIRST PLACE: MODERATE LENGTH FEATURE
Hasheem The Dream
Hasheem Thabeet: Odyssey Of UConn's Shot-Blocker
Luke Winn, si.com

Thabit Manka is up on the back step of his house in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for good reason: If he posed on level ground with his eldest son, their height difference would be accentuated to the point of absurdity. Even like this, in the last photo they would ever take together, the top of Thabit's kufi only meets the giant boy's shoulders. It's April 2004, and the son, 17-year-old Hashim Thabit Manka, as his name was written then, is seven feet of limbs drowning in baggy jeans and a retro Philadelphia 76ers shirt, staring straight into the camera with only the faintest hint of a smile. The father's billowy kanzu and the gray edges of his facial hair give him a regal air at the age of 56; he is grinning, with his gaze fixed slightly off to the left.

Thabit was an architect, educated in England at the University of Bath and Oxford. He was a lover of soccer, world geography and English Scrabble, all of which he taught to Hashim. Thabit was also a diabetic, and when he fell ill in the days after the photo was taken, complications led him to be hospitalized and, in a week's time, took his life.

Hashim kept the picture in a scrapbook under his bed during his freshman year at Connecticut but has since returned it to his mother, Rukia, for safekeeping in Tanzania. He remembers his father now for his wisdom. Thabit had showed him maps of his travels through Africa, Europe and Australia, and said that their family identity – being Tanzanian, Swahili-speaking, Muslim – should never be a limitation. "You can live anywhere as long as you can get along with anybody," he told the boy. "You just have to adapt and overcome."

Four years ago Thabit couldn't have foreseen the odyssey in store for Hashim, who was in just his third year of organized basketball in soccer-mad Tanzania, which had never sent a soul to the NBA, much less the NCAA. Who could concoct a narrative that begins with a boy doing runway modeling in Dar es Salaam to earn money for his fatherless family, continues with him trying to get a basketball scholarship by e-mailing U.S. colleges he randomly Googled in an Internet café and ends with him in Storrs, Conn., as the starting center on a Top 5 team?

E-mail was not the solution; it wasn't until Hashim left Makongo High in Dar es Salaam to take a scholarship at Laiser Hill Academy in Nairobi, Kenya, that he was noticed by someone with international basketball connections. French businessman Oliver Noah, who organized the NOGA African All-Stars AAU team, saw Hashim play and offered to take him to the U.S., and, with Rukia's blessing, handled the paperwork for an I-20 visa.

Seven-foot-three Hasheem Thabeet – the new, Americanized name on his passport – arrived wide-eyed in Los Angeles in January 2005 and was placed at Stoneridge Prep, where neither the housing conditions (four players were packed into coach Ron Slater's home) nor the transcript situation (they designated him as an 11th-grader, rather than a 12th-) was ideal. By April he was on the move again, to Picayune, Miss., to live with a host family and attend a public high school. Transcript issues arose once again, prompting a move in June to Houston, where Mark McClanahan, a coach Thabeet had met at the Kingwood (AAU) Classic in Houston that spring, found him another host family and a spot as a senior on the Cypress Christian School team for the '05-06 season. By the following summer Thabeet was at UConn, where he is now a junior majoring in geography. The bedroom walls of his campus apartment are decorated with SpongeBob SquarePants dolls, and his dresser doubles as a trophy stand for being last season's Big East Defensive Player of the Year and NABC Defensive Player of the Year.

In Arabic, Hashim means "destroyer of evil," and the shot blocking that earned those awards (147 swats as a sophomore, breaking Alonzo Mourning's Big East single-season blocks record) is an instinctual talent. The crash course in post offense that Thabeet received at UConn has helped him grow from a comedic liability to someone who, says Huskies graduate assistant Justin Evanovich, "is conscious of his ability to dunk everything." Huskies coach Jim Calhoun laughs at his first memory of Thabeet ("He would get a rebound in Houston, throw it and then watch nine guys run") and beams with pride when he says that "no player I've ever had at UConn has improved to the level that Hasheem has improved."

Since his father's passing, all Thabeet has done is change cities five times, countries twice and his name once. He basically learned how to play offense from scratch while establishing himself as the nation's premier defensive game-changer. Thabeet has adapted, and he has overcome.

If Uconn, which finished 24-9 last season, were to win a national championship in April, it would be the first basketball team to visit the White House under Barack Obama, whose absentee father was an economist in the Kenyan Ministry of Finance – only nine miles from the Nairobi school where Thabeet was discovered. The gravity of this African connection is not lost on Thabeet, but it wouldn't be his first presidential encounter, either.

On Sept. 21 he arrived at the Intercontinental Hotel in New York City wearing a Euro-cut suit, and he joined Tanzania's president, Jakaya Kikwete -- who was in town for the opening of the U.N. General Assembly – in breaking Ramadan fast. This was their third meeting, and it came with a reminder from Kikwete "to keep representing the country well." At their first meeting, in Boston when Thabeet was a freshman, he showed up in a fitted New York Yankees hat, brown sweater and jeans. ("I wasn't grown up yet," he says sheepishly.) When a photo of him appeared on Michuzi, the highest-trafficked Tanzanian blog, he was lambasted by some Swahili-speaking commenters for being disrespectful and undeserving of such attention.

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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• Second place: Tom Archdeacon, Dayton Daily News
• Third place: Ken Davis, Freelance
• Fourth place: John Feinstein, Washington Post
• Fifth place: Bill Rabinowitz, Columbus Dispatch