April 3, 2009 in Sports

Thabeet brings joy to Tanzania

Country rallies around UConn center
Mike Lopresti Gannett
 

Coming up

Final Four

At Ford Field, Detroit

Saturday’s games

•Michigan State vs. Connecticut, 3:07 p.m.

•North Carolina vs. Villanova, 5:47 p.m.

Monday’s championship

Semifinal winners, 6 p.m.

All games on CBS

DETROIT – The word from Tanzania is that the people have Final Four fever. Now that they know what it means.

“Even the older people are excited,” Lawrence Cheyo, secretary general of the Tanzania Basketball Federation, said over the phone. “For the first time, people are following the NCAA. They watch the NBA here, but they are starting to realize what the NCAA is.”

All this buzz, of course, surrounds Connecticut’s 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet. Back home, about the only thing taller is Mount Kilimanjaro. As Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Thursday, “My luck, we would run into a team that’s got a 12-foot center.”

Thabeet’s strange road to Ford Field has become the stuff of Big East legend. The former soccer player from Africa who did not start playing basketball until 15, and once pursued opportunity in America by randomly e-mailing college coaches he found on a Google search. This while working odd jobs as a club bouncer and runway model, supporting the family after his father died.

Now he is 22, Big East co-player of the year as a junior and two games from the national championship. In Tanzania, those with access to the broadcasts will be watching at 1 a.m. Sunday, when Connecticut meets Michigan State. Those who don’t will check radios, newspapers, computers, word of mouth.

“They will find a way,” Cheyo said.

You’ve heard how Michigan State’s march to the Final Four has been an emotional lift for a state in economic anguish. As the Spartans win, they take the minds off Chrysler.

You want trials?

In Tanzania, the life expectancy for a male is barely 50 years. According to the latest CIA report, one in every 100 citizens uses the Internet, but six in every 100 adults are HIV-positive.

How many proper basketball arenas in the country?

Cheyo was succinct.

“None.”

Same for equipment. As of last week, 210 donated basketballs sat unbounced in the port at Dar es Salaam. The sport federation had no money to pay the import duty.

In this challenging land, Thabeet is exhilarating news, even as he plays a game 8,000 miles away. Jakaya Kikwete, the nation’s president and a former hooper himself, has met Thabeet three times.

The president’s communications director said he was following the Final Four and would be e-mailing some comments, but he never did. Trouble with the legislature, perhaps. Still, the lights might burn late at the presidential residence this weekend.

“He’s a basketball fan,” Cheyo said. “I guess so, if he’s not too busy. He is the president.”

Cheyo was headed out Thursday to brief the local media, “and make sure the people know there is a big match coming up Saturday.” One who knows is journalist Issa Michuzi, who said that while the Final Four has caught the people’s fancy, what they are really eager to see is Thabeet in the NBA. Cheyo mentioned you don’t see nearly as many Connecticut shirts on the streets of Dar es Salaam as you see Lakers jerseys.

“People here are very much divided,” Michuzi said. ”Some say he should stay in college, and there are some who say he should aim for the moon.”

The moon, the stars, the rings of Saturn … do the people of Tanzania understand that a high NBA draft pick gets them all?

“They just can’t comprehend that the NBA has more money than football,” Michuzi said, meaning soccer.

But Connecticut is the team of the moment. Tanzania might as well be a suburb of Storrs this weekend.

“You’d be surprised they even know the coach’s name here,” Michuzi said. “Coach Calhoun. They know he is in good hands.”

Thabeet said Thursday he gets text messages from Tanzania every day, which help. More important, Rukia Manka and Akbar will be in the stands Saturday. Mother and brother.

“We had belief in him,” said Akbar, now 19 and a student at St. Thomas More in Connecticut. “After our father died, she was the only grownup, so it was hard for her to let him go, but she knew she had no choice. She just wanted to see him stay in school.”

Rukia has rarely made the long journey to see Hasheem play, but was in Phoenix for the regional. The son embraced the mother after the victory, and noted the tears in her eyes.

“I’m just happy. Just … happy,” he said slowly Thursday. Akbar mentioned he has many texts to send Saturday night. Back home, there are so many waiting to hear.


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