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The Tanzanian dream
Hasheem the Dream. A Dar Es Salaam boy made good, Hasheem Thabeet is a homegrown hero who started off as a nervous kid with no experience of basketball, conquered his fears, went to America and became a major NBA player. While he has made big money and can rock some bling with the best of them, he is a practising Muslim who still prefers to eat Tanzanian food, is close to his mama, likes playing Scrabble and whose basketball heros are of the old school.
At 7 feet 3 inches, he is arguably the tallest player in American basketball since Yao Ming (7 feet 6 inches) stepped off the court. But while he now stands tall and proud, the path to where he is today has not been an easy one.
Hasheem is now a well established NBA basketball player
Because he didn’t start playing the sport when he was a kid, like most US players, he has had to play catch-up.
How did his journey start? “I started playing basketball at the University of Dar Es Salaam. I used to be interested in the sport but I was scared to go play with the older guys. Kids at my age weren’t really playing or didn't get the opportunity. I went there one day and the coach, who coached a local club team called UDSM Outsiders, invited me in and welcomed me and since then the rest is history...”
Did he feel immediately welcome? “The team gave me a great welcome. I knew them before and they always asked me why I didn’t play. I always gave them bogus excuses but really I was nervous to go out there.”
“But once I made the big step to get involved, everybody was happy to have me as their teammate.”
Hasheem fell in love with the sport, and won his first scholarship, to Makongo High School, where he played for two years.
Why was he scared about getting into basketball until he got older? “I was young and insecure about my height, to be honest. I didn't know where to start to get involved.”
And were other people cruel about his height, or was he just very sensitive about it? “Truthfully it was both, but it got to the point that other people made me feel that way. I was always getting stared at and asked all kind of questions about my height all the time. Everywhere I go until today, the same thing is happening.”
“But it finally got to the point that I got over it. I got over it at such a young age too. I believed that positivity was the only way out for me.”
But then tragedy struck.
Hasheem’s father passed away, a week after Eid, and he had to quit school to support his family.
“I never talked about this with no one. It’s going to get emotional so I’m going to be very short.”
“Ramadhan finished. We were having Eid lunch, and he felt sick and went to his room. We went to check over him and he was lying down, saying he was sick. They took him to the hospital, brought him back in the evening and I hung out with him, and talked to him. He went to sleep. Then it was the same routine every day for five days.”
“The day he passed away I walked him to the hospital near our house and the doctor said they couldn’t handle his case, and he had to be sent to a bigger hospital. They took him there and he never made it back. I remember that like it was yesterday.”
Hasheem at the time didn’t realise quite how sick his father was – when he was talking with him, the assumption was always that he would be better in a few days.
His memories of his father are strong and affectionate. “I didn’t learn English going to school. I learned English at such a young age from playing Scrabble with him. He supported me a great deal. A lot of parents back home [in Tanzania] want their kids to get an education, so they don't support kids who want to play sports and believe that they will make it. But my dad believed. My whole family believed. They still do.”
His father was an architect in Tanzania’s commercial capital, Dar Es Salaam, and designed the exterior of the French embassy, and Hasheem has developed an interest in architecture also – he is planning an entire redesign of his own house in the States. He is also into writing, photography and painting.
Some joke that this Renaissance man vibe doesn’t sit well with his aggressive on-court persona, but he has developed a thick enough skin not to really care, and to do what he wants to.
“The only thing I wish for is that my father was here to enjoy this with me.”
Hasheem's mother Rukia and sister Sham settle in to watch him play in the US
I’m speaking to Hasheem at a civilised time in Tanzania, but in his time zone it’s pre-dawn.
“It’s really early in the morning – 5.30 – on Sunday morning. I wake up early to connect with my friends and fans overseas.”
He’s really keen to talk. “If my answers are too long let me know cos I can talk for days! Ha ha!”
In many ways he lives a celebrity lifestyle. He dresses in the new collegiate/preppy style that’s popular with many sports stars and rappers at the moment. He has a driver, a personal assistant, and he has a chef to prepare the Tanzanian dishes that he misses from home (though he is a bit embarrassed about this, he doesn’t want to appear flashy or spoilt – the fact that he is as bashful as he is about this fact suggests he isn’t either). “I don’t want it to seem like I brag.”
He is idolised by basketball fans and by young guys in Dar who would love a bit of what he has – the talent or the good fortune.
But the road he took to get here was long and winding. After his father died, he told his sister , his little brother and his mother that he would take whatever job he could get, and then come back and take care of them. He was 14 years old.
“I worked as security at local clubs and events, I carried equipment for some TV camera crews, and I modelled, I walked in a few runways. I did it all at that age – I was tall so everyone thought I was older than I was.”
Didn’t he encounter temptation and risk going off track at such a tender age, out in the world, a boy trying his best to be a man?
“I was young and I was getting a little money to come back home and give my mom so I was happy. I hung out with all kind of bad people, you name it, but I was not doing any of the stuff they were doing.”
At that time Hasheem had started to play basketball for a team coached by Henry Mwinuka, who became a mentor. His mother told him he had to go back to school, but he refused. Only when he found out that by rejoining school he could participate in basketball tournaments did he sign up again. With the school team, he attended a tournament in Mombasa, Kenya, and he says this was where the road took a new turn and he found his way out.
He played a storm, and a Kenyan academy, one of the tournament opponents, offered him a scholarship. He asked his mother for permission, and his school head, another mentor, and they gave him the green light. In a flash, he moved to Kenya. But this was just another stepping stone. In no time, he was offered a scholarship in America, and he moved again, this time to the bright lights of Los Angeles.
This must have been a huge culture shock? “At 16 I flew by myself to LA, I didn't know anyone and I didn’t know what to expect. But I promised my mom I will go and get an education and one day come back and take care of y’all.”
“My first impression of LA was how busy it was, crazy traffic – but very clean. People were friendly and very curious about everything.”
Hasheem’s recent experiences with the death of his father and supporting his family had given him confidence beyond his years, and when he decided the school he attended in the City of Angels, Stoneridge, wasn’t giving him enough education, he said he wanted out.
“We were playing ball more than we were going to school. I knew a few coaches from the year I had been in LA, so I called them and told them I was looking for a new school.”
His school in Los Angeles was unhappy with what was viewed as the precocious decision of a teenager, and somehow Hasheem ended up in Picayune, Mississippi. He describes this is one of the toughest times in his life until he reached the NBA. He says that he was close to giving up and going home.
“I was in the middle of nowhere. I felt like it was a punishment or something.” He was stuck there for six months, then finally persuaded a school in Houston, Texas, to take him on. There he had to move between different families, until finally a family more or less adopted him.
“In Houston, there was a different culture that I had to get used to. At 16 I'm moving by myself and making my own decisions – it was tough. But I was motivated by the times I used to talk to my dad and he told me that if you are loyal you can live with anyone, anywhere – just be true to yourself and know where you’re from.”
He stayed in Houston for two years. The coach at his school was great, he says, but he didn’t get any further in his basketball career. His adoptive family, who he remains in close contact with, were white, Christian and very religious. Was there no culture clash? “It was a shock for me to adjust, but I did. We connected. They treated me like I was one of them. I always wanted to learn new stuff, so I had no problem going to church. They prayed in their way, I prayed in mine.”
And did he encounter any problems as a Muslim in post-9/11 America? “No, I don't get treated any different because of my religion. It’s not a big deal.”
Does he fast when he is playing? “No, I can't fast and play. I train extremely hard. I have two workouts a day, so there’s no way.”
During the off season, Hasheem has focussed on developing his offensive play and strength. But to the frustration of many, the NBA is now in the fourth month of a ‘lockout’ – the result of a pay dispute between players and team owners.
“Right now we are not feeling it, really. We just miss being on the court and doing what we love, which is competing.”
Hasheem has faced some harsh criticism from sports fans who claim that he isn’t all that special, and has only got where he is because of his height. Some of them seem to be willing him to fail. How does he handle this?
“Criticism is always going to be there. It was there before us and it’s always there, so you can’t worry about that. I only worry about the stuff that I can take care of.”
His steadiness is also manifested in his basketball heroes, who are all of the old school - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and a convert to Islam; Bob Lanier; and Hakeem Olajuwon, who like Hasheem travelled from Africa (in this case Nigeria) to play in Houston.
Has he tried to convince any of his fellow NBA players to come to visit Tanzania? It doesn’t sound like they need much convincing – Hasheem says they all want to visit. Even the legend that is Kobe Bryant – also known as the Black Mamba (the largest, most venomous snake in Africa) – has told Hasheem that he wants to come with him to Africa to see the place.
Hasheem with his family
Hasheem misses the food from home, especially anything his mother cooks, but he always comes back to Tanzania once or twice a year, normally in May or June.
This is where the sadness returns a little. As a tall kid, standing on the sidelines, too nervous to get involved in basketball and teased sometimes for his height, he struggled to find the confidence to take the plunge. Now the nerves are of a different kind. Having made it to the NBA not just through talent but confidence and sheer will, he now faces new challenges.
Every year when he comes back to Tanzania, he hangs out with his old friends and teammates from before he became a star. “I don’t really have new friends, just the same circle. Still tomorrow if I go back I always go back [to the University of Dar Es Salaam] and hang out with the guys I played with and play with them again.”
So, is it hard to make new friends? For a chatty man, his response to this is simple. “Very.”
“I don’t know who to trust really. Especially at home. Everybody thinks, or underestimates, or overestimates, what they are going to get out of you.”
The loneliness of fame is often documented – Hasheem has stardom and money, and this no doubt makes him a target, particularly in Tanzania where the gap between what he has and what most people has is so wide. He cheerfully lets his photo be taken with the President, with Dar socialites, with fans and kids. But in terms of real engagement, he isn’t sure where to start, and as he wants to come back to Tanzania to live once his basketball career is over, this must be a nervewracking prospect.
“People who don’t know me say a lot of stuff about me but they have no idea. That’s the way it is everywhere, but I see it a lot in Tanzania.”
Hasheem Thabeet with Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete
So, for now Hasheem is engaging with Tanzania by using his public profile and money to help local kids.
He is strongly involved with the Basketball Without Borders programme, and hosted a basketball clinic in Dar Es Salaam last year for children from all over Tanzania to attend. “I’ve been trying to help the kids there for so long, since when I was in college. The kids in the US start playing basketball at such a young age, and we don’t get to play until at least 16 or so. In Tanzania, basketball has got a long way to go.”
“But it was great to see the parents letting their kids come over and participate. It makes me want to do even more stuff. I'm definitely coming back to live out there as soon as I'm done here. I want to develop kids out there, there is so much over there.”
Hasheem runs a basketball clinic in Dar Es Salaam
However, Hasheem has a serious beef with the Tanzanian media. “I did a lot over there in Tanzania, but it’s just the media haven’t shown it. All they want to talk about is gossip.”
“They don't know I have a school that I’m helping with building, a library and a shelter. I also have a few orphanages that are under my mom.”
“But all they talk about is who is dating who and who is fighting who.”
Lest it sound like Hasheem is down on Tanzania, he isn’t – he just wants it to be better. How would he advise kids like himself who want to reach high? “Everything is possible and yes, they can do it as long as they put their all into it, and they need to start having long term goals.”
What if they have families who are less supportive than his? “They just really gotta want it and they always gotta have a back-up plan. It feels good to prove people wrong. A lot of people said I was never gonna make it. Even now some people are still waiting for my downfall. But I’m prepared.”
Hasheem comes across as pretty serious, driven and devoted. Is this the full story? An April Fool’s Joke he played on Twitter back in 2009 suggests otherwise. He pretended to have failed a drugs test and set Twitter abuzz until he revealed it was a prank a few minutes later.
“Oh, I’ve got jokes all the time! I’m a lot more than you think,” he says. “Beyond it all I'm just like everybody else. I'm just blessed and strong.”