Hornets.com 1-on-1: Memphis' Hasheem Thabeet

Hornets.com 1-on-1: Memphis' Hasheem Thabeet
By: Calder Hynes, Hornets.com
January 19, 2011

Hornets.com caught up with Memphis Grizzlies center Hasheem Thabeet prior to Wednesday’s game at the New Orleans Arena.

Thabeet is in his sophomore season in the NBA with the Grizzlies after being selected No. 2 overall in the 2009 NBA Draft. As a collegian at the University of Connecticut, the 7-foot-3 center was selected as the 2008 Defensive Player of the Year by the National Association of Basketball Coaches and was named co-Big East Player of the Year in 2009, before forgoing his senior season to enter the draft. The 23-year-old Tanzanian-born center has had one of the most unorthodox journeys to the NBA imaginable, which he shared with Hornets.com:

Hornets.com: You were a soccer player your entire life until you found basketball at the age of 15. What drew you to the sport?
Thabeet: I just liked the game. I used to go and watch people play and I began to like the game and wanted to get into it, so I tried it and loved the game.

Hornets.com: What does it mean to you to be the first Tanzanian-born player in the history of the NBA?
Thabeet: It means a lot. It’s a blessing. I tell people every day it’s a blessing that I can come out here and play basketball. It’s not the end of the world if I am not the best player, I just have to come out here and play ball.

Hornets.com: Since your success in college and in the NBA, have you seen the culture of basketball in Tanzania change?
Thabeet: It’s getting up there (in popularity with soccer). There’s a lot more kids getting into it. I go back and run basketball camps, and that’s something we didn’t have when I was growing up. Definitely, the culture of basketball is growing. The next time I go back, it will be a bigger camp. (The NBA’s program) Basketball Without Borders is thinking about going to Tanzania. To me, that’s great.

Hornets.com: How often do you visit Tanzania?
Thabeet: I go there every summer. At the end of the season I get to go there and visit my family.

Hornets.com: Like you, roughly one third of Tanzanians are Muslim. How is being Muslim part of your identity and what challenges have your devotion (such as fasting during the month of Ramadan) presented to you?
Thabeet: Being Muslim is a big part of me. I feel Muslim, it is always in me. I wish I did not have to practice while I fast, but I do my job and keep believing.

Hornets.com: When you fast, do you follow the strict rules of no food or water from dawn until sunset?
Thabeet: Yes.

Hornets.com: With no college basketball scouts in your part of the world, you facilitated your own recruitment by e-mailing coaches in the United States and trying to get noticed. What inspired you to go about pursuing your dream in that way?
Thabeet: The idea just came to me. I was like ‘If I can get an opportunity somewhere, anywhere to come out here and play basketball, I’ll take it.’ So, I began sending e-mails almost randomly.

Hornets.com: Was part of the reason you pursued playing basketball in the United States out of a desire to provide for your brother, sister and mother?
Thabeet: That was a big part of it. My dad died when I was young, and in was the oldest son, so I had to take responsibility.

Hornets.com: Your odyssey to the NBA took you away from your family and home (spending time in Kenya, Los Angeles, Picayune, Mississippi, Houston and Connecticut before finally settling in Memphis) and during this period, you also Americanized your name from Hashim Thabit. How would you describe this tumultuous time in your life?
Thabeet: I don’t know if there is a word for that! God put me in all of those situations for a reason. I am grateful for what I have and believe that there are a lot of people that I can influence now and put a smile on their face. I’m just happy to be me and do what I do. Again, it’s a blessing, so I have to take this chance to do good. A lot of people can be inspired out there. Everything happens for a reason.

Hornets.com: Have you been able to bring your other siblings and members of your family to the United States as well?
Thabeet: Yeah, my brother and sister are here, and my mother recently came over to visit for the holidays. My little brother goes to Butler University – he’s trying to walk on to the soccer team – and my sister goes to school here too, so everything is working out well.

Hornets.com: You met the President of Tanzania, Jakaya Kikwete, and are said to have a good relationship with him. What was it like meeting the president, and do the two of you still keep in touch?
Thabeet: I still keep in contact with him. He’s like one of my friends now. It’s great. He gives me advice sometimes and is one of the people that when I’m down, I can always count on him calling and talking to me. It’s great, I really thank him for the support and encouragement to keep doing the things that I’m doing.

Hornets.com: When you were in college, you said you wanted to be the next face of African basketball in the lines of such philanthropists as Hakeem Olajuwon and Dikembe Mutombo. What projects are you currently involved with in helping those less fortunate in Tanzania?
Thabeet: I’m doing a lot of basketball camps, building libraries and schools. There are a lot of kids who never, ever got a chance, so it’s nice to have the power to give back by influencing a lot of kids. Not just by giving money, but we go to their school, give out nets for mosquitoes in trying to stop malaria. There are a lot of things like that that seem simple that are very important.

Hornets.com: You helped fellow UConn center and current Hornets center Emeka Okafor (who is Nigerian) with his ‘One Million African Lives Initiative’ at an event in Hartford, Connecticut, when you were in school. Do you still keep in touch with Emeka or are you involved in any projects with him?
Thabeet: A lot of the time in college, I looked up to him (Okafor graduated in 2004, two years before Thabeet arrived on campus). He’s a good friend of mine. During the preseason this year when we came to New Orleans to play, I hung out with him. We stay in touch. We have not been able to do something charitable together overseas, but I’m looking forward for the time when we can. He’s a great guy. When I was playing at UConn, when I was feeling down, he’s one of the people I would call to talk to.

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