March 3, 2008 Men's Basketball 7,600 Miles From UConn, Thabeet Is Big Man Off Campus By MIKE OGLE STORRS, Conn. An airplane landed in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in May 2007 with a man of immense stature aboard. The crowd that had gathered to greet him was so large the street by the airport had to be closed. And when he set foot in his home country for the first time in more than two years, he was overwhelmed by the reception in his hometown of 2.5 million people. Hasheem Thabeets physical standing had always been large. But his social importance and celebrity in that East African nation had risen to heights congruent to that of the crown of his head 7 feet 3 inches. Thabeet received a kings welcome, and even visited with his countrys president during his two-week stay. Strangers wearing Connecticut Huskies T-shirts and his No. 34 jersey cheered his arrival and hung posters of him all over town. All of this fuss even though he was a relative unknown when he moved to the United States in 2005. I was not expecting to see all that, Thabeet said. At the time when I was leaving, nobody really believed I was going to be the person who I am right now. Now Thabeet, who Americanized his name from Hashim Thabit Manka, is a 21-year-old sophomore studying psychology at the University of Connecticut. He is a source of inspiration for Tanzanian children, who continuously send him letters hoping for advice, help or money. The Connecticut basketball team is receiving the immediate benefits of Thabeets emergence as it continues its rebound from a one-season fall after finishing 30-4 and reaching the Round of 8 in the N.C.A.A. tournament in 2006. Last year, Thabeet was one of eight UConn freshmen who experienced a bumpy season (17-14, 6-10 Big East). A year later, the No. 15 Huskies (23-6, 12-4) are in third place in the conference, one loss behind Georgetown and Louisville. Connecticuts improvement is a direct correlation to the maturation of its young players, including Thabeet, who began playing basketball only five years ago. Thabeets size and 7-5 wingspan have made him a defensive force. He is tied for second in career blocked shots at UConn (245) and twice he has tied a program record with 10 blocked shots in a game. This season, Thabeet has more blocks (127) than nine Big East teams. If somebody beats us off the dribble or in the post, its really good to know you have that help, the junior forward Jeff Adrien said. Its almost like having six players instead of five. But Thabeet grew up a soccer player, and the offensive part of basketball has proved difficult for him to master. He runs the floor with ease and displays exceptional footwork. In fact, he juggles a basketball with his feet and knees like a soccer ball so frequently in practice that his teammates are no longer impressed. But learning how to use his hands has been another story. He has worked hard to become a more consistent contributor on offense. The whole summer, thats all I did was offensive workouts, Thabeet said. Last year, I couldnt buy a basket. But last year, his potential was already so intriguing that Thabeet said he continuously received telephone calls and text messages from agents trying to lure him into entering the N.B.A. draft. After lengthy consideration made more difficult by the fact that after the death of his father, he has felt obligated to provide for his mother, brother and sister still in Tanzania Thabeet returned to school. He said his mother struggled to support the family by selling traditional African clothing. So not only is he receiving an education, but he is also being groomed for a once unthinkable job playing basketball, which would enrich his family living 7,600 miles away. UConn coaches have tried several tricks to improve Thabeets comfort level with the basketball, including throwing passes to him as he sits on a rolling office chair and making him wear special gloves that force him to use his fingertips. During the summer, he worked out with Hakeem Olajuwon and Emeka Okafor, among others, and he has developed a jump hook he is comfortable taking with either hand. He is far from a dominant offensive player. But with plenty of scorers, the Huskies do not need him to be one. They need Thabeet to be a threat, and that he has become. Thabeet has scored 22 points or more three times this season (his high as a freshman was 15), and dominated a victory against Georgia Tech last month with 24 points, 15 rebounds and 6 blocked shots. All of his major averages are up, too. He has improved to 10.2 points a game, from 6.2; 7.8 rebounds, from 6.4; and 4.4 blocked shots, from 3.8. He is also shooting at higher percentages. The assistant Andre LaFleur, who recruited the then lightly (or barely) regarded Thabeet, says todays Thabeet is light years apart from the raw player he first saw two years ago. The first time I saw him, he looked like a soccer player that was playing on a basketball court, LaFleur said. His size, his physical coordination was very intriguing. Then I remember seeing him improve in just months, learning subtleties of the game and post play, hed come so far. Put it like this: the first time I saw him play, I didnt think hed be able to play in a college game right away. Part of Thabeets learning curve was to stop shying away from the physical nature of the game something he acknowledged caused him to avoid basketball growing up. And since coming to Connecticut a place he initially balked at when he looked at a map and realized how cold it would be compared with his homeland he has become more comfortable on the court and in his environment. Last Friday in Storrs, with snow on the ground and the wind chill making it feel like 16 degrees, Thabeet arrived for practice bundled beneath a lettermans jacket and multiple sweatshirts but with socks and sandals. He always wears sandals, Adrien said. So I dont think he can be too cold if he always wears sandals. The Huskies, who have won 12 of their last 13 games with Thabeet filling up the stat sheet several times, could just be warming up. They look poised to make a deep postseason run. If they do, perhaps Thabeet, surely wearing sandals, will walk with his teammates in another heros welcome when they fly back to Connecticut from the N.C.A.A. tournament. Just like the one he received in Dar es Salaam.