How exactly do you measure a man’s worth? Is it by his successes? If so, everyone looks great when they are succeeding. But, it’s what happens whenever a person has tasted success, fails, and then gets back up that shows the true character of that man. Some people aren’t able to come back once they have failed. Allen Iverson could have been a great redemption story. Here was a man who had tasted nothing but success since coming into the league. A man whose Frank Sinatra-like demeanor (“I did it my way”) garnered him many fans and many enemies, many of whom were in the league’s front office. A man whose ego eventually surpassed his usefulness to the point that NBA teams basically shut him out of the league. His is an example of a person who could not adapt to the slightest bit of failure.
One of the worst things in sports is to be labeled a bust. It is the apex of failure. There are two ways to be labeled a bust: either you were a high draft pick that didn’t live up to your expected potential or you were signed to a big contract that you could never live up to. Once given this label, it’s very difficult for a player to shake it off. Regardless of whether the player is injured or not, fan forgiveness is not usually a word related to the bust label. Just ask Greg Oden. Sometimes, though, a player is either too oblivious or too hard-headed to care about the bust label and continues to truck on.
Hasheem Thabeet is one of those players. A player, who by all accounts and purposes, should have just said, “Forget this (alternate words, of course)”, and taken his millions and retired on an island. With all the criticism and embarrassment that was heaped onto him in his first 3 seasons in the league, it would have been easy to walk away with whatever money he had in hand and move on to the next phase of his life. But that just isn’t Thabeet’s style. Here’s a man who, at the age of 14, lost his father to diabetes and decided at that point that he had to become the man of the house. To assert himself into manhood, Thabeet decided to drop his father’s last name of Manka, and instead use his middle name as his last name. Mind you, this was not a move to forget his father or his past. Instead, it was a symbolic gesture towards a new start. One that Thabeet could have never imagined would turn out the way it has.
One of Thabeet’s first decisions as the man of the house was to quit school and get a job. For about a year, Thabeet worked odd jobs as a model and as a bouncer at a club. With his imposing height, he could definitely look the part of a mean bouncer, but Thabeet never took part in the fights. He was too afraid to. His mother eventually convinced him to go back to school to continue his education. It was in this second go-around in school that a coach coaxed him into playing basketball. It was only a matter of time before Thabeet’s tall frame and go-go gadget arms were introduced to the game where those attributes are strengths. At first hesitant, he eventually adapted to the game and began to flourish.
The road to the NBA is not always a linear path. When you think of basketball hotbeds in Africa, you think of countries like Angola, Zaire, and Congo. You definitely don’t think of a country like Tanzania where soccer reigns supreme. Thabeet took the proactive approach and began filling out applications for every university he could find via Google. Eventually, his talents took him to a prep school in Nairobi, Kenya, where French businessman Oliver Noah took notice of Thabeet and asked to send the kid to the US for further prepping. Thabeet’s mother obliged and he was on his way to the USA to attend high school. Of course, not everything went as planned, as it is sometimes difficult to compare African school standards to American school standards. Transcript issues arose, and what should have been one stop in Los Angeles, turned into stops in Picayune, Mississippi and Houston, Texas.
After graduating from Cypress Christian School in Houston, Thabeet made his way to Storrs to attend the University of Connecticut. For the first time in five years, Thabeet finally had some semblance of stability. He could finally be what he really was: a 19 year old freshman. He flourished under Jim Calhoun’s tutelage, becoming a dominant force on the defensive end, while holding his own on the offensive end. Thabeet went on to win 2 consecutive Big East Defensive Player of the Year awards, and shared the Big East Player of the Year award in his junior season with Pittsburgh’s Dejuan Blair.
Needless to say, expectations were definitely high when Thabeet declared for the 2009 NBA Draft. Names like Dikembe Mutombo and Samuel Dalembert were being tossed around as comparisons. The consensus was that Thabeet would be great defensively, but would need time to develop offensively. As is the standard with most big men, Thabeet was considered to be a high risk, high reward project that would need a lot of development.
The funny thing about expectations is that it’s a two way street. On one hand you have the player, of whom the results are expected from. On the other hand, you have the basketball mind (usually a front office personnel or scout) that acknowledges that the skills seen in the lower level of basketball will translate to the highest level of basketball. In this case, it was former Memphis Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace who selected the center with the No.2 pick in the draft. Usually, when a team drafts that high, they are looking for an impact player at a position of need. But the Grizzlies already had two young centers that they were developing in Marc Gasol and Hamed Haddadi. The leash was short in Memphis and when Thabeet struggled to adjust to the speed of the game, he was sent to the D-League, earning the dubious record of being the highest draft pick ever sent down.
The next season, Thabeet battled with Haddadi for back up minutes throughout the season. At the trading deadline, Thabeet was traded to Houston Rockets for Shane Battier. In Houston, Thabeet only appeared in 2 games for the Rockets, spending most of the rest of the season in the D-League. In the next season, Hasheem was once again dealt at the trading deadline, this time to the Portland Trailblazers. At the end of the season, the Blazers chose not to pick up Thabeet’s 4th year rookie option, and the center became an unrestricted free agent.
There had been rumors that Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti was very intrigued with the possibility of drafting Thabeet with the No.3 pick in the 2009 draft. As we know, that opportunity never materialized and the Thunder selected James Harden, instead. There were also rumors that Presti had tried to pull off a couple trading deadline deals to obtain Thabeet, but those, again, never materialized. So when Thabeet became an unrestricted free agent this past offseason, Presti pounced on the opportunity to sign the center for the league minimum.
Brimming with a confidence not seen since his UConn days, Thabeet is flourishing in his role as the Thunder’s back-up center. No longer burdened by his draft position, Thabeet is going out there and playing the role that he has earned. Though his numbers aren’t that gaudy through 8 games, you can tell Hasheem has learned a lot about the game in these last 3 seasons and is only now starting to put it all together. He is no longer needed to save a franchise. Instead, he can be part of a team and contribute
Not unlike a young quarterback who has struggled through numerous coaching and system changes, Thabeet was never allowed to develop in one system for any amount of time. Instead, he has been shuffled from one team to another in his first 3 seasons and never was able to develop his game or his confidence. His move to OKC probably feels like his move to Storrs, Connecticut seven years ago. A sense of stability is coming and Thabeet is just now scratching the surface of his potential. On this team, he doesn’t need to be Dikembe Mutombo or Hakeem Olajuwon. He just needs to be Hasheem.