Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Updated: April 2, 1:24 PM ET
Life of Reilly
By Rick Reilly
ESPN The Magazine
The beauty in The Beast is the problem. He kids. He dances. He hugs. And this is in the first half. He laughs. He tells jokes. He does his Dick Vitale impression. During warmups. He is the least of beasts, actually.
But UConn's 7'3'' junior center Hasheem (The Beast) Thabeet can't help it. He is terminally cheerful. He knows what NBA scouts have said about him: Not nearly mean and nasty enough … most (NBA) guys will go right through him. Which is undeniably true. You can see for yourself this Final Four, as 'Sheem the Beam and the Huskies roll into Detroit. He gets the rebound and tiny people slap his wrists until he lets it go. Runts push him off the blocks like cops with nightsticks. His dunk would hardly dent a marshmallow.
"I do not know how to control this," grins Thabeet (thaa-BEET). "Maybe I'll be mean enough someday."
Unlikely. "I was terrible (as a bouncer). The fights would start and I would run away!"
Example: You ask The Beast if you can speak to his mom. He gives you his own cell number and says, "I will translate!" So, later, you call it, sure you've got a fake, and his voicemail answers. So you leave a message like you've left a thousand others with athletes, knowing you will not get a call back. Except in less than an hour he's calling you back. "I wanted to be sure to return your call right away!" he says.
Dude. I'm going to need to see some ID.
On most any day at UConn, Ucan see The Beast in the Student Union quad, eating lunch, surrounded by 12 to 15 students, all of them giggling. He absorbs everything, a kind of SpongeBob Tall Pants. In Tanzania, he was a model, a TV crewmember, and a security guard at concerts. And that was before his 15th birthday. "They thought I was much older," he laughs. "People would let me do anything!"
Really? You? A bouncer? "Oh, no, I was terrible. The fights would start and I would run away!"
You begin to see the problem.
One day, his father lent him his best atlas to take to fifth grade show and tell. He promptly lost it. Hasheem feared his father's whipping stick so much that he was too scared to come home. His mother found him that night on the streets, crying.
"He's a very sensitive kid," says UConn trainer James Doran. "When he first got here, any little thing would send him into a panic. He's much better now."
Although, in UConn's Elite Eight win over Missouri last weekend, Thabeet hurt his ring finger going after a loose ball. The way he flailed around, you'd have thought he lost an eyeball.
"Well, if you let him," says Doran. "He'll roll clear to the other bucket."
So you can imagine how Thabeet took it after his Oxford-educated architect father died of diabetes complications when 'Sheem was just 14. The boy was so distraught he quit school. He began taking odd jobs, believing he needed to provide for his mother and two siblings.
"I was so worried about him," says his dressmaker mother, Rukia. "I only wanted him to go back to school."
He finally did. A year later, a coach in 'Sheem's hometown of Dar es Salaam talked him into trying hoops. But the guys playing it were all so … so … mean! "I was scared. So I lied. I told him I didn't have any gears [sic]. But then he gave me gears [sic]. So I had no choice but to play."
Seven years later, the hoops world is about to discover his best gears -- sending shots back to their makers. Mean or not, he and his Boeing wingspan are second in the nation in blocks this season. At one point this year, he swatted away a three and the opposing coach looked up at him and said, "Thabeet, can't you just let one go?"
When UConn bested Missouri Saturday and the last-second rebound fell into Thabeet's arms, he celebrated like he'd just taken the Bastille. He skipped, pogo-ed, and screamed. He ran 30 rows up into the stands and held his mom. "Thank you for raising me," he gushed, and they both cried. He waved the Tanzanian flag. He grabbed the trophy and struck a Heisman pose.
If UConn wins it all, it would be the first hoops team greeted in the White House by Barack Obama, the first president with African roots. That makes The Beast's eyes a little misty. "I only wish my father could be here to share this with me," he says, still hugging the ball.
So many players in this Final Four, in this draft, in this game, live their lives for a nearly unreachable thing: starring in the NBA. Most of them won't star; most won't even get there. It can be crushing. But Thabeet is one kid I don't worry about. His light you can't put out. He is more resilient than a Slinky. And it's nice to know that whatever happens, Thabeet goes on.
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