Thabeet on a long comeback trail

Jay Asser 28/02/2017
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Mighty Sports' Hasheem Thabeet slams home a dunk. Chris Whiteoak

Already larger than life, the height of Mighty Sports’ tallest player was amplified by the relatively short Filipino team-mates surrounding him. If the 7-foot-3 giant looked like an NBA player, that’s because he once was.

Second overall NBA draft picks aren’t supposed to be found toiling away in a Dubai gym on a February night, playing in front of hundreds rather than thousands. But here was Hasheem Thabeet, clinging to the game and a chance to return to the highest level by showing what he could do at the Dubai International Basketball Championship.

The 30-year-old didn’t need to be there. Who knows if it even helped his cause of making a comeback to the NBA. Mighty Sports didn’t win the week-long tournament, which concluded with Moroccan club Sale lifting the trophy this past Saturday, and Thabeet, as one of multiple American imports for the Filipino side, played sparingly.

But because he had nothing to lose, there he was, getting game reps and reminding anyone who mattered that his passion for basketball remains, even if it isn’t reciprocated.

“They called me. They told me to come over to play in Dubai,” Thabeet told Sport360°.

“I was home training, in free agency. I was like ‘okay, I’ll come and participate instead of being home, doing nothing’.”

So how did Thabeet get here?

As a 15-year-old in his native Tanzania, he picked up a basketball for the first time. Experience hardly matters when you’re tall enough to tower above your peers, so Thabeet quickly found himself on the national stage at the University of Connecticut, leveraging his size to become a dominant paint presence.

He played well enough that when he entered the 2009 draft, only Los Angeles Clippers star Blake Griffin was selected ahead of him, while the Memphis Grizzlies took Thabeet before superstars James Harden (three), Stephen Curry (seven) and DeMar DeRozan (nine).

Thabeet played all of 224 games with four teams across the next five seasons before being out of the league. Many consider him a ‘bust’ and Thabeet understandably seems sick of hearing the word, but he’s not wrong in saying he never asked for the expectations.

“Who labels me a bust? What do they do for a living?” Thabeet asked until he coaxed the answer he was looking for. “It takes a basketball player to understand what I’m going through. I didn’t say ‘hey, I want you to draft me number two’.

“I didn’t want that. It happened, that was my opportunity, God blessed me to get drafted. There are a whole lot of people who’ve been playing basketball their whole life. Some of them make the NBA. I started playing basketball at 15, 16 and I made it to the NBA.

“So whoever has something to say, tell them to make it to the NBA and then talk.”

Thabeet speaks about his journey as if it’s not reached its conclusion. He may have just entered his 30s this month, but he points to 40-year-old Vince Carter still playing as proof his age won’t deter him.

Whether he gets back to the NBA or not, Thabeet is done worrying about things outside of his power.

“I’m invested in myself to get better every day. It’s progress. It’s not just about the NBA, it’s a lifestyle now. I chose to do this. I have to get better for myself. Wherever I can go, I’ll work hard,” he said.

“The rest I can’t control. I’ll let that take care of itself.”

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