NBA or bust: Hasheem Thabeet refuses to give up on going back to the league
The former No. 2 draft pick talks succeeding, failing and working hard to resurrect his career
About an hour after his Golden State Warriors beat his old team by 26 points on Nov. 3, Kevin Durant met with his former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate Hasheem Thabeet, who is still looking for work. Both are former No. 2 picks in the NBA draft in 2007 and 2009, respectively. While Durant rose quickly to become an NBA superstar, Thabeet never lived up to the hype — out of the University of Connecticut, playing on four NBA teams and three D-League teams before becoming a still untouched free agent in 2015.
Durant is still hopeful that some NBA team will give his 7-foot-3 shot-blocking teammate and good friend a chance.
“Hasheem knows that no one feels sorry for him, so he’s not feeling sorry for himself,” Durant told The Undefeated. “He’s one of the hardest workers and by far one of the best people that I know. He’s one of the best teammates I’ve ever had.
“He’ll get a shot again. He’s being patient. Rim protectors always come back around. He’ll get a shot.”
After becoming mentally “broken” due to his lack of NBA success, Thabeet, 29, believes that his mind, body and game have been transformed to become ripe for success in the league after coming to San Francisco to work with trainer Frank Matrisciano and former NBA general manager Milt Newton in late April. Thabeet talked with The Undefeated about learning the game of basketball at 15 years old in his home country of Tanzania, to the uncontrollably fast road to the No. 2 draft pick and the challenging aftermath of it all after failing in the NBA.
When people say, they say you’re a draft bust, how do you feel about that?
I try not to let that part get to me. I couldn’t help how I was drafted. I’m in the green room sitting there, like, ‘What’s going to happen?’ I had no idea. Then I’m getting drafted No. 2. My name gets called and it’s very strange. They say, ‘From Connecticut … ’ I’m like, what? I can’t help that part. I just come over here work hard and see what’s going to happen.
If I get an opportunity, maybe they will see more. But I feel like I haven’t even been playing basketball that long even though I was up there.
So, do you think you’re almost a victim of your draft selection?
Very true. And, the thing is, like, I can’t help it, you know?
You didn’t ask the Memphis Grizzlies to draft you second …
I didn’t ask. I didn’t even work out for Memphis. So I’m getting drafted, and everybody is expecting something. I have no idea where I’m getting accepted to. Five years in the U.S., and then I’m already one of the biggest draft choices … I’m like, ‘This is really happening?’
You have been in San Francisco for a couple of months now. Can you explain why?
Training, basketball, aerobics, strength, mental, all that. The guy [trainer Frank Matrisciano] that I work with is very intense guy. We don’t call him trainer, almost like a teacher. I’m here really working and just transforming my body, mind. I’m in a very great state of mind, compared to where I was a year ago. And that’s just because I committed to changing the way I live my life. Not just on the basketball side, but, you know, even on a big side.
What is the “big side”?
On a big side in everyday life. This to me is not just coming over here to train to get back in the NBA. This is like a lifestyle as well. The way I live, the way I train the way, everything is trying to do. They say you can’t get better by doing the same thing every day. So, I decided to make changes. That’s the reason I moved to San Francisco.
Where were you mentally a year ago?
I was broken. Things were not going well for me. Coming into the league as the No. 2 pick, I feel like so many things were thrown towards me. Things happened so quick for me. I came over as a sophomore year of high school. I played two years of [AAU basketball], three years of college and then already a pro. I just started playing basketball.
A whole lot of things have been thrown towards me so soon. It’s because I didn’t really play basketball my whole life. I had to figure it out by 15. I would get attacked, or [hear], ‘He’s not doing what he’s supposed to do.’ You’re expected to be the next thing, all these comparisons come my way. I felt like I was cornered, like everything coming towards me. Everything happening so fast.
I was down. Everything I do is wrong. Everybody had high expectations, and I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
How fast did everything seem to be going for you?
I went from one day with the [AAU] coach and we go to practice the very first time, I walk in and I see these college coaches come in. And the next thing [then-Connecticut coach Jim] Calhoun is coming to practices. And I ended up going to UConn. In two years. I came from Tanzania, where I never played organized basketball. You play with friends. You dunk, your friends are happy.
The first time they hand me the ball I was already tall. ‘Go dunk.’ I was already athletic. I go dunk, so everybody is happy, my friends are happy. The next thing I know, I’m playing basketball. Took me five years to get drafted No. 2 pick and I’m still learning the game.
So I got to the league to Memphis, and I’m not playing as many minutes and I’m like, ‘I was one of the best players in college.’ I was punishing myself. Next thing, I’m getting traded, things start, I wouldn’t say [going] downhill, but I kind of felt like I wasn’t happy. So I was so down, and my contract was done. [I went] to OKC, playing on a winning team. You know, you got Memphis, Houston, Portland, they weren’t winning like that. Then you get to OKC, I get back to the great vibe again because I’m back on the winning side.
Can you reflect on your final NBA days?
I was traded to Philly [from the Thunder], then waived. I’m like, ‘What happened?’ I’m kind of down, feeling down. I just went home [to Oklahoma City], I was just hanging at home, you know. After I went through it, I go to Detroit training camp. Did great at training camp, and then before preseason games going, before game one, they bring in Joel Anthony, who wasn’t even in camp.
I was like, ‘What? I was here the whole time.’ I was so hard on myself that I wanted to go back to Tanzania. If I go back home, I can still live great. I’m already doing well for myself. I have businesses going on. I can go back home, and live and be great. I’m like, ‘Man, I’m too young. Learn the game.’ I love the game. I love my teammates. Even when I wasn’t playing I would hang out with Kevin. We would talk about all the games. I’m in it, but I’m not in it. I’m having all kinds of struggles over there, and one day I’m like, ‘I’m still here watching these games those guys they are playing. I can compete with these guys.’
So what kept you from giving up on the NBA?
I still have time. I’m a young man and I just decided that if you want different results, a better me, be better mindwise. You have to invest. I made a few calls to a few people, and they recommended me to Frank Matrisciano. I’m in a great state of mind. I’m happy with everything. I know in my heart that I worked. I worked at very high level …
I watch games. I know all the plays. Just from just watching. I don’t even have to be in it. I learned over the years that I didn’t play there for long. So, everything was like a learning experience. Now, I understand. I know what I need to do. An [NBA] GM [general manager] say, ‘You’re not working hard. You don’t have the game.’ I’m like, ‘Damn, all these things they are saying about me, I gotta show in a different way. What I can do.’
What was the darkest time over your NBA career?
I played for four teams in seven years, which is not bad, because some guys get traded around all the time. But the way the trades were happening, I had no idea why I would go. I guess that’s part of the business. I was nervous in Memphis. The last day of trade deadline in Memphis was a day off. I say, ‘You know what, it’s a day off, let me go to the [Grizzlies] facility.’ I go in for treatments, blah, blah, blah. I go in for a workout, I worked out, trade deadline is at 2 o’clock. I drive home at 1:30 and get a call on my way home saying, ‘You’ve been traded.’ I’m like, ‘What? I was just there, and everybody was normal there.’
Memphis to Houston. So I had to start changing the way I feel. Like in Memphis, I wasn’t getting the news I was expecting. I came to realize it’s about professionalism. It’s a part of being a pro. You got to be ready anytime, whether you play one minute, two minutes, 20, 10. It’s part of the profession. It’s part of your job.
But, back then I didn’t know. So, I was kind of, you know … Like, ‘Man, what am I not doing?’ Questioning. I just wondered what are the things that were wrong with me. I was questioning myself. Everything. I felt like everything was not going well.
What kept you from moving home to Tanzania?
When I go home, I get this reception that’s like, ‘You are our savior.’ Everybody believes in me over there. And, I don’t want to let those people down. I’m too young to leave. I’m here. I’m blessed. I can go over there and live good. My mom is happy. My little brother is happy. My sister is here and she just got her MBA. Everything is going well. But I’m too young. What am I going to do when I go home?
I’m still a young man. I believe I can do so much for so many teams. I watch the games even though I’m not on any team. It’s something that I feel that I’m working on.
My body is fresher, basketball fresher. My mind now, over the years, I’ve learned so much. So, all these things I’ve learned, it’s too early for me to say I want to go home. So, let’s see what’s going to happen.
Did you get any offers to play overseas, and where?
A lot since the year after Detroit  released me after the training camp. Spain, Italy, China, Japan. After I got released, [the Pistons] say they had a new D-League team [Grand Rapids Drive] coming up, and it will be a good team, you’ll get to play right away. You never know, you can get a 10-day contract. So I’m like, let me just do it.
I did it. I was getting numbers, blocking shots. I know my job in the NBA is not to get 30, 20 [points] every night. My job is to be the guy that controls the paint, which I know I can do. I feel like for the time I was out there in the D-League, I was doing better.
So, why didn’t you go overseas?
I just didn’t think at the time it was great for me. I believe I can help so much in the league. Yeah, maybe, I could have gone overseas, but why do it? And then with Detroit, I thought I would be able to get a chance. They didn’t really have bigs there. I’m open to it and looking into overseas now.
Would you do the D-League again?
With the work I’ve put in, I feel like I need to go somewhere [else], not to downplay the D-League. When I play [in the D-League], I feel like some guys weren’t locked in. They weren’t locked in or they don’t take it seriously, like I did.
After getting stronger mentally, working out with Matrisciano and being on the court with Milt Newton, are you a different player now?
As a basketball player, we have a whole lot of things that we pick up on the go. It’s not like I’m in the gym shooting a big shot every day. It was everything on the go. I know not to travel. Use my height advantage. Those are things I had to learn. Now I am physically great, mentally great. Now I am steady. I need to showcase myself. I need to go somewhere and play so they can see.
Is your body stronger?
Yeah. I got stronger, faster. [With Matrisciano] I run up maybe 60 stairs … Now I got 50-pound [vest] on or I gotta kick up a certain way, get a weight vest. With all the things, now I’m faster.
When you’re in the league, you don’t do those things. You’re just regular. You go practice with the team. After that, you work on jumpers, shoot. Spin, speed, all those things are added to my game.
How are you now financially?
Very good. I have good management. They look out for me. They are the ones who actually connected me to Frank. [San Francisco financial adviser Jason Slater and his group] called me and asked me, ‘What do you want to do?’ I was at the house in OKC. We talked about so many things. And they’re asking, ‘What’s next?’
I did well [financially]. I got into business as well. I told [Slater], ‘I’m not ready to just be a businessman. I really want to go back to playing.’ They told me, ‘Well, we know one person [Matrisciano] that could be a good fit for you. But, he’s not easy.’
Yeah, this guy is the real deal. Frank, the months since I’m over here with him, he changed the way I work. He will push you, too, mentally.
How has it been working out with Milt Newton?
He has experience, especially as a former GM. It has been great. With my height, just to be able to shoot this shot, know who’s guarding you, just take your time. It’s the same shot that you normally take. It’s all about timing and reps.
Have you worked out for any NBA teams this year since you arrived in San Francisco in late April?
The New York Knicks came to see me. Washington Wizards. The L.A. Lakers invited me to their open trials. I was looking great over there. And, I didn’t play basketball for a whole year. And I went over there and I fit right in. I got into a shape where I can just get up and down the floor, make better decisions with the ball. I was still blocking shots. So, if you ask me, my workout with those teams went well.
So, why haven’t you been signed by another NBA team?
I have no idea, to be honest. Maybe they wanted to see more. See me playing more. You just invited somebody for two days, a workout, you just look at guys. Maybe it didn’t mean that much to them, but at least I’m grateful for the opportunity to go and showcase.
Who introduced you to basketball in Tanzania? How did you start playing?
In Tanzania, I grew up playing soccer. There was a soccer yard and basketball court. To get to the soccer yard, you always walk through the basketball court, every day for years. One day, the coach over there said, ‘Come here.’ I had the height already as a soccer player, skinny. ‘Hey, kid, you’re so tall, why aren’t you playing basketball?’
I was 15. He gave me the ball, and he asked me, ‘Do you know how to dunk?’ No, I never played basketball. After we were done with soccer, on the basketball court, there was light. The soccer yard is big and round, lights are too much maintenance. Too much money to put lights over there. But, the basketball court is smaller, it has lights.
So we go over there and watch guys dunking. They go crazy out there every time. So he gave me the ball, he goes, like, ‘Just run to the basket and put the ball in.’ I run stretch, dunked. All my friends go crazy. I can control the ball the way I want. I’m going to do this. Feel in love with it. Next thing I know, I’m getting a scholarship to come out here [for prep school two months later].
What advice would you give to a 7-footer in Africa who is playing basketball and wants to come to the United States?
Just be patient with yourself, because sometimes with all these blessings you can get ahead of yourself. We start doing things that we don’t even need. Just because we have that opportunity doesn’t mean you have to take it. Be patient. Whatever you want to do, really invest into your work …
Anything you could have done differently?
I could have done it very different. I could have just been the same quiet guy and just all about what I want to do. Just be patient, everything will happen …
I just wish I was told by a GM, and the people who got rid of me, ‘What did I do wrong?’ Nobody ever told me what I’m not doing right. You’re just there until you are gone. ‘Why? Why am I leaving?’
I know it’s all business, but I wish there was some honesty. Like, ‘Hey you’re not doing this right.’ And, ‘You might not be here.’ You know, I wish people were honest. If I were to change something, that would be the only thing.