Hasheem Thabeet walked from the bench to center court in just three steps. He looked up at the crowd and listened to their short applause. About 3,000 fans were scattered throughout this 13,000-seat arena. In part, they were there to see the Fort Wayne Mad Ants take on the Erie BayHawks on the second night of a G League doubleheader. They were also there because it was something fun to do inside on a freezing December night in northeastern Indiana.
Like minor league baseball, minor league basketball is part athletic competition and part theme park. The first night of this doubleheader was Star Wars themed, and volunteers in plastic stormtrooper costumes had stalked the stands.
On this night, inflatable versions of Skee-Ball and Pop-A-Shot crowded the baseline, alongside a bouncy castle and a drum line. Santa Claus sang the national anthem. Then it was Thabeet's turn to talk. The 2009 No. 2 overall pick was on this team and in this arena for serious business: to launch an improbable NBA comeback. And despite the circus around him, Thabeet thanked the crowd with sincerity.
"Hello, good evening," he said, holding a microphone that looked like a Sharpie in his massive palm. "On behalf of teammates, family and the Pacers organization, we want to wish you a very happy holidays. Thank you for your support."
Then Thabeet returned the mic to the announcer and returned to the huddle. When it broke, he strode to the end of the bench, where he sat on a stool so he could comfortably stretch out his long legs. The Mad Ants wouldn't need him on the court again.
After the game against Erie, Thabeet sat at his locker and thumbed through a few pages of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He could at least exercise his mind. He changed into a dark gray sweat suit and a pair of velvet Air Force 1s to match. His teammate, Ike Nwamu, teased him, saying, "You gotta have a certain net worth to slip those shoes on!" Thabeet laughed and walked back into the arena. He handed a box of Reese's Pieces to the first young fan he found. And then he sat on the baseline so people could approach him for pictures and autographs.
The last two to come up to him were a man and his four-year-old daughter. At first, she was too shy to say her name to the seated giant before her, but she accepted Thabeet's invitation for a high-five. After the slap, Thabeet waved his hand frantically as if he'd been injured critically. The little girl laughed and hit his hand harder. He feigned even more pain. She laughed even louder. "You gotta go easy on me!" he told her. "I need this hand. I'm not done playing basketball yet."
That would have been news to almost anyone outside of this arena.
When the Memphis Grizzlies selected the 7'3" Thabeet out of UConn in 2009, it was national news. He wore a silver pinstripe suit and shook NBA Commissioner David Stern's hand on TV. When the Mad Ants selected Thabeet with the No. 18 pick in the 2019 G League draft, there was no ceremony. Thabeet didn't even pick up the phone when the team called because he was working out and he didn't recognize the number. But he did recognize the opportunity: He had been drafted again, and this time, he could prove he wasn't a bust.
"The Grizzlies gave up on me," Thabeet said. "You never heard of a No. 2 pick who got as few minutes as I did or as few chances as I did. If I'd been drafted by a different team, it would have been a different story. There's no question in my mind. I wouldn't be playing for the Mad Ants. I might be playing for the Pacers. If I'd been developed, I'd still be in the NBA right now."
In Thabeet's mind, getting back to the NBA from Fort Wayne, Indiana, would be nothing compared to what it took to get to the NBA from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
He discovered basketball by accident when he was 15, crossing a court as a shortcut to the soccer field. When he saw it as an opportunity to go to college, he started hovering behind visitors to his local internet cafe, waiting for them to stand up so he could use their remaining minutes to cold-email D-I schools for scholarships.
Thabeet was an undeniable talent—long, lean and swift—but no one really bothered coaching him until he signed with Jim Calhoun at UConn. "When he came to me, he couldn't play," said Calhoun, who is now the coach at the University of Saint Joseph, a Division III school in Connecticut. "And he left an All-American."
In Memphis, he was weighed down by comparisons to his draft classmates. Tyreke Evans, the city's hometown hero, won Rookie of the Year. Stephen Curry and James Harden were on their way to becoming generational offensive juggernauts. Thabeet's main achievement during his rookie season was becoming the highest-drafted player ever assigned to the D-League. (Anthony Bennett, the 2013 No. 1 pick, would later surpass him.)
"It wasn't Hasheem's fault that the Grizzlies drafted him," Memphis radio host Chris Vernon said. "It was their fault. And I'll kill them forever for it. James Harden and Steph Curry—two of the greatest offensive players in the history of the NBA—were taken in the next five picks."
Memphis traded Thabeet to Houston midway through his sophomore season. Houston traded him to Portland a year after that. Portland released him four months after that. He signed with Oklahoma City in the summer of 2012, and it was there that Thabeet says he finally learned how to be a pro. He raced Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant to see who could get to practice the earliest and hired a personal chef to manage his nutrition. He enjoyed his best two seasons with the Thunder, but it still wasn't enough to stick. In August 2014, they traded him to Philadelphia, and he never appeared in another NBA game.
For the past five years, he's tried everything he could to get back to the league. He played for a year with the Pistons' D-League affiliate in 2015. In 2016, he moved to San Francisco for six months to work with Frank Matrisciano. Better known as "hell's trainer," Matrisciano was the man who helped the player taken ahead of Thabeet in '09, Blake Griffin, prepare for the draft.
The first time Matrisciano met Thabeet, he noticed that Thabeet used his hands to stand up from a table. "What are you, 100 years old?" he asked. By the time Thabeet left San Francisco, he could do stair-jumps for 50 minutes straight.
In 2017, Thabeet signed with a Japanese team just to prove that he could still play. The following year, he moved to Washington, D.C., to train with Keith Williams, who has worked with players like Durant and DeMarcus Cousins. Williams helped prepare Thabeet for tryouts his agent arranged with a half-dozen NBA teams, including multiday stints with the Knicks and the Warriors during their training camps. When no one signed him, Thabeet figured the next-best thing would be to get back into an NBA system by joining what was now called the G League.
"I look at the other players from my draft class," Thabeet said, "and they're in the prime of their careers. And I'm in the best shape of my life. I know what my role is. I'm not trying to score 30 points a game. But I can come in and get rebounds and block shots. If I get another chance in the NBA, even just one more year, I can be Comeback Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year. That's the goal."
A few days before the game against the BayHawks, Thabeet was wandering through a Walgreens. He was on his way to the team's holiday party, which included a white elephant gift exchange, and he needed something to give. As he hovered over the shelves, he heard the whispers from gawkers in other aisles and ignored them. He chose a back scratcher, which slid in just under the $20 limit, and then splurged for a nice $5 gift bag to put it in. "Presentation matters," he said.
When he reached the checkout line, a man shopping with his son stared up at him and said, "What's up, brother? I bet you don't even have to jump to dunk!"
"You think?" Thabeet replied.
"You play for the Mad Ants?" the man asked.
"Yes sir," Thabeet said.
"You'll be in the NBA in no time!" the man exclaimed.
Thabeet smiled. But the truth was that his NBA return seemed to be getting less likely with each passing game in Fort Wayne. True, he was averaging 8.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per 36 minutes, but he was only getting 16.5 minutes per night. In the 14 games the Mad Ants had played up to that point, he'd started only two and appeared in only nine.
Two factors had forced Thabeet out of the NBA. One was his reputation. In college and in Memphis, teammates had called him "Hollywood" because of his flashy clothes, and coaches complained that he cared more about the lifestyle than the game.
"I'm not trying to beat the kid down," said Pacific head coach Damon Stoudamire, who was an assistant coach during Thabeet's rookie year in Memphis. "He's a really good kid. But I watched him in our first practice, and it only took 10 minutes to see that this wasn't going to work out. He didn't know how to be a pro."
Playing the G League was helping Thabeet rehabilitate that image. He could have comfortably retired to his homes in Las Vegas and Dar es Salaam. (He also has aspirations to one day be president of Tanzania.) But he didn't want to walk away from the NBA as a bust, and he was willing to prove it by playing in Fort Wayne. Even when he wasn't appearing in games, he was still answering questions during film review, helping younger players in practice and cheering his teammates on from the bench.
But the other factor that forced Thabeet from the NBA was out of his hands. He was drafted into a league where plodding, rim-protecting big men could still be taken with the second overall pick.
The year Thabeet moved to Detroit's D-League team, the Warriors won the NBA Finals with the 6'6" Draymond Green as their starting center. It was no longer enough for big men to live around the rim; they had to switch onto guards and even step outside to shoot threes. If Thabeet had been entered the NBA a decade before, he might have had a long career in the league. If he'd entered this year, he might be more like Tacko Fall, clinging to a two-way deal after going undrafted.
"He is the poster boy for a changing era in basketball," Calhoun said. "He just got left behind."
In the G League, Thabeet's problem was even more pronounced. Whereas players like Fall and Boban Marjanovic still have a limited place in the NBA, 7-footers in the G League are uncommon. On many nights, the Mad Ants face off against a team whose starting center is 6'8". In one game, Thabeet only checked in to defend an inbounds pass during triple overtime.
"The G League, even more than the NBA, is built on smaller athletes," Mad Ants general manager Brian Levy said. "We have lots of nights where we just can't play him. We can't ask him to make those kinds of switches. And that's the struggle he'll face at every level."
A month after that game against the BayHawks, Thabeet walked into the Mad Ants office to meet with Levy. He hadn't appeared in a game since Dec. 10, and the team had decided to release him. He flashed back for a moment to times he'd been cut or traded during his NBA tenure. In Memphis, he'd spent a humiliating day at the practice facility, talking to coaches and executives who knew they were about trade him but didn't tell him. He didn't hear about the deal until his agent called him on his drive home.
"I don't discount this opportunity," Thabeet said after his release. "Ultimately, though, I want to play, and I wasn't getting the chance. You get irritated. What's the point of all the work in the summer? What's the purpose of all the work you've been doing? When I got in, the numbers spoke for themselves. There's got to be a team out there that wants me."
He left Levy's office and walked next door to talk to assistant GM Chris Taylor, who helps handle travel for the players. He invited Taylor to come visit Tanzania any time. And then Taylor asked Thabeet where he wanted to go from Fort Wayne.
"I'm going back to D.C.," he said. "I've got to keep training. I'm still going to make it back to the NBA."