NCAA basketball fans surely know the name Hasheem Thabeet, who, at 7-foot-3, is the tallest player ever to play for the University of Connecticut.

On the court, he’s become famous for his shot-blocking and defense, being named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year last season.

What they might not know is the backstory of how he got to UConn in the first place. It’s quite the adventure.

Back home in Tanzania, Thabeet didn’t play basketball as a kid. Like nearly every other country in the world except the U.S., the national sport in Tanzania is soccer. But at age 15, he started playing hoops, and even started emailing various colleges inquiring about basketball opportunities from an Internet cafe in Dar es Salaam, in his home country. But it didn’t work very well.

Soon, though, he was discovered at a tournament in Kenya by an American named Oliver Noah, who scouted African players for prep schools at the time. He was recruited by Noah to play at a prep school in California.

Unsurprisingly, in the predatory world that is college recruiting, he got off to a rocky start in this country. He first attended that prep school for a very short time, then a school in Picayune, Mississippi, but left soon from there as well. While the reasons for these short stays and transfers are unclear, one conclusion presents itself: he was being exploited.

Shocking, I know.

But during this time, he’d also played in a few tournaments, some with a coach named Mark McClanahan from Cypress Community Christian Academy in Houston. During one such tournament, he’d been living with a host family he liked, the Gary and Terry Jurney family, Christian missionaries who had spent time in Africa. He’d found a home.

“We wanted Hasheem to understand there were no strings attached,” Gary Jurney says. “‘We just want to help you,’ we told him.” Their son Ben, one of three children, slept on the couch for a year to accomodate Hasheem.

He played one year at Cypress, averaging 16 points, 10 rebounds and four blocks. Recruited heavily by Connecticut, Louisville and Cincinnati, the decision to go to UConn was as easy one for him and the Jurney family.

Still basically a raw talent, Thabeet’s had to learn much more than the average college basketball player. While his defensive prowess comes quite naturally, he’s had to learn offense from the ground up.

Since coming to this country, he’s done a lot right. He’s taken sole responsibility for his family, ever since his dad died of complications from diabetes in April 2004, when Hasheem was only 17. He’s also listened to his coaches, who hounded him to get better in every way, and advised him in 2008 to stay in school another year so he could get a much higher spot in the NBA Draft. That decision not only shows that he’s a very wise young man, but it should earn him – and his family – a big payday this June.

Thabeet has big plans for the future, too. He wants to become to Tanzania what Dikembe Mutombo is to Zaire and Hakeem Olajuwon is to Nigeria: a national hero, inspiring the youth to chase dreams they may have tossed aside otherwise.

His dad, who died so young, gave him some great advice when he told him, “You can live anywhere as long as you can get along with anybody. You just have to adapt and overcome.”

Sage advice.