MHERST - Sprawled on the floor of South Station in Boston at 3 a.m. on a February night, Stephane Lasme could only yawn and rub the exhaustion from his eyes. This much was clear: It had been one long journey.
Was it just a day ago, or a lifetime? He had bid farewell to his family in the West African nation of Gabon, and packed his 6-foot-8-inch frame into an airplane seat. For seven long hours, he traveled to Paris. After a stamp of the passport and a stretch of the legs, it was back in the air -- 8 1/2 grueling hours across the Atlantic before touching down in Washington, D.C. Finally, he thought, he had arrived.
As agreed beforehand, the first thing he did was call Serge Lapeby, an old friend of his high school basketball coach. Speaking in French, Lasme said that he had made it, that he was ready to be picked up, that he appreciated Lapeby's generosity.
"Where are you, Stephane?"
"Dulles International Airport."
"Dulles? I don't think I can get you there."
After all, Lapeby lived in Dorchester. And so, Lasme continued the odyssey, boarding a Greyhound bus to New York, another to Boston, then clambering down the steps in the wee hours of a Sunday morning. Again he called Lapeby, a Gabonese expatriate who had agreed to serve as his guardian, and pitched him out of sleep: "I'm here."
Lasme was here to pursue the next step, getting a good college education, using basketball to punch his ticket. Truly, it was an audacious dream. After all, he spoke only a handful of words in English. He had only been playing basketball since he was 15 and his game was incredibly raw. Even in a world of hyperscrutinized worldwide recruiting, no college coach in America knew the first thing about him. Never before had a player from Gabon played Division 1 basketball; in fact, neither Lasme nor Lapeby had heard of Division 1 basketball.
Four years later almost to the day, meet Stephane Lasme. Around completing his biology major at the University of Massachusetts, he has become the top rebounder in the Atlantic 10 Conference, the No. 2 shot-blocker in America, a bona fide NBA prospect. Tonight he leads the Minutemen against Rhode Island in a pivotal A-10 contest with first place on the line.
"I'm proud to be who I am now," he said. "I'm proud that I went through all of that to get here. It was a very, very, very hard journey."
Lapeby, who works for Marriott, says with a sense of wonder, "From where we started to where we are today . . . wow!"
Early on Monday morning, after sleeping off the epic trip, Lasme was awakened by Lapeby and told to get ready for class. At 8:30, he began his intensive English instruction at Emmanuel College. Eight hours later he came up for air.
That's the way it was five days a week, eight hours a day. In the late afternoons, it was off to the playgrounds and courts to play ball and sweat, cleansing his busy brain. Night after night he collapsed in front of the TV, shows in English, subtitles in French. It was a daily diet of discipline.
"This is reality," Lapeby told him. "You have to adjust and you have to do it right now."
So Lasme adjusted. He studied. Worked on his game. Checked out books about basketball from the Boston Public Library. Crammed for his SATs.
Along the way he connected with then-Emmanuel coach Lance Tucker, who directed him to the Eastern Invitational camp at Boston University, and ultimately to the Top 100 showcase in Trenton, N.J. On hand at that event was Steve Lappas, then the head coach at UMass.
Lappas had just dismissed forward Stephen Briggs from the team. He was not expecting to fill the scholarship, looking instead for juniors who were still a year away. Then he caught sight of Lasme soaring above the rim -- a moment he described as being "like manna from heaven."
In November, just nine months after his arrival, Lasme donned the UMass uniform for the first time as the Minutemen played their exhibition opener against the Harlem Globetrotters in Springfield. A few minutes into the contest, Lappas told Lasme to go into the game, and that's just what he did -- sprinting onto the court without even going to the scorer's table.
Since then, his game has blossomed like some exotic flower seen in time-lapse photography. By his sophomore year he was starting every game. Last season he was named the A-10's Defensive Player of the Year. This season, he has averaged career highs of 12.9 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 5 blocks to help propel the Minutemen to a 16-6 (6-2 conference) record and a legitimate shot at their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998.
"He's an NBA player," said Travis Ford, who became the UMass coach before Lasme's junior year. "And I think he can even make an impact at that level."
Ford recalls watching Lasme play for the first time in workouts with the team's post players at Curry Hicks Cage. Afterward, he turned to his assistant coaches and said, "This guy has no idea how good he is. He has no clue."
Lasme is at his best on the defensive end, where he is a disruptive presence. His long arms, explosive leaping ability, and keen peripheral surveillance of the court add up to an extraordinary shot-blocker. He holds the school's game (11) and career (340) shot-block records, and barring injury will easily surpass former National Player of the Year Marcus Camby's season mark of 128.
"He changes the game because he disrupts anything that you try to do that's close to the basket," said George Washington coach Karl Hobbs. "It's hard to beat a team just by hitting jump shots. He just takes away your interior and makes you do all kinds of crazy things."
The blocks have become UMass's energizer, the emotional moments that build momentum in games.
"Every time Steph gets a block, it's like a battery in our back," said fellow senior Rashaun Freeman. "He's competing at a high level to do the things he does. We want to try to match that."
Lasme's offensive game has also started to take flight. He can turn the offensive glass into a game of pinball. He has a soft touch with either hand, and has demonstrated some ability to hit the midrange jumper. He does not demand the ball in the post with the same ardor as Freeman (a team-high 17.0 ppg ), but he is showing more ability with his back to the basket.
This season, the once well-kept secret has been discovered. Stoic as Lasme is, his game has been shouting out for attention. He has become one of only 23 players in NCAA history to post more than one triple-double in the same season.
"He is the big man in the A-10," said Hobbs, whose team was victimized by a 23-point, 15-rebound, 11-block ambush by Lasme. "Every coach in the league will tell you that he's the one player that, if they had him, they'd be a much better basketball team. He changes games."
Even hoop hypester Dick Vitale has taken notice, naming Lasme his National Player of the Week in mid-January.
"I think he's still kind of in awe of the whole thing, almost embarrassed at the whole thing," said Ford. "This is not the norm for him."
Nearing the end of his college career, Lasme is trying to enjoy every moment of the ride. He has developed several close friendships on the team. Roommate Gary Forbes has gotten Lasme to go down to New York to visit his family and walk the streets. On the road, though, Forbes reports that Lasme keeps a low profile, doing work on his laptop computer and watching the Discovery Channel.
Back in Gabon, Lasme has become something of a national hero. "Everybody wants to be like Stephane," said Lapeby. "He's become a huge star."
Lasme's brother, Romaric, has joined him stateside this year, playing basketball at the Winchendon School, where he is a junior. When Lasme posted his first triple-double, against Saint Francis (N.Y.) Nov. 22, he said the only thing that really made it special for him was playing well in front of his brother.
Lapeby remains a central figure in his life. "He's a very, very good friend," said Lasme. "He was there for me when I needed him. He basically helped me to become a better man."
This part of the journey is nearing an end for Lasme. He is focused deeply on the present, and considers it a thrill to be playing meaningful games in February for the first time. When the season is over, he says, he might allow himself more of a glance in the rearview mirror, back to that long journey from Gabon to the floor of South Station.
"It seems like it was 10 years ago," he said, before allowing the barest hint of a smile to crease his impassive face. "It seems like I came so far."