MHERST - It looks so easy now. So fluid. So natural.
With 50 seconds left and the game still in doubt Jan. 10, Maureece Rice of George Washington drove into the lane trying to cut into the University of Massachusetts' five-point lead. Rice knew as soon as he let go that his shot was never reaching the rim. A look of frustrated resignation crossed his face as he watched Stephane Lasme take off.
The Minuteman senior big man got his hand on the ball and blocked it harmlessly away. The play clinched the win for the Minutemen and a triple-double for Lasme.
While the Mullins Center crowd roared its approval, Lasme's facial expression barely changed. No posing. No trash-talking. Nothing to draw attention to himself. Nothing about his appearance reveals that he even realizes how great he's become.
Stephane Lasme goes up for a block against David Gonzalvez of Richmond on 2/3/07
What he's done has surprised almost everyone else. Lasme leads the conference in both rebounding and shot blocking and is a near lock for his second straight defensive player of the year honor and a leading candidate to be the Atlantic 10 player of the year.
His arrival at this point is amazing, considering where he started.
Roots in Gabon
Being one of the best basketball players in Gabon is like being the one of best ice hockey players in Mississippi. It's hard to quantify just how good that really is. The Atlantic-bordering, French-speaking African nation's basketball history is short and unspectacular.
His parents wanted him to head to the United States for a better education. His friends wanted to see how Gabon's most promising basketball talent would fare in America.
His coach knew Serge Lapeby, a Gabon native who had emigrated to Boston and as it turned out was distant cousin of Lasme. The family contacted Lapeby and asked if he could take in Lasme and help him find a college. He agreed and Lasme, then 20 years old, got on a plane in February 2003 for a 12-hour flight across the ocean.
Most foreign-born U.S. players spend at least a year in an American high school or prep school before college. It allows them to become more familiar with English and American culture, while taking the SATs and performing in front of college coaches.
"When I first got on the plane I thought it was going to be easy. I was just going to find a school and play basketball," Lasme said. "I didn't go to high school or prep school, I had to create my own opportunity. I had to knock on doors to get attention."
He enrolled in English classes while he and Lapeby began trying to drum up interest among college coaches. The response was frustrating. They showed up unannounced at Boston University, Northeastern and Boston College and were turned away.
A phone call to UMass didn't spark any interest either. The Minutemen had two big men, Rashaun Freeman and Stephen Briggs, who had sat out and were about to become eligible alongside Gabe Lee and Alassane Kouyate.
Lasme hadn't taken the necessary standardized test to become eligible and no coach was going to offer a scholarship sight unseen to a player with a limited basketball background, especially if his eligibility was in question.
"When we started it was hard. We didn't know anything about Division I or Division II or Division III. We didn't know anything. I watched the NBA on TV, but I didn't know college basketball," Lapeby said.
"So we asked questions and we knocked on doors. It wasn't easy," he added. "When they heard somebody saying, 'I have a guy who is 6-8' - they've heard that before."
So Lasme took the SATs and enrolled in the Eastern Invitational All-Star camp in July 2003 which attracted quite a few college coaches. Among them was Steve Lappas, then the coach at UMass and his assistant Pat Sellers.
"We were there to see somebody else. I don't remember who," Lappas said. "All of a sudden this kid is running the floor and some kid throws him an alley-oop and he's above the rim. I was like 'Who's that?'"
Lappas assumed that Lasme, like most players at the camp, was a high school junior. Lappas had just dismissed Briggs from his team and was prepared to head into the season with a thin frontcourt. A high school coach working the camp overheard Lappas and Sellers discussing the raw, but athletic forward.
"He said the kid is looking for a school now," said Lappas, who instructed Carey Edwards, his director of basketball operations, to find out more about Lasme.
Lappas wasn't the only one who noticed Lasme that day. By that time Lasme had scored 1,000 on the SAT, despite his limited English. The player's athleticism and promise attracted lots of attention from coaches, who bombarded Lapeby's mailbox and cell phone.
"My phone was lighting up. It was crazy. Schools I didn't even know. So many messages, so much mail," he said. "The mailman was like, does someone famous live over here?"
But the proximity of UMass to Boston and a comfort level with Lappas gave the Minutemen an early edge. Lasme visited the campus and liked it. He filled out his scholarship papers before even leaving Amherst.
The transition was difficult. Lasme took English classes, but they didn't teach basketball lingo or the animated Brooklyn dialect that Lappas spoke.
"I talked to him all the time. I didn't understand half of the stuff he was saying," Lasme admitted. "You don't want people to stop talking to you because you don't understand what they're saying, so at some point you have to fake like you understand."
Lappas caught on and made an extra effort to make sure Lasme understood. Kouyate, a native of Mali and fellow French speaker, helped by translating Lappas' instructions. Lasme furthered his English studies in unusual fashion.
"I watched a lot of TV and used the close-captioned tool," said Lasme, who admitted some of his early English came from "Seinfeld." "I watched everything. I like comedy. I'd spend from the end of practice to midnight watching all the funny shows."
Basketball needed as much translation as English. In the Minutemen's first exhibition game against the Harlem Globetrotters, Lappas told Lasme to check in and the player jumped up and headed onto the floor without first going to the scorer's table.
Finer points of goaltending, over-the-back and other rules took some adjustments as Lasme had nearly as many fouls as points. But his promise was evident, especially blocking shots.
His improvement was steady as he started to develop some inside moves as a sophomore, while learning to defend without fouling. His 16-point, 11-rebound performance against Duquesne March 5, 2005, was a sign of what was to come.
"Once you told him something, he picked it up quick," Lappas said. "You didn't have to tell him the same thing twice. This kid was thrown into the fire. His head had to be spinning. But we knew he was going to be a special player."
Lappas was right although he didn't get to experience it first hand.
The coach was dismissed following the 2004-05 season. His replacement, Travis Ford, got a good look at Lasme's potential right away.
In the second game of the 2005-06 season, Lasme was just a blocked shot shy of a triple double at Davidson.
While the Minutemen struggled and finished 13-15, Lasme had a breakout season averaging 10.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and led the conference with 108 blocks en route to be chosen as the Atlantic 10 defensive player of the year.
That wasn't enough for Ford. The new coach constantly rode Lasme, harping on his tendency to lose focus and his reluctance to be assertive.
"I told him I can't want it more than he does. He should be one of the best big man in the country every night," said Ford who challenged Lasme to become a leader.
"Steph is a great leader. When he does speak, guys all listen because he doesn't talk a lot," junior teammate Gary Forbes said. "He means what he says."
On the court, Lasme's play has ranged from good to dominant. His effort against George Washington made him just the 23rd player in NCAA Division I history to have multiple triple-doubles in the same season.
Eighteen days later at Charlotte he broke Marcus Camby's career blocked-shot record and currently has 340. Lasme is a big part of the reason the Minutemen are 16-6 and will play for first place in the Atlantic 10 Thursday night against the Rams.
"He had a really big adjustment. Through all the adjustment and all the hard times, he really worked hard," Freeman said. "This is proof of how good he is and how hard he's worked."
His success is being followed closely at home, where Lasme is one of his country's most famous athletes.
"They watch his games on TV and on the internet," Lapeby said. "He's a big star in Gabon."
"He's like Michael Jordan there," explained Lasme's younger brother Romaric, who followed Stephane to the United States and is currently enrolled at the Winchendon School.
With that comes pressure.
"Sometimes I get emails from people back home that say they're really proud of me, but I get some that say I have to make it to the NBA," Lasme said. "I want to be as good as I can be, but I don't want the pressure of being a disappointment."
The NBA isn't as far-fetched as it might have seemed even a year ago.
Lasme's play has gotten the attention of professional scouts. The player who once didn't know how to properly check into a game might be doing it next year in the NBA. But he's not thinking about that yet.
"I dream about going to the NBA. I want to play in the NBA," Lasme said. "But I'm not focusing on that. I have other dreams to fulfill right now. I dream about going to the NCAA Tournament."