MHERST -- Beneath his trademark serenity, Stephane Lasme was excited. How could he not be?
The 6-foot-8-inch University of Massachusetts forward was making his first appearance as a college basketball player. The wild dream was coming true. He was about to become the first Division 1 player from the small West African country of Gabon. Just nine months earlier, he had arrived on a winter night at 3 a.m. in South Station in Boston with an English vocabulary consisting of only "Hello" and "How are you?" There was not a basketball coach in America who knew his name.
By November 2003, after an astonishing period of transition, he was ready to play. Sure, it was only an exhibition game, but he was set to play at the Springfield Civic Center, just blocks from the where the game of basketball was invented, and it was against the famed Harlem Globetrotters, who were playing serious games against college teams in a preseason tour.
A few minutes into the contest, UMass coach Steve Lappas told Lasme to go into the game. Not knowing any better, he raced right onto the court.
"Stephane! Stephane!" thundered Lappas.
The coach explained the need to check in with the official scorer. Sheepishly, Lasme nodded. Later in the game, when Lappas again sent Lasme in, he reported to the scorer's table. The ball went out of bounds. Lappas called a timeout and began addressing his team. Then he looked around and said, "Where's Stephane?"
There he was, sitting dutifully by the scorer's table, ready to go.
Lasme's freshman year was a whirlwind. Learning the language. Learning the game. Enormous struggles. Flashes of possibility. Thirteen rebounds in his second game, against Texas Tech. Thirteen points and six blocks against a strong Dayton team. Ten games in which he was shut out.
One year later, the work-in-progress has progressed quite a bit. As Lasme takes the floor this afternoon in UMass's Atlantic 10 tournament opener against La Salle, he is one of the major reasons the Minutemen are 16-11, their best record in seven years. He is the only player to start all 27 games.
He is the second-leading shot blocker in the Atlantic 10 (21st in the nation), and his 56.8 field goal percentage would lead the conference if he had enough attempts to qualify. His average of 6.4 points per game is twice last year's output.
In the final regular-season game, against Duquesne last Saturday, Lasme posted 16 points and 11 rebounds. And the same player who hit just 44.1 percent of his free throws last year went 14 for 14 from the line.
"I feel he's the most improved player in the league," said teammate Maurice Maxwell. "His focus, his concentration, how hard he plays -- I don't think you can really measure that."
Out of Africa
To be sure, he has come a long way. Gabon, a country of scarcely more than a million people, straddles the equator in West Africa. It is home to a bevy of wildlife: elephants, leopards, gorillas, pythons. Two-thirds of the nation is covered by rain forest. Lasme, though, comes from the seaport of Port-Gentil.
The son of an engineer and an economist, Stephane grew up valuing the intellectual life. He spoke French and tribal dialects, worked hard in school, and played soccer for hours on end. When he was just shy of 16, he started playing basketball, inspired by watching Michael Jordan on television.
"I was just trying to do what was on TV," he said, with a hint of smile. "I wasn't talented -- I was just using my brain."
Though his game was raw, he made Gabon's national team within a couple of years. As he traveled around the continent, he realized that his basketball ability might one day open doors to a better life.
Through a friend, he contacted Serge Lapeby, a Gabonese expatriate who worked as a real estate agent in Watertown. Lapeby remembers hearing about a good-hearted youngster from home who "had the opportunity possibly to be a great player."
One day in the winter of 2003, Lasme took a pair of eight-hour flights, first to France, and then to Washington, D.C. From there, he navigated the Greyhound bus system, arriving at night in New York City, changing buses at the Port Authority, and getting into South Station in the wee hours. Lapeby picked him up, and they got back to his Dorchester apartment at 4 a.m. on a Sunday.
On Monday morning at 8:30, Lasme's intensive English classes began at Emmanuel College.
"We had kind of a program," Lasme remembers. "From 8:30 to 4:30, I'd be in school. From 4:30 to 7:30 or 8, we were going to parks to play basketball, just trying to meet people and asking them questions about how you get in school."
Through the help of then-Emmanuel coach Lance Tucker, he found out about the NCAA paperwork required of athletes. According to Lapeby, Lasme signed up for the General Educational Development exam, passed it, and then, just four months after arriving in the country, scored 1,000 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test.
Lasme participated in the Eastern Invitational at Boston University, and gained an invitation to the Top 100 showcase in Trenton, N.J., in July. That's where he encountered Lappas, who had dismissed Stephen Briggs from the program that week, opening up a scholarship.
That late in the recruiting process, Lappas had no expectation of filling the slot. He was there to look at talent for the following year. At one point, Lasme threw down an enormous dunk, and Lappas turned to an assistant and said, "Did you see that?"
When another coach told him Lasme was looking at a school for that year, Lappas was stunned. He describes the moment now as "like manna from heaven."
Within a week, Lasme had visited UMass and committed to the school. "We were both lucky," he says. "He was looking for a type of player like me, and I was looking for a school."
He came in as a biology major, the first one Lappas has coached in 20 years in Division 1. Lasme has heeded his parents' wish to "just use the basketball to get a good education," but this season there have been hints that it might wind up being more than just a tool.
Against perhaps the strongest front line in the country at Connecticut, Lasme helped UMass to an upset by scoring 9 points on 4-of-5 shooting, with 6 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 3 steals. At St. Bonaventure, he sparked UMass to a double-overtime win with 18 points, including the tying free throws in the closing seconds of the first overtime.
Off the court, he has found a comfort zone. He maintains close contact with Lapeby, who often comes to games at the Mullins Center. With two French-speaking teammates (redshirt sophomore Alassane Kouyate from Mali, freshman Olivier Lamoureux from Montreal), Lasme is able to communicate freely in his native language.
His American teammates brighten noticeably when asked about Lasme. Former roommate Art Bowers says Lasme now teases him about his "Delaware accent," and Maxwell describes Lasme as a "goofball."
There's no laughter, though, when he checks into the game these days -- always by way of the scorer's table.
"His feel for the game is just so much better," marvels Lappas. "And he's just scratching the surface of his potential."