Springfield Republican: Out Of Africa
Jan. 29, 2006
By RON CHIMELIS
AMHERST - When it comes to the subject of Gabon, Rashaun Freeman probably speaks for much of America.
"Never heard of it, before I met Stephane," said Freeman, the University of Massachusetts men's basketball forward and teammate of Stephane Lasme, the central African nation's only Division I player in the United States.
"He seems very comfortable here," Freeman said. "But I'm sure he never forgets where he's from."
Lasme's unconventional path to UMass, and his emerging stardom, are the stuff of which legends are born. Take one media report that said Lasme, who took up basketball at age 15, learned the game after nailing a hoop to a tree - and, in trying to estimate the official 10-foot height, placed it 12 feet off the ground.
"They made that up," Lasme said. "I had a rim put in at my house. It was higher than 10 feet, though."
These days, the 6-foot-8 junior spends much of his time above the rim. His 4.7 blocked shots per game rank third in the nation, and his nine against Davidson tied the school record, done three times previously.
"He can change a game defensively," said UMass coach Travis Ford, who thinks Lasme has NBA potential. "He can play with four average defenders as teammates, and turn it into a great defensive team."
Lasme's offensive skills, virtually invisible when he arrived, have also shown astonishing progress. It's Stephane the person, though, that the Minutemen like talking about most.
"This hasn't been easy for him, by any means," Freeman said. "But a quality person can be put into a situation, struggle at first, and then adapt.
"Stephane has done that," Freeman said. "He's blossomed as a player, and as a person."
"Maybe he can become the second Hakeem Olajuwon," said Pierre Oyoue, staff member at the Gabonese consulate in New York - though Olajuwon is from Nigeria, not Gabon.
For the record, Gabon (pronounced "ga-BONE") is a republic the size of Colorado, with 1.4 million people and independent since 1960. Located off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean, its official language is French, though Lasme also speaks Myene - a language of one of Gabon's 40 ethnicities - and now English.
If UMass fans knew little about the country, they knew even less about Yann Stephane Lasme, not to be confused with the unrelated Mike Lasme of the Ivory Coast, a UMass guard during the 2002-03 season.
The son of an oil company engineer and an economist, Stephane grew up in Gabon's capital of Libreville. He says the Gabonese know a little more about us than we do about them.
"We take geography classes," said Lasme, 23, one of UMass' three captains. English is taught as a foreign language in high school, which lasts seven years in Gabon, but there's little opportunity to practice it.
Lasme came to the U.S. in 2003 to become fluent in English and hopefully find a college.
"He knew a little bit of English, like 'good morning' and good afternoon,' " said his cousin, Serge Lapeby, who gave Lasme a home in Boston. "But he had to learn the culture, the language, the colder weather - that was a bit of a challenge - and the lifestyle.
"It was his first time away from home," Lapeby said. "It was very tough at first."
Originally from Gabon, Lapeby, 34, helped Lasme understand a very different world.
"When he got here, that's when the journey started," Lapeby said. "In Gabon, everybody wants to be like Stephane. He's a big star there."
But by U.S. basketball standards? Lapeby had no idea, even though Lasme plays for Gabon's national team.
"I'd had a friend, a coach, call me from Gabon - he said Stephane was a pretty good player," Lapeby said. "But Stephane came here in the winter, so he couldn't play outdoors."
Lasme found a gym at Boston's Emmanuel College, which also had a language school and, Lapeby said, tried to recruit Lasme to play for its team.
"That's when we learned about Divisions I, II and III," Lapeby said.
As an NCAA Division III school, Emmanuel could not offer athletic scholarships. Enter Steve Lappas, the UMass coach who attended a game of high school-age players in New Jersey in July of 2003, looking for possible 2004-05 recruits.
In an age of thorough, sophisticated recruiting, Lasme was a rarity: a 20-year-old prospect no one knew anything about. The feeling was mutual.
"I didn't even know what coach Lappas looked like," Lasme said. But Lappas was so impressed by Lasme's raw skills that he offered him a scholarship for that September, after watching him play once.
As a freshman, Lasme averaged 3.2 points, shot 44 percent from the line, and was in constant foul trouble.
"Basketball in Gabon is less physical than it is here," said Lasme, who plays at a wiry 190 pounds. "Here, you have to really learn to use your body.
"Coaches here worry about the little things, too," he said. "There, they just let you play."
Lasme was a quick and eager learner. In two years, his scoring has tripled (to 9.3 per game this year), and his rebounding has doubled (to 6.4).
His free-throw touch zoomed to 70 percent last year. This year, he's shooting 58 percent from the floor and 64 percent from the line, he's far less foul-prone, and Ford says UMass must find ways to get him the ball in the low post more often.
Gabon is a 12-hour flight away, but while Lasme likes it here, he never forgets home. He has one treasured picture of his mother, Onanga Liliane, a retired economist.
"I call home now when we're on the road," he said.
The hectic pace is another adjustment. Because Gabon is near the ocean and the ground is not very firm, its tallest buildings are only 25 stories.
"I don't like the rush of the (U.S.) cities much," Lasme said. "I like the slower pace.
"At first, I got tired of speaking English all the time, too," he said. "I'm comfortable with it now, though. Most of the time."
What he likes most about America, he said, are its people.
"They try to make it easier for you," he said. "They try to help you through."
The feeling is mutual, forging a bond that is growing beyond points, rebounds and even all those blocked shots.
"You never see Stephane without a smile," Ford said. "He's so good-natured that when he does have something to say, the players listen to him. That he's adapted so well, and is a leader, speaks to the kind of person he is."