When Stephane Lasme takes the court today against Partizan Belgrade he may be thinking about more than the fact that he is facing his former team. The forward, who joined Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, may also be thinking about how far he's come and what lies ahead.
In 2003, the then 20-year-old Lasme left his native Gabon for Massachusetts and an unknown journey, foremost with the goal of playing college basketball to pay for his education.
Lasme had no family support network in place, a la Omri Casspi, when he arrived in the U.S. His father, an economist, and his mother, a biology teacher, would have prefered that he study medicine, or law. He also did not have an agent, in contrast to Casspi, and had no real clue about how the business of professional basketball is run.
Instead he had Serge Lapeby, a Gabon expatriate who was friends with Lasme's basketball coach and had agreed to be his guardian.
When the French- and Myene-speaker wasn't taking intensive English classes five days a week, eight hours a day, he looked for pick-up basketball games in the neighborhood and joined every training camp he could. A major disadvantage was the fact that he only began to learn the game at 15, after becoming too tall - he is now 2.03 meters - to pursue his dream of playing soccer.
Previously unknown to any major school - no Gabon player had ever made it to Division One, nor did he even know what that was before his arrival - Lasme caught the eye of Steve Lappas, who was the coach of the University of Massachusetts. Less than a year after arriving, Lasme was playing for the Atlantic 10 Conference team. He went on to be named A-10 defensive player of the year twice, for his prowess at rebounding in blocking, finishing second in the NCAA in rebounding his senior season.
"From where we started to where we are today... wow!" Lapeby told The Boston Globe months before Golden State selected him 46th in the 2007 NBA draft.
One and done
Making the NBA was an incredible feat, but staying there was another story. He got little playing time in 2007-08 and finished the season with the Miami Heat. Despite putting up better numbers there, the team let him go when it revamped its roster for the following season.
Since childhood Lasme has been known as a quiet type, but Maccabi teammates describe him as an outgoing guy with a sharp sense of humor. His apparent introversion may disguise his ambitiousness and calculating ways. After all he endured he did not choose Partizan Belgrade last year and Maccabi this year in order to develop his career in Europe, but rather in order to find a way back to the NBA, according to a Serbian journalist who covered him last season.
The latest move has not served his cause so well, as the more individual-oriented Pini Gershon has switched him from the four spot to being center. His numbers are off on most indicators - from 10.6 points per game on 49.6 percent shooting with 6.6 rebounds per game to 6.6 ppg, 45.7 percent and 4.6 rpg. The only stat where he continues to stand tall is blocking, averaging as he did last Euroleague season 1.5 per game - good enough for third in the league. Alas, Maccabi may not do for him what it did for Anthony Parker.
Maccabi never recruited a true center and instead Gershon played Lasme with D'Or Fischer, who has a similar style. As of late, Gershon has gone to having one big man and four smaller guys, rotating the two. "Lasme's shooting may not be classic, but he knows how to take care of the ball and how to score," says Fischer of his teammate. "It's exciting to see him rebound and block. I really love playing with him."
Andrew Wisniewski, Maccabi's point guard, says there's an advantage to playing the two at the same time. "When Fischer and Lasme play together, our opponent's guards have a really tough time penetrating and scoring," he explains. "We tried it in the past, and I think they did a great job on defense and controlled the paint."
There is no disagreement about two aspects of Lasme's game. First, his free throw shooting needs improvement, and the aggressiveness he brings to the floor fuels the special atmosphere that has overtaken Maccabi in recent games. "His athleticism and speed, combined with his big heart, help us," adds Wisniewski.
Guy Pnini, a good friend of Lasme, says, "I really admire what Stephane has done. He started playing late, built himself up with his own two hands through hard work and didn't just happen to make it where he has."
The support from his teammates as well as the respect from Gershon have apparently turned around Lasme's thinking. Last week, he sounded less set on the NBA and told close friends about plans to build a basketball school back in Gabon.
On the matter of the NBA, he said, "I'm already 27, a father to a little girl, and I have other considerations beyond a career. I'm happy at Maccabi Tel Aviv and Europe in general, so if Maccabi offers me an extension, I'll weigh it in a positive light."
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