Earthquake

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One thing I always looked forward to as a kid was electricity.

Even before the earthquake, we had a lot of problems with power in Haiti. My little brother and I had a Nintendo GameCube growing up, and we loved to play NBA Live. I always played as Kobe. He was my favorite. Or Tracy McGrady. This was back when he was with Houston, so T-Mac was pretty good in that game.

But when our games ended, my brother and I would have to race to manually save our stats or our season progress, just in case the electricity was about to go out. Sometimes we didn’t make it to the end of the game. I would get so mad when I was having a great game and the power would cut out right in the middle of it.

Power outages were just part of life in Haiti.

We called them blackouts.

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Each of the small towns that make up Port-au-Prince had scheduled times where the electricity would be shut off. Most of the time, in my neighborhood of Canapé Vert, it went off at around 2 p.m. and came back on at 7 or 8 p.m. But sometimes it would go out in the morning and it wouldn’t come back on for the whole day. There was a schedule, but a lot of times it was pretty random. You just never knew.

There are about three million people who live in and around Port-au-Prince, and there were three or four hundred who lived in my small neighborhood alone. The house I lived in was three stories, with one family living on each floor. My family lived at the top. It had a big front yard and a courtyard with a basketball hoop, and every day, when the power went out, our front yard would fill with neighborhood kids and a huge soccer game would break out. It would last all day, until either it got dark or the power came back on and everybody would rush inside to take a hot shower, watch TV or play video games before the power went out again.

You could tell whether or not the electricity was on by how many kids were outside.

Soccer is the main sport in Haiti. Basketball isn’t very popular there. So I played soccer my whole life growing up. But when I was about 12 years old, I started growing up too tall to play soccer. I was already 6′ 5″ by the time I was 12, and the tallest soccer players in the world that I knew of were Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who’s 6′ 5″, and Peter Crouch, who’s 6′ 7″. I was only 12 years old and already about that size.

And I was still growing.

I was growing out of my pants so fast that my mom would have to take me to the tailor regularly to get measured so she could buy me new ones. We would buy them a little big so I could grow into them, but I still grew out of them before they even got worn out. And my shoe size changed right along with my age. When I was 11, I wore size 11 tennis shoes. I wore size 12 when I was 12, size 13 when I was 13 — all the way up until size 16.

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Since I was too tall to play soccer and I was still growing, my mom suggested I try playing basketball.

There’s no such thing as college basketball in Haiti, and we didn’t even get American college basketball on TV. Only NBA games. One day, my dad sat me down on the couch, turned on the game and said, “See that guy? That’s Kobe Bryant.”

I saw the moves — the jab step, the pump-fake, the fadeaway — and I was hooked. The Lakers were on TV a lot down there, so I got to see a lot of Kobe.

After that, instead of getting into the big neighborhood soccer games on our front lawn like we always had, my brother and I drew a three-point line with some chalk around the basketball hoop in the courtyard and started trying out all the moves we had seen Kobe do on TV. We did that for hours every day. No matter what the weather was like. Rain or sun, we were out there. Especially during blackouts.

You could tell whether or not the electricity was on by how many kids were outside.

There aren’t many indoor basketball courts in Haiti. The whole time I lived there, I only played on one. We always played outside. At my school, we had two outdoor courts. They were small concrete courts and they were the international style, so the lines around the paint were angled up to the free throw line. There was no three-point line and the backboard was round and plain white, and the orange square in the middle was missing. We had maybe 2,000 kids in our school, so there were always lots of them out there either playing or standing on the sidelines. If you lost a game, you had to wait five or six games before you got back on the court. And we hated waiting, so it was very competitive.

That’s where I really learned to play basketball — when I was 12–13 years old and playing pickup out on those courts. I also played for my school, and I had a great coach who taught me how to shoot a jumper and helped me develop my skills. But it was out on those small courts playing against the other kids — and in the courtyard at home with my brother — where I really started to develop, and I really started to take the game seriously.

By the time I was 13, I was already 6′ 7″. So my family and I started thinking about my long-term future as a basketball player.

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That’s when my coach took me to meet Pierry Valmera, a former Haitian basketball player who went on to play college basketball in the U.S. He put me and my dad in contact with a man in Memphis named Gerald Hamilton, who had started a program where he helped international kids get to the States so they could play basketball and get an education. He was interested in being my host and bringing me to Memphis.

My dad had been a college teacher in Haiti and my mom was a kindergarten teacher. In comparison to how most families lived, we didn’t have it so bad. So it’s not like my dad was looking to send me off for a better life or anything like that. He just wanted to do what was best for me. And at that time, I was only 13 years old. I didn’t know Mr. Hamilton or his family, and I didn’t speak any English. So my dad was very hesitant to send me to the States. He told Mr. Hamilton he would have to think long and hard about it.

That was five days before the earthquake.

***

It was January 12, 2010. My dad picked me up from school, and when we got home we noticed that our courtyard basketball hoop was busted up. We used to dunk on it all the time, so the rim was crooked.

Normally, my dad would have just walked right by it. But for some reason, on that day, he decided to stay outside and fix the goal while I went in the house.

When I walked inside, my brother was out on the balcony and my mom was sitting next to a little computer desk my dad had made. There was food on the table — rice and a few other things. I remember I had had a really good day at basketball practice that day and I couldn’t wait to tell my family about it at dinner. So I went straight into the bathroom to wash my hands and get ready to eat.

That’s when the house started to shake.

I knew what it was right away. We had had an earthquake back in 2004. It wasn’t a big one, but I recognized the shaking. So I ran from the bathroom straight to my mom. My brother did the same from where he was on the balcony. I got to her first. And just as my brother got to us, the house collapsed. The third-story floor fell from beneath us, and I remember seeing the light come in from outside as the walls and the roof broke apart. The whole thing sounded like thunder. Then everything went dark and silent.

When everything settled, the first thing I heard was my brother’s voice.

Mon pied! Mon pied!

He was yelling, in French, “My foot! My foot!”

He was a few feet away from me, and the computer desk that my mom had been sitting next to was pinned on top of his foot and beneath the wall.

I was trapped almost in a seated position, with my feet underneath me and my knees up in my chest. The same wall that had my brother’s foot pinned beneath the computer desk was laying on my back. I couldn’t move.

Then I turned and saw my mom. She had been cut by a piece of rebar and had blood all over her face.

I went crazy. I started screaming. I could hear other people screaming from their collapsed homes.

Aidez-moi! Aidez-moi!

It means, “Help me!”

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One voice I didn’t hear was my dad’s. He was the only one in my family not inside the house when it collapsed, so we didn’t know where he was or what had happened to him. We were just sitting there, waiting for him to show up.

We were stuck there for about three hours. But it felt like forever. My legs were folded under me so awkwardly that after a while, I couldn’t feel them. They were going numb, going dead. As the hours went by, I went from screaming, to praying, to silently thinking, I’m going to die.

My mom kept checking on my brother, reaching over and shaking his arm to make sure he was still awake —to make sure he was still alive.

Then I heard someone scream.

“Ema!”

That’s my mom’s name.

It was my dad.

When he found us, he grabbed a barbell from the weight bench that was outside and started jabbing it into the wall to break up the concrete and free me and my brother. Then my dad and a couple of other guys from the neighborhood got on top of the rubble and started digging us out. As they were digging, I remember the first thing I said to my dad:

“You promised me I was going to reach the NBA …”

For some reason, for those three hours, that was one of the things at the top of my mind. Maybe it was because making it to the NBA was a dream that I thought I suddenly wasn’t going to be able to reach …

I went from screaming, to praying, to silently thinking, I’m going to die.

I was the first one they pulled out. I couldn’t walk — I could barely move. The guys who were helping my dad carried me into the street where there was less debris, pulling me by my armpits with my dead legs dragging behind me. Then they pulled my mom and brother out, wiped the blood from my mom’s face, and wrapped my brother’s foot up and brought them out into the street with me. Everybody in the neighborhood who was still alive or trying to stay alive started gathering in the street. The entire block had been destroyed. There wasn’t a single house left standing.

By that time it was starting to get dark, and people went digging through the rubble for blankets and pillows. Then they would walk down the street and give whatever they had to whoever needed it.

The whole neighborhood slept in the street that night — a couple hundred of us. The aftershocks came every three to five minutes, and you’d hear people start calling out, “Jesus, Jesus!” Then the ground would go back to being still and the people back to being silent — until the next aftershock. I was lying down on the concrete, and every time I wanted to turn over someone had to lift my legs and rotate them for me because I couldn’t move them at all.

I wondered if I would ever be able to play basketball again.

My family and I only spent one night sleeping in the street. The next day, we found a ride to my mom’s school, which was about 15 minutes away and wasn’t as badly damaged as the homes in our neighborhood. The aftershocks lasted a few days, so we didn’t want to go inside what was left of the building. We set up a tent outside the school. And even when we eventually moved into one of the small, undamaged classrooms, we always slept close to the door. Just in case.

Every night you would go to sleep with the thought that you might wake up to the building collapsing around you.

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The hospitals were overloaded with people in much more serious condition than us, so our injuries went basically untreated. Not having any circulation in my legs for three hours had damaged the nerves, which is why I couldn’t feel them. My mom massaged my legs every day to help revive the nerves. As they started coming back, she’d stand me up in the classroom where we were staying and we’d slowly train my legs to walk again. She did the same with my brother, who had the same kinds of problems with his legs, which had been trapped under that computer desk.

It was about two weeks before I was able to walk again, and another few weeks after that until I could walk without limping.

The earthquake changed everything — for our country and for our family. But one thing it really changed was my dad’s opinion on whether or not I should go to the States. Haiti was a mess after the earthquake, and if there was a way for my dad to get me out, he was going to do it.

The phone lines were cut off, so Mr. Hamilton had no way of getting back in contact with us to restart our conversation about getting me to the States. It took a few days, but once he finally got ahold of us, he began calling every night, talking to my dad and working on filling out the documents we needed to get me a student visa. Mr. Hamilton had found me a school in Memphis, the Evangelical Christian School.

When we submitted the application, the documents the school sent to the Haitian embassy said I was required to know English before attending their school. So when I went to the embassy, they asked me questions in English. But I couldn’t answer them. I didn’t speak English.

So the embassy denied my application.

After that, Mr. Hamilton went back to the school and had them change the language on the documents to say that I didn’t have to know English before attending their school and that they would teach me English when I got there. They agreed to do so. Once that was done, we thought everything was good and we re-submitted my application.

But the embassy said something else wasn’t right, and they denied my application a second time.

This time, Mr. Hamilton went down to Haiti himself to speak to the appropriate people at the embassy about my application. We were going to apply for a third time, and this time, he wanted to make sure there were no issues.

On our third attempt, the embassy accepted my application.

And I don’t know if that would have been possible if Mr. Hamilton didn’t take it upon himself to go down to the Haitian embassy in person.

That process took almost seven months. So the earthquake hit in January, and in August, I left Port-au-Prince and my family for the United States. My family was still living in one of my mom’s kindergarten classrooms, and I was off to Memphis to play high school basketball.

***

The transition from Haiti to the U.S. was difficult. I didn’t speak any English, and they didn’t have a French teacher or translator at the school, so I had to learn English on my own. Not to mention that I had left my family in Haiti and was now living in a new city and country I’d never been to and with new people I’d never met before.

I was thrown right into basketball when I arrived in the States, so I was able to focus a lot of my nervous energy there, but there were a lot of adjustments I had to make on the court, too.

I was surprised with how athletic the players were, especially the smaller players. The guards were much faster and stronger than the guards back in Haiti. I was in the eighth grade and I was playing high school varsity basketball, so it was mostly because they were older. But they were also very skilled and very talented.

The length of the season was a big adjustment, too. In Haiti, you were lucky if you got to play 10 games in a season for your school. In Memphis, it was 30–40 games for the high school season and as many as 60 games for AAU.

The best part about it was that Memphis is a crazy basketball city. Seeing how passionate people were for the game made me feel really good about being there. You didn’t see that kind of passion for basketball in Haiti.

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Then, the day before the first game of my sophomore season, Mr. Hamilton came to me and told me Kentucky coach John Calipari was coming to the season opener the following night to watch me play. I had just recently watched an all-access special on Kentucky on TV, so I knew about coach Calipari and about UK. I was shocked when I found out that he wanted to come see me play.

The following night, with Coach Cal in the stands, I had an O.K. game. I think I might have had 17 points and 11 rebounds with a few blocks.

After that game, I got a call from Coach Cal.

“I’ve coached you before,” he said. “I’ve coached you in Marcus Camby and in Anthony Davis. And you can be one of those guys.”

And he offered me a scholarship on the spot — the first one he offered for the 2015 class.

I was only a sophomore, so I didn’t want to rush my decision. I took my time. I watched a lot of Kentucky basketball to see how Coach Cal interacted with his players and to learn what kind of coach he was. I still talked to and visited other schools.

Then I visited Kentucky, and it was just a different place. I saw how they worshipped basketball there, and I wanted to be a part of that.

So early in my senior season, I committed.

In high school, I learned the game of basketball like I never had in Haiti. At Kentucky, I learned how to work like I never had in Haiti or in high school.

Coach Cal has this saying: “Don’t let go of the rope.” It means that when things get hard, or when you get tired, or when things aren’t going your way, keep fighting. Keep pushing. I didn’t have the easiest freshman season at Kentucky. But I learned a lot about life, about myself and about my game that I know has prepared me for the next level.

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I think I’ve overcome a lot in my life — physically, mentally and emotionally. I’ve gone from Port-au-Prince, to Memphis, to Kentucky, taking important lessons from each, and now I’m heading to New York City for the NBA draft, where I’ll find out where I’ll write the next part of my story.

And my mom, my dad and my brother will be in attendance with me.

The earthquake changed hundreds of thousands of lives forever, and it also impacted me mentally and spiritually in a lot of ways. It showed me that life can be taken away from you at any moment. It showed me how fast your life could change — in a matter of seconds. Since then, I’ve been more appreciative of the things I have, including my ability to play the game of basketball.

One thing I always looked forward to as a kid was electricity. Now, after coming so close to losing everything — including my life — I have so much more to look forward to, in life, and on the basketball court. And I won’t take one bit of it for granted.

Draft Days: Skal Labissière (Episode One)

Soccer is a big sport in Haiti. I grew up playing my whole life. When I started growing up too tall for it, that’s when I switched to basketball. Around the age of 13 or 14, that's when I really started taking basketball seriously.

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