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After the quake: Skal Labissiere’s incredible journey to Kentucky

Skal Labissiere's journey from the aftershock of the earthquake in Haiti to becoming John Calipari's prized recruit at Kentucky this season.

It was like a vision, he says, when a wall of his family’s third-floor apartment split wide-open, and before him in the late-afternoon light flashed their Port-au-Prince neighborhood, Canapé Vert. Inside and outside were merging, and then everything was caving in. In the violent rumbling of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake that began at 4:53 p.m. on Jan. 12, 2010, and ravaged the Haitian capital, he was descending. Three stories became one pile of concrete, rebar, walls and possessions. The light disappeared.

At first, Skal Labissiere could only hear, which at least meant he was alive. His nine-year-old brother, Elliott, was crying out, which meant he was alive too. Their mother, Ema, was nearby—the three of them had run into the living room when the tremors started—saying prayers to get right with God, which meant she was alive but maybe not expecting to be for long.

Skal tried to get right with God too but became upset. “I’m 13,” he yelled to his mother. “I’m not old enough to die.”

“We die at any age,” she replied. “This is life.”

Skal didn’t like that answer. He’d been taught that it was O.K. to pray for outcomes, and what he’d prayed for most was to move to the U.S. to play basketball. On clear days from the Labissieres’ apartment, located between the National Palace, downtown, and the wealthier homes of Pétion-ville, he could look a few miles south to the ridge of Boutilier mountain, the green trees interrupted by a cluster of antennas and dishes—the hardware that relayed images of the NBA to Haiti, and to the eyes of a boy in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, home to 10.3 million people and not a single hardwood basketball court.

There was little he could see now. Not the mountain; not the second-floor neighbor boy, dead and buried well below; not his father, Lesly, who had been in the courtyard after returning from work. There was no earthly way Skal could have ever seen that this calamity was his way out of Haiti—that in this life, which guarantees no fairness in its outcomes, an earthquake that killed more than 100,000 would also fast-track him to the U.S., where over the next five years he would develop into the top-ranked recruit in the class of 2015, a 6' 11½" power forward navigating different kinds of chaos on his way to the 2016 NBA draft.

A fallen wall pressed on his back and forced him into a painful crouch, butt over heels, elbows over knees. He could hear people screaming outside. He prayed in a small, slanted space, trying not to choke in the dusty darkness.

Hitting a Wall: Labissiere had a comfortable life in Port-au-Prince, but his hoops options were limited.

Hitting a Wall: Labissiere had a comfortable life in Port-au-Prince, but his hoops options were limited.

*****

Skal Labissiere begins his days in the black predawn. On a Friday in June, outside a YMCA in Olive Branch, Miss., a suburb southeast of Memphis, there is no wind to muffle the wake-up chirping of the birds. Beyond a chain-link fence, the surface of the outdoor pool-slash-waterpark is a mirror, reflecting the Y’s exterior lights. The interior lights flicker to life just before opening time, 5 a.m. At 5:04, a gray Chevy Avalanche pickup truck pulls into the parking lot.

Andreus Shannon, a skills trainer, and his 19-year-old student emerge. The student is long and slender, with the beginnings of an Afro atop a high forehead; he has a gentle smile and skin at least one shade of brown lighter than he had as a young boy, when he played soccer for hours under the Hispaniola sun. On his feet are the red Nike Hyperdunks that he received last April while starring in Portland at the swoosh-sponsored Hoop Summit, as the lone player with Haiti on his jersey. His shoes are already tied tight.

The kid checking him into the gym asks, “When you heading to Kentucky?”

“Less than a week,” Labissiere replies, smiling.

“They say you’re gonna be a starter.”

“I can’t wait.”

“Hey, do me a favor. When you play Carolina, don’t beat ’em.”

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Labissiere (La-BISS-ee-air) laughs and dribbles down the hallway, declining to promise mercy in a possible NCAA tournament meeting with North Carolina, one of the favorites to win the 2016 national title—along with Kentucky. He is indeed expected to start this season, the next big thing in a frontcourt that has produced 10 first-round picks in the last six NBA drafts, but none with a road to Lexington like Labissiere’s.

He and Shannon have the court all to themselves. The only competing noise is the buzzing of halogen lights. A one-handed shot from the right block goes up at 5:13 a.m., the first in a progression that eventually takes Labissiere beyond the three-point line, with steady commentary. “Bring your arm like this,” Shannon says after a baseline misfire, mimicking a fully extended follow-through. “Remember to lock your elbow.” These corrections are minor; Labissiere is an impressive shooter for his size, with a fluid release and high arc. It’s evident why many pro scouts have him atop their 2016 draft boards: He has a LaMarcus Aldridge–like offensive ceiling—as an athletic stretch-four who can shoot and run the floor—with the rim-protection instincts and agility to make up for a wingspan that’s considered just average . . . at 7'2".

Labissiere has been doing these workouts for three years, ever since his American guardian, Gerald Hamilton, watched local star Torri Lewis win a three-point contest and vowed to get whoever was training her to train Labissiere. Lewis is typically at the Y around 5 a.m. too, but she left for Ole Miss on a basketball scholarship a few weeks earlier, and Labissiere, on the verge of departure for Kentucky, feigns concern for Shannon. “What are you going to do now?” Labissiere asks in the lilting English he has worked so hard to master, after arriving in the U.S. speaking only French and Haitian Creole. “Are you going to cry today?”

Shannon holds back his tears, but he will miss a kid he’s never had to motivate. “Two years ago,” Shannon recalls, “Skal told me, ‘People talk like I’ve already made it, like I’m going to go to the league. What people don’t realize is, I haven’t made it, and that’s not what my goal is. I don’t just want to make it to the NBA, I want to be a Hall of Famer, the best of the best.’ ”

That goal has Labissiere doing multiple workouts before 11 a.m. At the second, with his strength-and-conditioning coach, Raheem Shabazz, Labissiere does seated, plyometric box jumps under a scalding sun. According to Shabazz, when Kentucky coach John Calipari made his official recruiting visit in September 2014, he took video of Labissiere leaping from a seated position on an 18-inch box and landing on a 36-inch box, and sent it to the Wildcats’ strength coach, asking, “Can any of our guys, right now, do this?”

The response: “HELL, NO.”

Today, when Labissiere sets a personal best of 46 ⅘ inches, Shabazz exclaims, “F--- you, J.J. Watt! You do yours standing up”—for those unversed in the oeuvre of YouTube box jumpers, the ultimate video depicts the freakish Texans defensive end landing a 61-inch jump—“but Skal does it sitting down!”

As Labissiere stands atop the boxes, a vista of an undeveloped cul-de-sac is there to savor. The box conqueror of mid-South suburbia, via Haiti, declines to take in the view. He descends, carefully, and gets ready to jump again.

Labissiere boxing with trainer Raheem Shabazz at Shabazz's house in Cordova, Tenn., in June.

Labissiere boxing with trainer Raheem Shabazz at Shabazz's house in Cordova, Tenn., in June.

*****

Lightning slashes the early-evening August sky, off in the lowland closer to the ocean. Traffic sputters along Avenue Delmas—Chinese motorbikes, tropically painted pickup trucks called tap-taps (that function as buses, with bench seating in their cabs), white trucks with un painted on their hoods, all dodging human overflow from the sidewalks. Smoke from a street vendor’s cooking fire creeps over the eight-foot concrete walls of Quisqueya Christian, a prep school whose grounds hide one of Port-au-Prince’s best basketball courts, a grid of blue plastic tiles atop asphalt. A game of two on two is in progress under the lights. Past the baseline there are empty bleachers and a beige wall—significant because it’s the backdrop of an artifact. “That,” says Jasson Valbrun, a former point guard at Labissiere’s old school (College Canado-Haitien) who is now the commissioner of Port-au-Prince’s interscholastic league, “is where the picture was taken. Skal and Titanic.”

Labissiere, at age 13, stands with Pierre Valmera at Quisqueya Christian School in Port-au-Prince in Dec. 2009.

Labissiere, at age 13, stands with Pierre Valmera at Quisqueya Christian School in Port-au-Prince in Dec. 2009.

The last known photo of Labissiere before the earthquake dates from Dec. 9, 2009. His Canado-Haitien academic uniform, a white, short-sleeve button-down with epaulets, hangs loose from his bony shoulders. He is a wisp. Next to him is Pierre Valmera, whose boat-sized feet inspired his nickname. He grew to a wide-bodied 6'8" and, from ’03–04 through ’06–07, was part of a succession of Haitians who played for Union University, an NAIA school in Jackson, Tenn. While on a break from a pro season in Switzerland, Valmera was laying groundwork for a foundation he’d eventually call POWERForward International, collecting contact info for Haitians worthy of invites to local camps—Labissiere had been nominated by his coach at Canado—and maybe recommendations to U.S. colleges.

Labissiere, deducing that Valmera was his best shot at playing in the U.S., followed up with a Facebook message on Dec. 26, 2009. Valmera phoned Labissiere’s father during the second week of January, just days before the earthquake, but Valmera had never helped anyone younger than 18 get to the States, and Labissiere felt there was little chance his parents would allow him to be the first. They were protective, and had carved out a disciplined, stable existence for their kids amid Port-au-Prince’s third-world poverty: Ema was a kindergarten principal and radio journalist, Lesly a carpenter who doled out whoopings if his boys stepped out of line, telling them they weren’t allowed to cry. “My father would not have sent me off to live with some strangers,” Skal says. “It’s not like I was living in a bad situation.”

Until the earthquake, that is—which Skal survived due to a streak of fortunate events, a streak that continued even after he was pulled out of the rubble. When the apartment building fell, a computer desk bore much of the weight of the wall that was pressing against Skal’s back. Lesly had built furniture for the apartment, sturdy wooden pieces, including the boys’ bunk bed—and that desk. It is possible that his craftsmanship kept his son from being flattened.

At the time of the quake, Lesly was lingering in the courtyard, trying to straighten the Fisher-Price hoop that his boys had dunked out of whack. After the building collapsed, and with the help of neighbors, he began excavating, carefully, with the one tool he could find: a weightlifting bar. It took three hours to dig his family out, and although Skal’s painful crouch left him unable to walk at first, he was back on his feet in two weeks, thanks to his mother’s consistent massaging of his leg muscles.

By then the Labissieres, like many survivors, were living in a tent. It was pitched just outside Ema’s kindergarten, where some facilities still functioned. But Skal’s school, Canado-Haitien—four stories of brutalist concrete in Canapé Vert—had been destroyed. With his life and education in disarray, his parents were receptive to alternative living arrangements.

Or as Gerald Hamilton puts it, “That’s when the Lord sent the little chubby guy—that’s me—to come get [Skal].” Shortly after the earthquake, Valmera was contacted by Hamilton, an information technology specialist from Olive Branch who had learned about Union’s connections to Haiti. A basketball junkie and church youth-group leader, Hamilton says he became fascinated, a decade ago, by a story he read about a Sudanese refugee who was playing basketball, and tried, unsuccessfully, to offer guardianship. “He never got that idea out of his system,” says Hamilton’s wife, Sheneka, and in 2009 they received 501(c)(3) status for a charity, Reach Your Dream, which aims to help disadvantaged international athletes. By February 2010, with Valmera’s help, Hamilton was working on a plan to bring two Haitian prospects—Labissiere and Samuel Jean-Gilles, a 6'2", 17-year-old guard—to live with his family and attend Evangelical Christian School in nearby Cordova, Tenn.

After winning the MVP of the Fab Frosh Camp in Atlanta in July 2011, Labissiere started received college scholarship offers.

After winning the MVP of the Fab Frosh Camp in Atlanta in July 2011, Labissiere started received college scholarship offers.

In July 2010, on their second trip to the U.S. embassy in Haiti—after Hamilton flew to Port-au-Prince to meet the boys’ families and provide documentation about ECS—the two teens were approved for visas. In August they flew from Port-au-Prince to Miami, then Dallas, then Memphis, where they were picked up by the Hamiltons. Labissiere was the less-advanced player of the two, but it soon became clear he was the bigger prospect: At his first national showcase, the Fab Frosh Camp in Atlanta in July 2011, he was named MVP. Recruiting letters followed, first from Detroit, then Tennessee, Arkansas and North Carolina. Labissiere was unbothered that most of them misspelled his first name “Skai.”