The Wonderful, Terrible, Hopeful Journey of Skal Labissiere

At 14, Skal Labissiere left a Haiti devastated by disaster and followed his basketball dream to the United States, and the NBA. It wasn't any easier than it sounds.

by Seerat Sohi
Jul 29 2016, 7:02pm

Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

In a half-empty gym at the Cox Pavilion at Las Vegas Summer League, just for a moment, Skal Labissiere trails the action. His seven-foot frame slinks across the court with grace and sneaky speed, and when he finds some cushion on the right wing, he corrals a pass, hesitates with a ball-fake to the corner, and unleashes a three-pointer. He hovers, and balance and posture and inborn intuition do not betray him. The ball is in the bottom of the net, and visions of LaMarcus Aldridge and Anthony Davis follow him back up the floor.

Yes, it's the Summer League, but also this is what a modern NBA big man is supposed to look like: he needs the skills and acumen to space the floor, to play inside with a smooth low-post game, to jump out on the pick-and-roll to guard smaller players, and to protect the rim. On a good day, that is the type of player Skal Labissiere appears to be.

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Appearances matter a lot for people in Labissiere's position. The Haitian-born big man headlined Kentucky's freshmen class last year and was seen as a surefire lottery pick. By draft night, after a season of frustratingly passive play and brief blips of brilliance, he was more widely seen as a high-reward gamble. The Sacramento Kings took him 28th overall. How this happened—how he rose and how he slipped, and where he goes from here—is a complicated question, but it's not the most interesting one where Labissiere is concerned. The bigger question is how, considering that he was trapped beneath rubble after an earthquake disintegrated his home, Labissiere made it here at all.

Labissiere after being selected No. 28 in the draft. Photo by Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Ten seconds on January 12, 2010, mark the moment that split Labissiere's life in two.

Riled up from basketball practice, Labissiere charged into his house after school. Rice was on the dinner table at his family's home, a modest apartment in a three-story complex in Canapé Vert, a neighborhood on the southern tip of Port-au-Prince. Labissiere jetted into the bathroom to wash his hands. He was not yet a vessel for the hopes of his family, friends, and fans; he was just a kid looking at himself in the mirror, a lanky 13-year-old whose developing 6'7" frame had only recently guided him to the basketball court. Labissiere couldn't have imagined that he'd be telling the story of what came next "'till I'm 40," or that within six months he would leave his home permanently.

Then the earthquake struck. A wall collapsed on Labissiere's back, and forced him into a crouch that would make his legs go numb for weeks. Underneath the rubble, he couldn't see a thing. He couldn't move. The only hint of the outside world were screams: cries for help from families, friends, a whole community of voices outside, pleading for familiar voices to respond. Labissiere and his family, trapped inside, were screaming only for recognition, signaling for anyone at all who could hear them to help. Labissiere did this, too, until the moment came when he stopped believing help would arrive.

"After 30 minutes or so, I just physically gave up," he says. There's no point in trying to scream, he remembers thinking. Nobody's gonna hear us. Stuck in that crouch, Labissiere's faith numbed with his legs. He pictured the end—of his dreams of basketball and the future, and of his life. He assumed that his father, nowhere in sight, was already gone.

"That's when my dad came on top of the rubble and yelled my mom's name out," Labissiere says. "[It] definitely opens your eyes about life. Before that, me and my little brother complained about things that we didn't have. After that experience, we were way more thankful for life. You see how quickly things can change, whether it's from good to bad or bad to good."

After his family escaped, they pitched a tent at the school where his mother taught, in the same schoolyard where Labissiere and his classmates once chased soccer balls around in the crowded after-school camps. It was now packed with displaced families, and noisy with the sounds of people weeping and mourning.

Labissiere waxes nostalgic when talking about the Haiti of six years ago and a childhood he describes as "carefree" and "fun." Shortly before the earthquake struck is also when Gerald Hamilton first contacted his family. Hamilton had just started charity foundation, Reach Your Dream, which he told the family was designed to help talented international athletes from disadvantaged nations. The pitch was that Labissiere would leave Haiti to live with Hamilton and his wife in Memphis, where he could continue his studies and further develop as a prospect in a more competitive environment. Labissiere's father, Lesly, a college professor, was dubious; their family was not desperate, and he had some reasonable reservations about sending his 13-year-old son, who didn't speak a lick of English, to live with strangers in another country.

Labissiere with Kentucky last season. Photo by Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

But things change. A floor shakes, a living room vanishes into debris, a family escapes, just barely, and spends a night sleeping the street. Desperation, the key missing ingredient in Hamilton's appeal, sets in.

And so Labissiere, with Hamilton's help, applied for a student visa, alongside Haitian prospect Samuel Jean-Gilles, to attend Evangelical Christian School in Memphis. They were rejected twice, until Hamilton flew down to Haiti and spoke to the embassy himself in July. By August, both boys were in Memphis.

Later, Hamilton became the center of a controversy when allegations arose that his foundation attempted to profit from Labissiere's considerable talent. The Cliff's Notes version is mostly he said, he said: Hamilton was investigated by the NCAA for telling recruiters they had to donate to Reach Your Dream if they wanted access to Labissiere, an allegation he denied and which was eventually dropped. He also sent Jean-Gilles, who was not nearly as promising a prospect, packing; the teenager got a one-way ticket to Boston, ostensibly for being a bad influence. That decision was made, allegedly, after Hamilton was told Jean-Gilles could never be a top recruit. Reach Your Dream's website, for what it's worth, is a shrine to both Labissiere and some faint notion of dreaming big; it features inspiring quotes from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt and Henry David Thoreau, but is otherwise rudimentary. The "Latest News" section contains articles featuring only Labissiere. The gallery, save for one album, is bare: it's called "Haiti trip."

None of that is unusual in the gross gray market of prep basketball, and none of it is exactly new, either. It's worth noting that Labissiere speaks glowingly of the Hamiltons—Gerald, his wife, Sheneka, and their three children—and calls them family. King says they are planning on moving to Sacramento to be closer to Labissiere. Figuring out the truth might be impossible here; it may also be beside the point.

There's no easy way to understand this. The worst thing that happened to Labissiere's home country—an earthquake that killed over 100,000 people, displaced and injured thousands more, and left his family homeless—started the chain of events that made his NBA dream possible. There's no point in analyzing the countless directions Labissiere's life could have gone awry, or ended, and at any rate he's not interested in doing it. Because of the value ascribed to his talent, he lives in a world in which someone can save your life and exploit you in the same breath. He's an optimist, and goes to great lengths to make clear how grateful he is. What Labissiere knows for certain is that Hamilton flew down to Haiti to get him, took him into his home, fed him and guided his faith, and has played what is essentially the role of a father from the time Labissiere was 14. So he lives by the code of a refugee-turned-immigrant and focuses on his work.

"My whole thing," he says, "is whenever something happens, I just look to move forward from it."

Hope is what brought Hamilton to Haiti, and Labissiere to Memphis. There were other things leveraged on it, other considerations and investments, but hope is the fundamental element in Labissiere's story, unfinished as it is. Hope is what attracts fans, scouts, agents, and vultures alike. Gerald Hamilton could be one of those vultures, or he could have been staving them off. When Labissiere's family sent their son to America, they could only pray Hamilton was the savior he sold himself to be.

Near the end of his freshman year, Labissiere bought a Pomsky, a Pomeranian and Husky mix, and named him Dash. He became a big fan of The Office, and its sly sarcasm is evident in Labissiere's own sense of humor today. But that comfort was hard earned. Labissiere landed in Memphis and didn't speak English; Evangelical Christian School had no French or Creole teachers. Through hard work and inventiveness, he learned through trial and error, Google translate, and picking things up off his peers. All that while waking at dawn to practice, keeping up with chores, maintaining a janitorial position at the Hamiltons' church, and crash-coursing his way through schoolwork.

"It was hard at first," he reflects. "Not knowing English, not being able to communicate the way I wanted to. I did feel like an outsider. I really had to study even harder than regular kids just to learn my stuff. Once I got over that hump, school became easier and everything else did."

Labissiere plans to venture back to Haiti soon, to set up basketball camps, connect with philanthropists, and potentially start an academy. The prospect of returning for the first time in years fills him with excitement: spending time with his sister, embracing the friends he's kept in touch with, reconciling the Haiti of his memories with the unrecognizably altered one that he left.

"He has a strong affection in his heart for trying to help kids [in Haiti]," says his agent, Travis King, of Independent Sports & Entertainment. "To give them the opportunity he had to get off the island and excel in the States in high school and college."

Labissiere and fans in Rupp Arena. Photo by Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

In an era where all the information needed to scout a player—from well-sourced reports of off-court tendencies to pick-and-roll Synergy stats from high school games—is at every team's fingertips, the NBA draft has, however paradoxically, tipped toward the unknown. The Sudanese prospect Thon Maker, for instance, successfully opted to skip college and was drafted tenth by the Milwaukee Bucks. The mystery is a big part of the appeal.

At Kentucky, Labissiere's flaws were made plain. He averaged 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds in 15.6 minutes per game. He got yelled at a lot, and for every game in which he dominated—games like the one against LSU when Labissiere scored 18 points on eight-of-ten shooting, got nine boards, and blocked six shots in 25 minutes—there were multiple others in which he barely played, barely registered, or both. After the struggle of the previous five years—even in Memphis, a stress fracture derailed his junior year, and transferring schools made him ineligible to play as a senior—Kentucky was supposed to be a showcase and a chance to develop. Instead Labissiere lost his starting spot, saw his draft stock fall, and had fans and commentators alike question his toughness because he was still learning the intricacies of rebounding. Labissiere turned to the one piece of stable ground he had since landing in America, his faith. It did not fail him.

"I grew up Catholic," Labissiere says. "My guardian's dad is a pastor, very involved in the church. They really helped me with my faith and my role as a Christian." Joined by a teammate, Dillon Pulliam, he went to a party held by the Christian Student Fellowship, a campus ministry. That's where he met Jarrod Polson, a Kentucky basketball alum on the CSF development team, who described Labissiere as kind and "wise beyond his years."

"It really helped me through the year," Labissiere says. "It was a way for me to get away from everything else, outside of basketball. Especially when things [were] not going my way down there, I really needed that."

"He would come in and say, 'Faith is really why I'm sticking to this,'" Polson says. "In one of the later Bible studies, he kinda got vulnerable and was talking about how, during the season, he was thinking, 'Did I make the right decision by coming to Kentucky?'"

"It is what it is," Labissiere says when I ask him whether he regrets enrolling at Kentucky. "I'm not going to say I regret it. I'm just glad to be here. That was always my dream, to be here. I'm glad I made it."

When you've made it. Photo by Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

At Summer League, Labissiere embodied both sides of the hope that summons basketball diehards, like pilgrims, to the desert in the dead of July: the opportunity to witness raw, untethered potential, as well as to be near to notoriety. Labissiere was one of the Kings' top performers, averaging 11 points and 5.8 rebounds in 24 minutes per game, and he improved as the tournament went on. He scored 19 points in the Kings' final game, a loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

"At the college level, guys gotta focus on going to class, academic advisors, recruiting," says King. "They only get to work out for 20 hours a week, including practice." Labissiere's tumultuous upbringing never afforded him the luxury of simply playing basketball; for all his work, he's played a lot less than many of his peers in the draft class. "With the NBA, you've got your key to get into the arena any time you want. You can call your trainer or one of your assistant coaches to work out at 11 o'clock at night. I think that's really what he was looking for."

"He's very good at taking criticism," Kings assistant coach Jason March says. "When you've been through some of the things he's been through, you tend to put things into perspective. It's just a game. I just told him, 'Tomorrow in film, I'm gonna go at you, so get ready for it.' He'll be able to take it."

Growing up in Haiti, Labissiere played on a basketball hoop outside his home every day, dunking it into oblivion. His father was outside trying to fix the hoop when the earthquake hit. Three hours later, with the help of some neighbors and one of Skal's errant barbells, he dug through the tattered remains of their home and found his family. It's just one of the many ways basketball has saved Labissiere's life.

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