PHILADELPHIA – They were bouncing on one of those narrow dirt roads, pushing out of the cluttered downtown of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and out to the central plateau, the poorest part of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. The Philadelphia 76ers' Sam Dalembert traveled home to Haiti over the summer to scout a location for a children's academy on the outskirts of the city.
This was the country where Dalembert walked barefoot as a boy, where his grandmother used to invite his starving, homeless friends for a scrap of food and a night's sleep on sheets strewn on the floor. This is the most improbable birthing place of an NBA millionaire, the against-all-odds story in a sport where those sprout off trees.
A mayor had delivered Dalembert a plot of land for the construction, and the Samuel Dalembert Foundation and a non-profit partner, Mediashare, intended to soon commission an architect to make plans. He wanted it to be a place where the most determined, driven children could aspire to come to take academic and art classes and play sports. Here, there were no roads. No irrigation. People traveled miles to reach drinkable water. Dalembert didn't return to be a savior, just a loyal Haitian son.
"I know I can't save the world," Dalembert said late Wednesday in a private moment. "I know I can't save my country.
"But I thought I could save some kids there. …I thought I could give some hope, where there really isn't any."
Dalembert's friend Emmanuel was of Haitian descent, but had never visited the island of his ancestors. Apparently, this reaction comes with everyone who visits Haiti. No one is ever prepared for what they witness. How could somewhere so close to the United States be so impoverished, so third-world? Over the summer, Emmanuel walked the neighborhood in Port-au-Prince where Dalembert lived as a child, and his eyes grew wide with the poverty, the hunger, the sickness.
Who could survive this? Who could go to a fine American university, make it to the first round of the NBA draft, to an eventual $64 million contract?
Beyond the streets of Port-au-Prince, all the way out to the central plateau, Emmanuel kept asking: "Sam, how did you ever get out of here?"
Here Dalembert was, 28 years old, and that question washed over him with this odd mix of wonderment and confusion, of gratitude and guilt.
"And it made me think … why me?" Dalembert said. "Of all the people … why me? All these countries in the world where they play basketball, where they produce players and this skinny boy from Haiti…
He was almost sheepish retelling the story, because it seems silly to ask now. Why him? Well, now Sam Dalembert knows. For this earthquake, this devastation, has sobered him in a way nothing else ever could. Why did he get out, and make it big? Because they would need him now, because they need everyone. He's never been so sure of anything.
This had been the most tortured, cruelest day of Dalembert's life. He wanted to charter a flight to Port-au-Prince, but it wasn't possible. His family has mostly moved to the United States through the years, but there are still so many relatives, so many friends. He used his platform to tell the story of Haiti, and he did an endless run of interviews and pleaded for support. In something of a daze, Dalembert played in the Sixers' 93-92 loss to the New York Knicks and delivered 12 points and 21 rebounds.
The game had been over an hour now, and Dalembert had slipped on an "NBA Cares" gold shirt to tape a public service announcement in a side room of the Wachovia Center. When tragedy hits, the NBA is good this way. It had Yao Ming(notes) tape a message when an earthquake hit China, and now the league wanted Dalembert to do it for Haiti. Within hours, the PSA will play everywhere. It will reach the corners of the globe, and in a lot of places, for a lot of people, Sam Dalembert will be the face, the voice, of his anguished, suffering people. Hundreds of thousands could be dead in Haiti, and millions more will need help for sheer survival.
"We're tough people at heart," he said. "We deal with things the best we can. These people, they don't do anything to deserve this."
Dalembert left Haiti for Montreal at 14, moved to New Jersey to play high school basketball and ended up earning a scholarship to Seton Hall. His parents and siblings live in Florida, where his grandmother is desperate to know if her old family and friends survived, if anything, or anyone, in their old neighborhood isn't buried in the rubble.
As a young boy in Port-au-Prince, Dalembert grew too fast to stay in shoes. Those feet blew through them, and so he would walk barefoot through jagged streets. He thinks about his grandmother, his parents, about the value they placed on education, about possibilities, and how they gave him a reason to dream even when such despair surrounded him.
Throughout his childhood, there was something he always told his friends that made them laugh. Through the pain, he smiled for a moment on Wednesday night and remembered the way they roared at that goofy, gangly kid stumbling with those floppy feet when he'd tell them, "One of these days, I'm going to fit myself into a suitcase, go onto one of those planes, get out of the country and have a better life."
As much as he wanted something more, it still resonates within him that he never, ever thought they had it so bad there. "You would get used it," Dalembert said. "You can be in a worse place, but have good people around you. You just think this is the way people live until you come to America and go to the market and the chicken is clean over here."
Dalembert didn't have much in Port-au-Prince, but he always felt like he had a little more. As he rapidly grew, he passed his clothes to friends and watched as they proudly marched around with baggy shirts and pants. "We didn't think there was anything wrong. …We thought, we have … life.
"We were grateful we weren't sick. We were able to eat at least one meal a day. As long as we have each other, as long as we were there for each other, that was enough."
Here's the strange irony about Dalembert: Few players in the NBA have done more missionary work with the league. Every year, he travels to faraway places like Africa in the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program. He's a basketball missionary. The NBA calls, and he's on his way. From Africa to New Orleans for Katrina relief, he gives of his time every offseason. When they ask, Dalembert goes. He has been that way for his eight seasons in Philadelphia. He had his agent, Marc Cornstein, on the phone with NBA officials Wednesday discussing ways to raise money and awareness for disaster relief.
Dalembert has never been a photo-op do-gooder. He has always been there for the long haul, when the cameras aren't there to record his every good deed. To say that Dalembert has always honored the most humble of beginnings with remarkable generosity is true, but sometimes his professional behavior could be less noble. He has grumbled about wanting trades. He has complained about his minutes, his role – all typical NBA frustrations. Dalembert played the part of the prima donna for the Canadian Olympic team, and they parted ways before the team ever left for the Beijing Games in 2008.
He didn't try to defend himself and says simply now, "This summer, I finally tried to realize that it doesn't do me any good anymore to point fingers at anyone when something doesn't go right." It was something about that trip back to Haiti, that question that was raised with his buddy Emmanuel that stayed with him.
Why him? For too long, it dogged him. As he has promised his friends, he had slipped himself into that suitcase, flown away and made an incredible life. All that, so he could come back again and again.
Now, Dalembert desperately wants to get on a plane, and get over there, and that'll happen eventually. For now, he's going to be the face, the voice, of Haiti for millions of people, because his feet grew too fast to find shoes, his legs too long to wear his daddy's old pants. Someday, he's sure he's going to build that children's center, but now his mind, his heart, is on the short-term survival of his people: food, medicine and shelter.
It was 10:15 p.m. on Wednesday, in this quiet room in the Wachovia Center, and Dalembert still had so much frustration about why this quake had to happen to a place, to a people, that never, ever stop suffering. Now, they dig them out of rubble, tens of thousands dead and a loyal son of Haiti watched from far away like everyone else. Why were they buried, and why was he an NBA millionaire? The answer will probably always confound him on some level, but this was too long of a day and night for guilt, for that question that chased him over the summer when he tried to make sense of it all amid the poorest of the poor in our part of the world.
Now, he knows.
Nothing's ever been so clear.
For more information on how to help with the relief effort in Haiti, visit Dalembert's foundation at www.dalembertfoundation.org.