James Madison’s Dalembert changed by Haiti earthquake, for better and worse
HARRISONBURG, Va. — Yohanny Dalembert was sleeping in the back seat when everything changed. His uncle was driving Dalembert home from school when the car jolted and shook the teenager awake.
Outside the window, he saw a motorcycle strike a pregnant woman. Walls and buildings started to topple. A large tree crashed behind the car, just feet away from where Dalembert was seated. People on the street fell to their knees and began praying.
“We’re going to die!” Dalembert’s sister, Severine, kept screaming from the front seat.
That was five years ago in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Looking back, Dalembert knows now the earthquake was the worst thing that happened to him — and the best. It prompted his move to the United States, where he discovered basketball and in short order earned a Division I scholarship to James Madison. He’s now a sophomore forward for the Dukes, still growing in the sport while the small island nation slowly rebuilds 1,400 miles away.
“I didn’t understand back then the gravity of the situation,” Dalembert said. “It wasn’t until recently really. At the time, it was just like, ‘Yo, this is crazy.’ ”
The Dalembert family lived comfortably in a gated community. His mother was an accountant, and his father had retired from the government and was teaching criminology at a nearby university. As chaos swept over the island, Dalembert’s family tried to figure out what to do next.
The aftershocks kept coming — more than 50 in all — so staying inside the home was unsafe. Dalembert instead slept in the bed of a truck, and the neighborhood turned a soccer field into a makeshift camping ground.
Dalembert says the community’s security guard became concerned about looters and gave the then-15-year-old a shotgun, assigning him to help with late-night patrols.
“He said, ‘If anybody looks unfamiliar to you, you shoot,’ ” Dalembert recalls.
Compared to most, Dalembert and his family were fortunate. They survived, as did their home. But they knew the nation had changed and the two children needed to leave.
They had a half-brother they barely knew. Samuel Dalembert is a 13-year NBA veteran who was playing for the 76ers at the time. They had met only a handful of times, but Samuel convinced his father to send the two teens to live with him in Philadelphia. Barely a week after the earthquake, Dalembert and his sister left Haiti on a military airplane.
“I thought basketball was a horrible sport,” Dalembert said. “I thought it was very selfish, very different.”
But his brother insisted, and Lower Merion coaches were excited to find an unpolished 6-foot-5 freshman with the same genes as an NBA veteran show up on campus.
“I wanted to get him in the gym as quickly as I could,” said Gregg Downer, Lower Merion’s longtime coach.
At that first practice, Dalembert didn’t know how to dribble with his hands, so he flipped the ball off the court with his foot and started juggling: foot, knee, head, foot again. Downer ran him through a layup drill, and Dalembert missed so many he was ordered to do push-ups.
“He looked at me like I was from Mars,” Downer said.
In Dalembert, the coach had a blank canvas. The young player didn’t have faulty technique or any bad habits. He didn’t have anything, so Downer was able to build a player from scratch.
Dalembert was a reluctant pupil, slow to warm to the sport. During a summer clinic, Dalembert got dunked on in front of a gymnasium of peers. The humiliation motivated him to improve. He began seeing game action as a sophomore, and basketball started to feel natural his junior year.
At home, responsibility was heaped on Dalembert. Samuel was busy with his career and didn’t have much time, energy or experience raising teenagers. When he was traded to Sacramento, the two teens stayed in Lower Merion with Samuel’s girlfriend. Back in Haiti, Dalembert had a housekeeper who cleaned after him. His life was soccer and video games and whims. “Irresponsible and immature,” he said.
In the United States, he was suddenly responsible for his own laundry, grocery shopping, keeping the house clean. Samuel, currently a free agent who played most recently for the Knicks, earned more than $85 million during his career but refused to coddle his half-siblings.
“It was tough love,” the younger Dalembert said. “He was trying to make me a man.”
Basketball provided structure and gave Dalembert purpose. Coaches introduced him to the weight room and taught him about nutrition. Bryant, the school’s prized alum, visited the team, and Dalembert says he finally realized how much work was required to excel in the sport.
“As time went on, he got really hungry,” Downer said, “became passionate about it.”
As a senior, Dalembert averaged 11.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.1 blocks and helped Lower Merion win a state title, earning a scholarship offer from James Madison.
Dalembert was no longer a blank canvas, but he was still raw. Even now, as a sophomore, coaches have to urge him to shoot more and stress fundamentals.
“We thought it’d take some time, but in the last year it’s been pretty rapid in terms of his skills development,” Dukes Coach Matt Brady said. “I think it’s all happening a little quicker than we envisioned.”
Dalembert dwells on his flaws and says he has more room for improvement than many others. In a recent game, he missed five free throws in the second half. Time expired, and players cleared the floor and hit the showers. Dalembert led his team with 16 points, and the Dukes pulled out a three-point win. But those five misses stung. Workers were cleaning the building and getting ready to close the arena for the night when Dalembert returned to the floor, practicing free throws long after others had gone home.
“You can just see that he wants to improve,” Brady said.
His sister attends Temple, and his parents are still in Haiti. In Harrisonburg, he considers his teammates to be like family. He shared his back story with them in a players-only meeting earlier in the season, drawing tears and stunned silence.
For Dalembert, the earthquake is a complicated subject. Every year around the anniversary, he says he wakes up in the middle of the night, sweating through his clothes and crying. It’s the most horrific thing he can imagine. But it’s also the reason he’s in the United States, chasing a dream that didn’t even exist five years ago.
“If it wasn’t for the earthquake, God knows what I’d be doing,” he said.