Life was so simple. Yohanny Dalembert was a 15-year-old kid sleeping in the back of the car on his ride from school to his home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Then there was a bump, jostling Dalembert awake.
His life has never been the same again.
“I thought my grand-uncle hit a motorcycle, because I woke up and there was a bike out of control and I thought my uncle hit him, and then I looked around and everything was crashing, buildings were crumbling to the ground, and people were on their knees praying,” says Dalembert, now 20.
On Jan. 12, 2010 , a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck 16 miles west of Dalmbert’s hometown, the Haitian capital, disintegrating buildings like sand castles. The initial earthquake, and at least 52 subsequent aftershocks measuring 4.5 or greater, took the lives of anywhere between 100,000 and 316,000 people, maimed and displaced hundreds of thousands more and led to weeks of widespread chaos across the region.
Five years later, the country has still yet to fully rebuild, and Dalembert will never be able to forget.
“It didn’t hit me quick enough that I could have died that day,” says Dalembert, a 6-foot-8 sophomore forward at James Madison University. “Now I look back, when you’re mature, you look at life and look back on all these things and see them as a big deal. I look back on it and I think, you all have no idea what people in third world countries go through. I thank whoever is up there that I’m alive. I have a lot of friends who died that day.
“As a kid it was not terrifying, it was more like exciting. I don’t know why it was like that, but when it happened I was like, ‘holy [expletive].’ I was not, like, crying – my sister was crying. I was trying to tell her to shut up,” he continues. “Now I think, ‘Man, I’m fortunate to be alive.’ I don’t really like to talk about it that much, you feel me?” He says, growing silent for a second.
Yet out of the horrific rubble of one of the greatest natural disasters in recent history, Dalembert’s path in life was irrevocably changed for the better.
“It’s pretty unbelievable to look back on something like that, and to mourn for all those people and be so sad, and at the same time to think, if that hadn’t happened, I probably wouldn’t be here, I wouldn’t have these opportunities that I have now,” he says. “It’s deep, and it’s kind of hard to think about both sides of that.”
Before the aftershocks had even ended, Dalembert and his sister Severine would be whisked away from his home in Haiti and deposited an ocean and nearly 1,500 miles away in Philadelphia, where he would largely raise himself while living with the older half-brother he barely knew, NBA player Samuel Dalembert.
“All his brother allowed him to do, really, is escape a terrible tragedy that had befallen him and his family, and he’s really kind of done it on his own,” marvels James Madison head coach Matt Brady. “He’s really kind of grown up without any parental guidance.”
“It’s been a pretty unbelievable five years,” says Dalembert, remembering back to when it began.
Home is where his heart is
Dalembert was born and raised in the Haitian capital, the largest city (population nearly 950,000) in the second largest Caribbean nation. When the slave population successfully revolted against the French and gained official independence on Jan. 1 1804, Haiti became the first Caribbean or Latin American nation to gain independence from it’s colonial conqueror. But despite it’s history, today, most outsiders only know Haiti as a poor country occupying the western half of the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with the Dominican Republic.
But the Haiti Dalembert experienced was far different than how the world perceives it: it was his home and his heart.
“I was very privileged,” he says. “My parents make a very good living. I never actually struggled, I was never unfortunate. I always had what I needed – clothes to go to school in, food, TV, video games, electricity. It’s a wonderful place, despite the insecurity and kidnappings and all that stuff. It’s a beautiful country. When you learn to forget about the bad, the country is an amazing place – that’s what I miss about it. The teachers are amazing, my friends were awesome.”
But that all changed following the earthquake. Miraculously, Dalembert’s family’s house escaped relatively unscathed. His father’s prized aged liquor collection, however, did not.
Even though the family and their home survived, the immediate aftermath was terrifying, as they were forced to live outside for fear that another aftershock would topple there house. At the same time, roving gangs of looters descended upon the city.
“There were gangs and people escaped from prison who were robbing people, and there were rapes,” Dalembert says. “The country was vulnerable – that’s what bad people wait for, opportunities like that.”
A way out
At the time of the earthquake, Samuel Dalembert was in his fourth year playing for the Philadelphia 76ers, the team that drafted him 26th overall in the 2001 draft. At 6-feet-11 inches, the older Dalembert had carved out a niche for himself as a defensive terror on the court. Yohanny Dalembert and his older brother shared the same father, but little else. Samuel had moved to Montreal when he was 14, at the same time that Yohanny was being born. With 14 years and 1,500 miles between them, they seldom saw each other and talked even less.
But earlier that summer, the two had begun to connect, with Yohanny spending a month and a half visiting his older brother in the United States.
“We didn’t really have a relationship,” Yohanny says. “I actually had gotten closer to him that summer before the earthquake.”
Samuel Dalembert had wanted to move his younger brother to the states for school, but at the time, the brothers’ father and Yohanny’s mother were against it.
“My brother was actually trying to get me to the U.S., but my parents didn’t want me to go. They didn’t think I was ready,” he says.
When the earthquake hit, Samuel Dalembert frantically tried to get in touch with his family, and when he couldn’t get through, boarded a plane for Haiti. According to Yohanny, he was turned away from entering the country multiple times before finally getting through.
“My brother tried to come in [to Haiti] two days after it,” Yohanny says. “He was trying to get in contact with us for like 48 hours. Someone from the airport brought a special phone to the house.”
With the city in chaos, Yohanny’s parents decided to let him and his older sister move to the United States to live with their then 29-year-old half-brother.
Growing up, fast
According to Dalembert, despite living with an NBA-playing millionaire, his life in the United States was far less pampered than the one he had left in Haiti.
“It was hard, man, it was actually very hard,” he says. “[Samuel’s] actually a clean freak, and I was not. We were very fortunate in Haiti. We had a couple maids who made the beds, mopped the floors. I was actually a very messy kid when I first got there – I’d never cleaned – and he didn’t like that. My brother had people who came over to clean the house every Thursday, and he told them to stop coming and the house got very, very dirty. And I had to start cleaning. Now I’m a clean freak – I can’t stand anything that’s not clean.”
But according to Dalembert, the newfound responsibilities forced him to grow up quickly.
“I wasn’t mature,” he says. “That’s all from him [my maturity]; I’m glad I actually went there early, and matured early.”
That growth and maturity was apparent to Brady when he began recruiting Dalembert in high school.
“His brother was not entitling him or enabling him, so we knew this was a really impressive young kid,” says Brady.
Picking up the game
It was at that same time that Dalembert finally picked up a basketball for the first time. Growing up, his passion was soccer. Even after Samuel reached stardom on the hardwood half a world away, Yohanny had no interest in the sport.
“I hated it,” he says bluntly about basketball. “I thought it was a selfish sport. I didn’t think there was enough teamwork.”
But Dalembert was passionate about earning the opportunity to go to college and compete as an athlete while also earning an education. And after enrolling at Lower Merion High School, he very quickly saw basketball as his golden ticket.
“I always want to surrounded myself with people who have the same goals as me,” he explains. “The basketball team was actually very focused on winning, and everyone wanted to play Division I college ball, and the soccer team wasn’t the same focus.”
It was a rough transition early. But Dalembert’s determination began to pay dividends.
“You get dunked on a few times, you get tired of it,” he says. “I got dominated a few games and decided it was time for that to stop.”
Says Brady: “He’s done what you hope all young people will do: Which is learn from their own shortcomings and improve them.”
As a senior, Dalembert averaged 11.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.1 blocks per game, helping to lead Lower Merion to a 30-3 record and state title. Afterwards, he signed to play for Brady at James Madison.
Coming of age on the court
Only five years after picking up the game of basketball, Dalembert’s growth on the court has been tremendous. As a freshman, Dalembert averaged just 2.3 points, 2.5 rebounds, 0.5 blocks and 11.3 minutes per game, shooting 46.3 percent from the floor. As a sophomore, his numbers have skyrocketed to 10.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 25.2 minutes and 58.9 percent from the floor, a spike Brady attributes to his tremendous drive for self-improvement.
“The word I use with him is self-awareness,” Brady says. “He’s got terrific self-awareness in the areas he needs to do a better job in, and he is always trying.”
“I hate losing,” Dalembert says. “When we lose, I mope about it for 24 hours. We win, I put it behind me within 10 minutes – I’m never satisfied with how I play.”
According to Brady, his young player’s growth off the court has equaled, if not surpassed, his growth on it.
“He’s a really impressive young person,” Brady says. “He really works hard and has proven himself in every facet of his life. He initially struggled a bit here academically, the college workload, getting acclimated socially, basketball was a huge jump up, handling his own emotions was a challenge for him. And if you had to grade him in all those areas I would give him an A. He’s improved remarkably in those four areas.”
It’s a growth process that Dalembert directly links to the earthquake and its aftermath.
“It’s definitely one of those things that, the older I got, the more I realized how unbelievably lucky I was to be alive when so many other people had died and lost loved ones, and I realized I really had to make my life count – to get the most out of it,” he says.
Brady has never pried into Dalembert’s experiences during the earthquake, but during a team-bonding exercise over the summer, the sophomore forward opened up to his teammates.
“He was very forthright with what he went through, with the team. I still don’t know, exactly. But I know it’s very significant,” says Brady. “He confided in his own teammates, and I think the room was extraordinarily moved when he explained to his teammates, confidentially, everything that he saw firsthand, and everything he had to deal with firsthand.”
Dalembert’s goal is to play professional basketball and, like his older brother, who has remained involved in charitable efforts, to help rebuild his home country.
“I want to play professional basketball,” Yohanny says. “It’s a fun way to make a living. I love the game, and I want to take it to the next level. I watch the pros and I tell myself ‘You have such a long way to go, you have to get so much better.’
“That way I can finally help out the way I want to back home.”
Photos courtesy of James Madison Athletics.