Skal Labissiere remembers the sounds in the dark. Screaming, moaning and praying. He couldn’t see anything. He could barely breathe as he choked on a pocket of air thick with dust. The weight of his family’s collapsed living-room wall pressed on his back and bent him into a crouch.
He thought he might be stuck in a dream, but then he heard the voices. People screaming for help, moaning in pain and praying for salvation. He heard his mother nearby, asking God not to forsake her, and telling Labissiere and his little brother to pray, too. He heard his father, farther away, calling out to them, begging them to hang on until he could dig them out.
On Jan. 12, 2010, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the island, instantly destroying much of the capital city, including the building where Labissiere lived in a third-floor apartment. As many as 300,000 people were killed and 1.5 million were left homeless.
“I remember that everything started to shake, I ran to my mom and then we saw the walls come down,” Labissiere said.
“It went from a bright day to complete blackness. We were crying and yelling and then we realized no one could hear us because there was so much awful screaming coming from everywhere.
“I thought I would die.”
When Labissiere contemplates his journey from those three hours buried under a pile of rubble to his present life, he has to close his eyes and exhale. Not only did he get out, but he got to Lexington, Ky., where he is the starting center for the No. 1 college basketball team in the nation.
The 6-11 Labissiere, a freshman, is already being hyped as a top-five 2016 NBA draft pick – after he leads Kentucky to the NCAA Final Four, that is.
“I’m just so humbled. I’m very thankful,” he said. “I was seconds away from not being alive today.”
On Friday, Labissiere and the Wildcats play South Florida in the Hoopball Miami Invitational as part of a doubleheader with Ohio State and Memphis at AmericanAirlines Arena.
“I’d like to have some fritay while I’m in Miami,” Labissiere said, referring to fried Haitian cuisine.
He and his teammates and coach John Calipari arrived Wednesday, held a clinic at the Overtown Youth Center, where they met Alonzo Mourning and worked out on the Miami Heat’s practice court at AmericanAirlines Arena, where they received words of wisdom from Heat president and former Kentucky star Pat Riley.
Labissiere is earning comparisons to great Kentucky big men of the past, including Anthony Davis, who led Kentucky to the 2012 title as freshman, was picked first in the 2012 NBA draft and is now an All-Star for the New Orleans Pelicans. Ten UK frontcourt players have been first-round draft picks in the past six years.
“He’s not that, believe me,” Calipari said when asked whether Labissiere reminds him of Davis. “Anthony Davis is a freak of nature and I’m guessing within the next few years will be the best player in the universe.
“Skal has a ways to go. He knows it, though. He’ll be the first to tell you. But he’s a great kid. He’s trying to find his way. For us to be what we can be as a team, he’s got to have a presence. He’s really skilled. You start saying, ‘This kid’s for real.’ But he’s basically like Karl (Anthony Towns) in that he’s learning how to run. Let’s teach you how to run. That’s where we’re starting.”
Labissiere, 19, grew up playing soccer in his home neighborhood of Canape Vert, where his mother, Ema, was a school principal and his father, Lesly, was a carpenter. He was 6-4 by age 12.
“I got too big for soccer and my mom suggested basketball even though we didn’t know much about it,” he said. “I started playing, watching it on TV and I fell in love with it.”
The entire country of Haiti has two indoor hardwood courts, Labissiere said, so he learned to play outside on asphalt. He copied the moves of his favorite players – Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett.
“I used to like Dwyane Wade until LeBron joined the Heat,” he said. “I’m not a LeBron fan.”
Labissiere hopes to succeed and exceed three other 6-11 Haitians who have played in the NBA: Yvon Joseph of Cap-Haitien, originally a volleyball player who played basketball at Miami Dade College and Georgia Tech and one game in the NBA, for the New Jersey Nets; Olden Polynice, who played for Virginia, was drafted No. 8 by the Chicago Bulls in 1987 and played for various pro teams over 20 years, and Samuel Dalembert, who played at Seton Hall, was drafted No. 26 by the 76ers in 2001 and was waived by the Dallas Mavericks in October.
“I want to help young kids in Haiti and make basketball a more popular sport,” Labissiere said. “There’s a lot of talent and more people are picking it up now.”
He was 13 when the earthquake devastated his country. He was inside with his mother and brother when the tremors hit. His mother was sitting at a computer desk, and that desk, built by his father, ended up saving them.
“The reason the wall didn’t crush us was because the desk protected us,” Labissiere said.
They were wedged in the wreckage of the building until his father – who had been outside in the courtyard – excavated them with a weightlifting bar and the help of neighbors picking through chunks of debris. They spent that night on the street, then the next five months living in a tent at his mother’s school.
Labissiere had always wanted to live in the United States, and his family’s displacement combined with the destruction of his school accelerated the process.
Although his parents were reluctant to let their boy leave, they agreed to let him move to Olive Branch, Mississippi, a suburb of Memphis, where Gerald Hamilton became his guardian. Hamilton is a computer tech and basketball fan who runs a charity called Reach Your Dream, which helps international high school athletes.
Labissiere enrolled at Evangelical Christian School and quickly bloomed as a prospect. He was the top-ranked recruit of the Class of 2015 when Calipari signed him.
But his senior year was not without controversy as he transferred to a different prep school, and Hamilton’s motives were questioned by another Haitian player who had lived with him and by an AAU coach.
The NCAA reviewed Labissiere’s case and affirmed his eligibility. Labissiere, who answers questions with “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am,” has nothing but praise and gratitude for the Hamilton family.
“He was home-schooled and played, and I don’t know what that means but he had a home school team that he played with,” Calipari said. “Probably didn’t help him. I’m not sure if it hurt him. We’ll find out. He’s working hard. You don’t just have 7-footers who have the kind of skill he has. He’s got hooks. He can shoot it. He can pass it. But he needs to be in game competition. Skal’s got to get more of a fight (in his playing demeanor).”
Labissiere misses Haiti but knows he had to leave to pursue his basketball career. He emerged from the ruins of his home with a clearer vision for his future.
“I don’t get caught up in the attention because I still have a lot of work to do and a lot of goals to accomplish,” he said. “The earthquake could have killed us all. I’ll never take anything for granted.”