Yohanny Dalembert’s route to the hardwood at James Madison was far different from that of his teammates, let alone most college basketball players across the country.
He arrived in the US after an earthquake devastated his home nation of Haiti in January 2010.
When the earth started to quake, he was sleeping in the backseat of the family car on the way home from school. His sister Severine was also in the car. When she saw trees and buildings toppling around them, she screamed, “We’re going to die!” — a fate that seemed imminent. Fortunately, they survived, as did their uncle. Ultimately, more than 220,000 people did not.
The family home was rendered structurally unsafe by the quake, a precarious condition exacerbated by more than 50 aftershocks in the following weeks. The Dalemberts were forced to live largely outdoors, and as looters began to prey on displaced families such as theirs, Yohanny was given a shotgun by community sentries to help stand watch. He was 15 at the time.
The two Dalembert children had something other survivors did not — an older half-brother, who lived in the U.S. He was not just any brother – Samuel was in the midst of a 13-year NBA career and a member of the Philadelphia 76ers. He convinced his father to let his siblings come to the United States to live in safety while their country recovered.
Once in the States, Yohanny enrolled at Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, Pa., where he learned to play basketball. It was not an easy transition for Dalembert, who’d played soccer his entire life but never basketball. He was regularly beaten to the basket by better opponents, due in part to a lack of experience and footwork better suited to the open spaces of a soccer pitch.
He spoke to his family about a remedy to his on-court struggles, and they emphasized the need for as many repetitions as possible to improve quickly. “I talked with my dad and my brother, and they said ‘Listen, repetition is going to have to be the key to your game because you’ve only been playing basketball for so long,’” said Dalembert. “From that, I picked up a work ethic that hasn’t let go yet.”
What were the keys to his transition? “First, I had to understand the difference between both sports. My mind and my body have adapted. I’d grown up playing soccer, and I’ve been adapted to the running back and forth in shorter sprints,” he said.
“To me, running up and down the court is not going to be a problem. It’s the jumping, the cutting, and the extra fighting for a rebound. That’s where it became a challenge. I wanted to be able to run up and down the floor, and I wasn’t able to breathe. I didn’t have the extra energy to do so, so I changed the way I worked out. I changed the way I ate. I changed the way I did everything.”
When Hurricane Matthew recently decimated Haiti, the 6-8 forward immediately called to see if his family was OK. His mother was in Miami — while not out of the path of Matthew, it was a far safer place to be during the storm than his homeland. His father was still in Haiti at the time. “He’s doing well. Fortunately, the hurricane didn’t hit his part of the country as hard,” he said.
Dalembert knows that he and his family are fortunate to have the advantages that they enjoy in a nation riddled with poverty and substandard housing. “Pretty much half the country lost electricity with the last hurricane. My parents have a satellite dish that allows them to communicate when something like that happens. I’m able to get through to them no matter what,” he said.
He also knows that economic resources often dictate a family’s ability to survive a catastrophic storm. “I think it partially has to do with resources in Haiti. Some people cannot afford them to keep themselves safe. So they use the strongest things that they have on hand and work with what they have. That’s obviously going to be a challenge,” he said. “My parents are safe. I’m blessed. But I was praying for those that don’t have the resources we do.”
Dalembert recognizes the “good” fortune that was ironically launched by the catastrophe in 2010. Now he wants to take his fortunes, and those of his team, to the next level and help JMU capture a CAA title. The Dukes were 11-7 in-conference last year and 21-11 overall. Dalembert was named as a preseason All-CAA selection earlier this week.
“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” he said. “Does that mean it’s going to happen right away? It will take hard work from myself, my teammates and the new players that come in.” The talented senior is no stranger to working hard to achieve a daunting goal.