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After surviving Haiti's quake, Labissiere out to make most of his second chance

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- It was a normal Tuesday just like any other other Tuesday, complete with school and basketball practice, and now Skal Labissiere was at home in his front yard watching his father repair the family hoop.

It wasn't a nice hoop.

But it was their hoop.

And it was taking a little longer to fix than anybody anticipated. So the then 13-year-old Haitian decided to go inside and get ready for dinner while his father finished the job. He was in the bathroom washing his hands when he first felt the house shake.

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"I immediately knew it was an earthquake," Labissiere said. "I just ran to my mom."

Then the house completely collapsed -- on top of them.

A wall fell on Labissiere's back and legs.

He was trapped for three hours.

"My dad was going crazy outside because he was the only one outside," Labissiere said. "The rest of us were inside the house, and my dad later told me that he pinched himself because he thought he must've been dreaming. He couldn't believe what he was seeing; the house just fell right down on top of us. Boom! I thought we were going to die. He said he thought we were dead. But he just kept calling our names and digging and digging, and we finally heard him and responded, and I just remember being buried under a wall and yelling, 'Dad, you promised me I'd make it to the NBA!' I've never told anybody that, but that's what I said to my dad."

And his response?

"He just kept digging," Labissiere said. "He just kept digging and digging."

  

It has been more than 31 months since a 7.0 earthquake devastated the Republic of Haiti and killed an estimated 300,000 people while affecting more than three million, but Skal Labissiere can still remember everything about that day as if it happened yesterday. He remembers his father picking him up from school after basketball practice. He remembers going inside to wash his hands for dinner. He remembers feeling the ground shake. He remembers running to his mother. He remembers the house collapsing on top of them. He remembers a wall trapping his legs. He remembers thinking he was going to die. And he's remembering all this on a weeknight at a Starbucks near his new home in Olive Branch, Miss., as a 6-foot-9 16-year-old whom ESPN now ranks as the United States' eighth-best basketball prospect in the Class of 2015.

Labissiere moved here eight months after the earthquake.

Gerald Hamilton is the man who helped relocate him.

"One of the sources I have told me there was this kid in Haiti named Skal who could shoot threes and dunk, and I was amazed because he was just 13 years old at the time," said Hamilton, a 34-year-old husband and father of three who runs a non-profit organization called Reach Your Dream that brings talented international prospects to the United States. "It blew my mind. So we got all the paperwork done to move him here, and then, five days after that, the earthquake happened."

The injuries Labissiere suffered in the earthquake were minor relative to those endured by many of his neighbors and classmates, but he was sidelined from basketball for two months. Still, Hamilton brought Labissiere to suburban Memphis and hoped for the best.

"All I knew is that he was tall and only 13, so I figured that even if he was the slowest guy in the world we'd still have something to work with," Hamilton said. "But when we got him here and got him in the gym for the first time, we were like, 'Wow.' "

A few months later, Clay Dade -- president and founder of the Fab Frosh Camp that had in years past served as a launching pad for, among others, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist -- was on the phone with former University of Memphis standout Rodney Newson, just chit-chatting about prospects from the area who might be worthy of an invitation to the 2011 event in Atlanta that annually showcases prospects about to enter ninth grade. Newsom mentioned Labissiere.

"I asked Rodney what was up with the kid's name because it didn't sound like he was from Memphis," Dade said with a laugh. "Rodney goes, 'He came from Haiti. He came here after the earthquake.' ... I was intrigued ... So we invited him sight unseen, which is rare for us. I hadn't seen him at all. But when I met him, I really was amazed at his politeness, his friendly demeanor. He was anxious to show what he could do against the best players from around the country. And from his first game, he was dominant. My jaw dropped. He was impressive the entire time. He won our 'Top Prospect To Watch' award at the camp."

I recounted this story to Labissiere as the sun was setting on the Starbucks patio.

He smiled.

"It's amazing," Labissiere said. "It's happened so quickly. Nobody knew about me when I first came here."

And now everybody in basketball knows about him -- college coaches from coast to coast, and even NBA personnel. Coincidentally, on this night, a member of an NBA front office happened to be in the same Starbucks and asked what I was doing. I told him I was there to meet with a high school player named Skal Labissiere.

"The kid from Haiti?" the man said. "I've heard of him."

I asked if he wanted an introduction.

"The NBA will fine me $200,000 if I talk to that kid," the man said with a laugh. "But I've heard of him. I heard he's a pro."

Maybe someday.

For now he's just a gifted prospect in between his freshman and sophomore years of high school whose family is back in Haiti still recovering, and slowly. When I asked Labissiere if his home has been rebuilt, he told me it has not. He said his family is currently living in a school where his mother is the principal, and it's not a stretch to suggest their future, on some level, is in his hands.

That's a lot for a 16-year-old to think about.

It's an incredible amount to put on a sophomore.

But Skal Labissiere doesn't seem to mind the pressure.

He would rather have this burden on his shoulders than be in Haiti with a house on his back.


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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