NEW YORK – When commissioner Adam Silver calls his name Thursday night at the NBA Draft, it might be the second-happiest moment of Skal Labissiere’s life.
When his father called his name six years ago, it was to locate him in the rubble and reassure him that neither he nor his NBA dream were going to die there.
“Before that, I kind of thought, ‘Hey, this is it,’ but when I heard his voice, it gave me some hope,” Labissiere said. “Coming and screaming and digging me out – I don’t know where he got the energy to do it, but he was digging for two, three hours. It was definitely God, man, watching out for me.”
And with that sense of destiny in his heart, he goes boldly forward – doubts about his NBA readiness be damned. Ready or not, there was no other choice for him. Labissiere declared for the draft despite a season full of struggle at the University of Kentucky.
John Calipari contends that one more year in school might’ve given the former five-star recruit, a 7-footer with soft shooting touch, a chance to blossom into the No. 1 pick many once believed he could be. But the Wildcats’ coach knows why Labissiere bolted for the pros after averaging just 6.6 points and 3.1 rebounds last season.
“When you hear his story,” Calipari said, “it makes you cry.”
It’s well-known by now that Labissiere and his family narrowly survived the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti when their home collapsed, trapping Labissiere for hours with his mother and brother. With their country in ruins, his father sent him to America – never mind his inability to speak English – to chase the basketball dream.
Now, even after a few speedbumps at UK, that dream is about to come true. Flaws and all, he is expected to be drafted in the lottery Thursday night. His parents and brother will be by his side at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center when it happens.
“I think I’ll be pretty emotional. I think I’ll be very emotional, actually, just thinking how far I’ve come, with my family there at the table,” Labissiere said. “(The earthquake) changed my life forever. It changed the way I see life. Everything can be taken away from you at any point. I don’t care who you are – you can be the richest guy on this earth – and the next day, the next 30 seconds, everything can change for you. I’ve seen it myself. I’ve experienced it.”
So no, he won’t be the No. 1 pick Thursday, but he won’t have to wait long. NBA teams can still see his enormous potential, and one of them will soon make him a millionaire. That’s why Labissiere’s draft decision never really was one.
“It’s just life-changing for his family, for him,” Calipari said. “When you ask him, ‘What is your why? Why do you want to do this?’ he’ll tell you, ‘Coach, my family. I’ve got to do this for my family.’ When I said to him after the season, ‘Are you sure you’re ready?’ (he said), ‘Coach, what I just went through here, I’m ready to do this and I’ve got to do it for my family.’
“And I gave him a hug and said, ‘Well, we’re going to get this done.’”
So Kentucky’s coach went to work on the phone lines, telling NBA decision-makers about Labissiere’s character and commitment, and taking some of the blame for initially mishandling the wiry forward. Calipari tried to put him on the Karl-Anthony Towns and Anthony Davis plan, but he wasn’t either of them.
Labissiere got busy with workouts after the season to show pro scouts what he is: a versatile big man who can make NBA 3-pointers and use his length to be a presence on defense. But there’s something unseen that he believes truly sets him apart.
“I learned a lot about myself, learned how to be mentally tougher (at Kentucky)”, Labisssiere said. “When things are not going my way, I had to learn how to fight through. I’ve been through that, so that’s one of the edges I think I have over anybody else in here. Some of them, they have never struggled before, so when they get it in the future, they’re not going to know how to deal with it.”
After speaking to NBA scouts and general managers, Calipari agrees that the big man’s toughness – ironic, as that was a knock on him at UK – stands out to the pros.
“The best thing that they like about Skal right now: he never gave up, he did not quit,” the coach said. “It was extremely hard, and he finished at his best.”
But Labissiere, now projected by several mock drafts to go 11th overall to the Orlando Magic, is certain his best is yet to come. Better days for his family are certainly on the way. He’ll let them decide whether to stay in Haiti, move to America or split time in both, “but I’m going to help them.” he says.
He still considers Haiti his home, although he hasn’t been back since the quake that killed more than 300,000 struck, and plans to establish some meaningful way to support the struggling people there. The weight of it all will not be lost on Labissiere during Thursday night’s draft.
“It still hasn’t really hit me yet. I think it’s going to hit me tomorrow when I get my name called,” he said. “We talked about it a little bit yesterday … just reflecting on it, how far we’ve come.”
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