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Sixers' Nerlens Noel on road to recovery

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - At 11:30 on a late August morning at Champion Sports Medicine, 76ers rookie Nerlens Noel was already two hours into the first of his two workouts.

The Sixers' Nerlens Noel lifts weights at Champion Sports Medicine at St. Vincent's Hospital in Birmingham, Al., Wednesday August 28, 2013. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)
The Sixers' Nerlens Noel lifts weights at Champion Sports Medicine at St. Vincent's Hospital in Birmingham, Al., Wednesday August 28, 2013. (David Swanson/Staff Photographer)Read more

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. - At 11:30 on a late August morning at Champion Sports Medicine, 76ers rookie Nerlens Noel was already two hours into the first of his two workouts.

The 6-foot-11 center's blue shirt and white shorts were saturated in sweat. He had a cramp in his left foot and a burning sensation in his hamstrings. And his usually crisp high-top fade needed grooming.

Noel was completing a series of lower-body exercises - squats, hamstring curls, and sprints - leading to single-leg bridges with resistance.

He extended one leg in the air. The heel of his size 16 foot on the other was positioned on top of a medicine ball with his hips off the floor.

Noel's repeated grunts revealed that fatigue had set in. Yet, other than a water break, the 19-year-old's only rest came while walking to and from workout stations.

With his body completely drained, it would have been easy for him to take at least a five-minute break. Most NBA observers believe the Sixers are jockeying for position in what is expected to be a talent-rich 2014 draft. And Noel won't play until December - if at all this season - because of the anterior cruciate ligament tear he suffered during his lone season at Kentucky.

But resting on this day was not an option for Noel, who spent 51/2 months rehabilitating his left knee with renowned physical therapist Kevin Wilk and his staff before moving to Philadelphia earlier this month.

The third of four children, Noel knows a lot about real pain and working past the brink of exhaustion.

And he'll tell you this isn't it.

American dream

How to tell the story of a player expected to alter the direction of the Sixers franchise? It starts with his mother, Dorcina Noel, who grew up in the Haitian coastal city of Gonaïves.

She was a standout defender on the women's soccer team at college in Gonaïves.

After frequent visits to America, Dorcina and her now estranged husband, Yonel, moved to the States 23 years ago in search of a good place to raise a family.

The immigrants chose Everett, a blue-collar town four miles north of Boston with a large Haitian community.

"When I came here, I loved Boston," said Dorcina, who still possesses a thick Haitian accent. "But the city was too crowded. So I love this area."

The city has a similar feel to Northeast Philadelphia. It's known for producing Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly, Grey's Anatomy star Ellen Pompeo, and former Penn State and NFL tailback Omar Easy.

Walk past Lou Diamonds barbershop on Elm Street, and you get the sense of pride in the pro sports squads of Boston. There's a framed cover of ESPN magazine proclaiming Boston "America's Most Dominant Sports City" in a storefront window with a teddy bear wearing a Celtics uniform.

But the pride of this city is the football team at Everett High, where Easy is the vice principal.

The Crimson Tide boast one of the best programs in Massachusetts. Everett has won two mythical national titles, 10 Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association Division I "Super Bowl" titles, and 24 Greater Boston League titles.

But when the Noels arrived in Everett in 1990, the family wasn't concerned with the sports scene.

Looking to make ends meet, Yonel worked as a cabdriver, while Dorcina had a short stint at a local hospital. But trying to financially help relatives back in Haiti, the registered nurse quickly realized that working at two nursing homes would be more profitable.

"I still take care of my sisters and my brothers," Dorcina said. "You know in Haiti, they don't have any jobs. People can't do it."

A mother's pain

Noel sat on a weight bench in Birmingham and said with conviction that Dorcina will not work another day.

He's determined to use part of this season's $3,172,320 salary to move her out of the lime green duplex on Liberty Street in Everett. He said he will buy Dorcina a home of her choice in Philadelphia or any other place she decides to live.

Being able to provide for his mother is the reason he practiced with the Everett High varsity basketball team as a fifth grader. It's the reason he transferred to basketball powerhouse Tilton School in New Hampshire after two years at Everett High. And it's also the reason he is determined to battle through any grueling workout Wilk or the Sixers put him through.

But nothing he'll do can compare to the physical pain his mother suffered daily to provide for Noel and his siblings: Jim, 22, Rodman, 21, and Nashdah, 14.

Dorcina broke a bone in her back in 1996. She never had surgery.

She feared that time away from work would keep her from providing for her family. So despite being in intense pain, Dorcina worked her two full-time jobs six days a week.

She would leave the house at 5:30 a.m. and wouldn't return until 11:30 p.m. On occasion, she worked 48 hours nonstop between the two nursing homes. But one day she felt a piercing pain shoot up her back while lifting a patient into bed. She was physically and emotionally drained, and Dorcina's body told her enough was enough.

"The thought of her just really pushes me to get those extra reps and push that much harder to get back," Noel said. "That's something that I see as a will. You know, a will to really keep pushing and fighting.

"My mom instilled that in me."

Noel began to appreciate his mother's willpower at an early age.

Jim, Rodman, and Noel would routinely greet Dorcina at home after her evening shift. Noel always greeted her with a drawing of a flower or something else he made at school.

"My mom's name, Dorcina, was my first tattoo ever," said Noel, pointing to the marking on his left forearm. "I was 15. I mean it was my first tattoo. So I wanted it to be something special that had a lot of meaning to me. I love my mother to death.

"The tattoo means so much to me and how much she's done for me and my family."

First family of Everett

As a first-round pick, Noel is the one in the national spotlight. However, his siblings' athletic prowess is well-documented in Everett.

Jim was senior captain last season on Boston College's football team. The defensive back signed a rookie free-agent contract with the Seattle Seahawks before being released before training camp.

Rodman is a reserve redshirt junior outside linebacker at North Carolina State. And Nashdah is a 5-91/2 freshman guard at St. Anne's-Belfield, a prep school in Charlottesville, Va.

But athletic genes and a work ethic are just a part of what Dorcina passed along.

Following their mother's lead, they have all volunteered time to give to the less fortunate.

"Our mother worked right up the street from where we had football practice," Jim said. "So we would visit her and would see my mother help out the elderly. That's what really stuck with Nerlens and us ever since.

"Just the fact of helping people and trying to help somebody's life is a big thing."

While at Kentucky, Noel made frequent visits to the Kentucky Children's Hospital and several Lexington-area nursing homes. He even had a special guest with him at the Kentucky Derby in May: Kelly Melton, a 7-year-old boy battling leukemia.

His only regret is that his acts of kindness have been made public.

"I mean I'm not really with the glitz and glamour," he said. "I don't do it to be the lead story of ESPN. I'm doing it from the kindness of my heart.

"I want to be able to have that feeling that I'm definitely doing something good with my celebrity status, because that's the main thing."

His mother wouldn't have it any other way.

Makings of a superstar

At Champions Sports Medicine, Noel briefly glanced out the window at pedestrians on St. Vincent's Drive, paused, and delivered a message for Sixers fans.

"I'm all about winning," he said. "I don't care what the stats look like as long as I'm winning and I'm contributing and really getting my teammates involved."

Noel added that fans should know that he's a blue-collar player with an undying love for the game.

"I mean, whatever I have to do to win over the city of Philadelphia," he said, "I will do."

Known primarily as a defensive specialist at Kentucky, he's determined to contribute on the offensive end. Noel said he was always hesitant to shoot and preferred to focus on the defensive end.

"I never wanted to hurt my team," he said of missing shots. "Now, I'm definitely being able to go in the gym and work on my game and do a lot of repetition.

"I'm definitely going to have a strong offensive game."

But no one knows when or if he'll get to unveil it this season.

The Sixers are in no rush to get him on the court. Though Noel is ahead of schedule in his weight-room workouts, Wilk doubts he will be ready to play before December.

"Right now, the stuff we are doing is not necessarily on the court," Wilk said. "He's got to get used to the court, cutting on the court. Used to playing defense one-on-one. Things of that nature.

"So it's probably going to get pushed a little further back, even though he looks like he's ready."

For now, his regimen includes strengthening exercises designed to build bulk, agility, and proprioception exercises, and non-muscular training.

So far, Noel has bulked up to around 221 pounds from a listed 206 at May's NBA predraft combine.

While he wants to gradually add more weight, Noel doesn't think his slender build should be an issue.

"I'm never going to be a Shaquille O'Neal," he said. "I'm going to be my own person in my own size. I'm not expecting to be that big. I'm who I am. I'm definitely going to progress with my body and my skills."

But he doesn't step on the scale and say, 'Oh, I'm 221 pounds.'

"I definitely just measure it by the heart I have," Noel said. "The determination I have to be a great player."

Kentucky coach John Calipari is confident that his former standout will become a fan favorite once he gets on the court.

Calipari, who was a Sixers assistant coach under Larry Brown, believes Noel was the best player in the draft, despite being selected sixth by the New Orleans Pelicans and being traded to the Sixers.

"Something inside of him when the game gets hairy comes out," he said. "It's that it factor those great players have. That's what I'm telling everybody. I know he hurt his leg, I know.

"But of all those players in that draft, he was one that had that it."

Calipari pointed to Noel's five blocked shots in the last four minutes against Mississippi last season. The coach added that his former player always produced when the game was in the balance, whether it was a steal, a block, a dive on the floor, or a basket.

That's why Calipari believes Philadelphians will enjoy Noel.

"They demand great effort," he said. "They demand that we fight and battle and play that way every day. That's giving us the best you have. And they will get that."