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Nerlens Noel's trip to Haiti provides inspiration

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - It was the late morning of Sept. 27, and three bulletproof sport utility vehicles pulled into Gymnasium Vincent's gated parking lot.

A little Haitian onlooker walks beside Nerlens Noel as he prepares to enter Gymnasium Vincent with manager Chris Driscoll and Port-au-Prince police officer Ricot "Mutombo" St. Louis. (Keith Pompey/Staff)
A little Haitian onlooker walks beside Nerlens Noel as he prepares to enter Gymnasium Vincent with manager Chris Driscoll and Port-au-Prince police officer Ricot "Mutombo" St. Louis. (Keith Pompey/Staff)Read more

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - It was the late morning of Sept. 27, and three bulletproof sport utility vehicles pulled into Gymnasium Vincent's gated parking lot.

Nerlens Noel, the 76ers' rookie power forward, unfolded his 6-foot-11, 217-pound frame out of one of the vehicles and into the path of several awaiting fans.

"Hey, Nerlens, welcome to Haiti," said Ezekiel D. Petion, one of the first to greet Noel and his contingent. "This is my son. He's going to be a future NBA player."

Noel smiled, shook the little boy's hand, and responded: "Yeah, I can see it in him."

At that moment, several children standing on the court outside the gym began faint chants of "Nerlens, Nerlens, Nerlens."

The greetings the 20-year-old received were far from shocking.

Noel, who has yet to play in his first NBA game, is much more than a source of pride to Haitians. He helps bring hope to a nation that has little. The former Kentucky standout represents promise for people who are promised nothing but poverty, illness, and killer storms. He is a vision of what success might look like, because there is little here that looks like success. He is living a dream in a place haunted by nightmares.

More than anything else, he is one of them.

His mother, Dorcina Noel, grew up in the Haitian coastal city of Gonaïves.

After frequent visits to America, Dorcina and her now estranged husband, Yonel, moved to the Boston area 24 years ago in search of a good place to raise a family. Dorcina has made several trips back to her homeland to visit family.

But this trip was different. She accompanied the third of her four children in his first trip to the Caribbean country in 17 years.

Noel volunteered to come here to participate in a youth camp run by POWERForward International, which helps the underprivileged achieve excellence in education and athletics.

He also met a representative from the U.S. embassy in Haiti and two from the Federation of Haitian Basketball.

Noel developed a bond with Jonathan Alexandre, a promising, 6-6 eighth-grade combo guard. Impressed with the youngster's game and attitude, Noel pledged to pay for Alexandre to come to America for a high school education, through POWERForward.

"I like that kid," Noel said. "It's always good to help a young Haitian."

He also said he would represent Haiti in future Olympics, if the country gets a national team. Haiti is striving to field a team in time for the 2020 Olympics.

"I want to represent my country in a great way," said Noel, who has Haiti's 509 international calling code tattooed on his arm. "I want to be involved with the Haitian community. I want to make sure that we keep progressing, getting better, and getting more exposure and make sure that we are ready to bring this country to another level."

Difficult circumstances

Paying his own way to be a camp counselor was a start. To the delight of the 178 campers, Noel started by finishing an array of post moves with spectacular, two-handed, rim-rattling dunks.

Then he played some loose defense against three campers in one-on-one drills. Alexandre drew the loudest applause as he nearly finished a strong spin move against Noel with a dunk.

For the most part, Noel blended in with the rest of the counselors, except for when he fitted Phillipe Kervins with a pair of donated sneakers.

Noel took it upon himself to find Kervins the best pair of used footwear when the campers were asked to find a pair. After looking through the rows of sneakers, which mostly weren't basketball shoes, Noel found two pairs of Nikes - one white, one gray - for the 11-year-old to try on. They settled on the white ones.

"A lot of the kids were so happy to get a pair of Sketchers," said Nerlens, who was saddened by seeing players in less-than-ideal sneakers. "They are not even basketball shoes. But they are a pair of shoes that they are going to make work.

"You know, we do take a lot of things for granted [in America]. Seeing things like that, you have to take a step back and really know how fortunate you are, because these kids are just out here wanting to play basketball."

But having suitable sneakers isn't the only advantage that American players have over Haitians.

Vincent, which is the national gym of Haiti, is one of only three gymnasiums in the entire country with a roof. Even still, the conditions inside the arena would be less than ideal for an American high school. The floor was made of tile, and there was no air conditioning.

Additionally, the coaching and the possibility of being spotted by a college or pro team are worse than the playing conditions.

Still, Haiti has produced three NBA players: Samuel Dalembert, a former Sixer who is now a center for the New York Knicks; Yvon Joseph, who played for the New Jersey Nets in 1985; and Olden Polynice, a 16-year NBA veteran who played for five teams.

But because of the lack of resources, especially after the 2010 earthquake that was estimated to have killed at least 230,000 people, it has been difficult to develop an NBA prospect in Haiti.

A great cause

That's one reason Pierre Valmera and David Franklin cofounded POWERForward.

Valmera grew up in Haiti, and with the help of a friend, Robert Joseph, landed a basketball scholarship at Union University in Tennessee, where Joseph had played. After college, Valmera played seven years in the Swiss pro league.

When his career ended three years ago, Valmera relocated to Boston, where he teaches French and history at a middle school. Shortly after arriving in the States, Valmera met Franklin, who owns an architecture firm. He shared with Franklin his vision to help Haitians gain private-school educations in America through basketball.

Fast-forward to 2014, and the nonprofit group has found scholarships for 26 Haitian basketball players in America.

The current headliner is Skal Labissiere, a senior at Evangelical Christian School in Tennessee. The 6-11, 216-pounder is the fourth-ranked college prospect in the Class of 2015, according to Rivals.com.

There's also Herard Synder, a 7-foot, 260-pound junior at Prestonwood Christian Academy in Plano, Texas. Rivals.com ranks him as the 42d-best recruit in the Class of 2016.

Meanwhile, Snyder's Prestonwood frontcourt mate D'Jery Baptiste stands 7 feet and a chiseled 245 pounds. The senior has orally committed to play at Vanderbilt.

"We have the talent. We have the will," said Jasson Valbrun, the president elect of the Federation of Haitian Basketball and owner of the semiprofessional Senior Basketball League. "There's just not many attractions in Haiti."

That's why a big deal was made of Noel's visit. Valbrun and Valmera wanted the children to see someone of Haitian decent who made it to the NBA.

"These kids need hope," Valmera said. "When I was growing up as a little boy, I didn't think anybody cared about me, even the Haitians who made it. The ones that made it out of Haiti, they didn't come back. They separated themselves.

"So by having him to be willing to do such things means a lot to me. For a while I thought I was the only one [who cared for the Haitian kids]."

Noel does more than just care. He's invested in easing the burden of the country.

That's why he spoke to Thomas F. Doherty, the supervisory general services officer of the U.S. embassy in Haiti. Noel wanted the Boston native to know that providing more visas to these basketball players would benefit both the United States and Haiti.

So his visit wasn't just about teaching post moves at a basketball camp, and handing people sneakers and something to eat. It was about being an inspiration to children in whose shoes he could have easily found himself.

"I really want to bring these kids to America, and eventually have the NBA full of Haitians," Noel said. "And I would like to have them coming back here and giving back."

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