The “NBA Jam Session” came to Montreal this past weekend, transforming the corner of Maisonneuve and de la Montagne into a bustling basketball-themed square. NBA player and former Montreal resident Samuel Dalembert, now playing for the Sacremento Kings, appeared on the scene at 4:00 p.m. for a short Q and A and autograph session. Just prior to this event, I sat down with Dalembert to talk about basketball, his family in Haiti, and education.
Dalambert was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but emigrated to Canada when he was 14. While living in Montreal, he attended Lucien-Pagé High School in Park Extension. Later he competed in the FIBA (International Federation of Basketball) Americas Championship for Canada, but quickly moved south, attending Seton Hall University in New Jersey. During his second year at Seton Hall, Dalembert was drafted into the NBA with only six years of experience in the sport. Nevertheless, he quickly became famed for his exceptional talent as a defensive player.
At 6’11”, with a massive wingspan of 90.5”, Dalembert towers above most of his fans, but his personality isn’t nearly as intimidating. Soft-spoken and humble, Dalembert spoke candidly about his connection to Haiti. “I was born there, my family’s there… They were going through the same thing that the whole country was going through,” he said. During last year’s earthquake in, his family’s house in Port-au-Prince collapsed, forcing them out on the streets. Feeling a responsibility to Haiti as a native, Dalembert has been a significant contributor to the country’s relief efforts. Throughout his career, he has given over $72,000 to the country, including $20,000 after the earthquake. In 2007, he also started the Samuel Dalembert Foundation, which aims to give underprivileged Haitian children academic and athletic opportunities.
“It’s the least I can do …. I’m just giving back and most importantly, keeping that small door open so that the next [person] can come and do better than me,” he said.
Dalembert had just recently returned from a trip to Haiti where he was visiting his family. “They were sleeping under tents for six months, so I got another place built very quickly,” he said. After moving his family into a house with his close friends, he helped out at a camp, organizing activities for peoples’ children and bringing food. “The little things will mean a life for them,” he said.
The foundation’s latest project is to open a school and sports academy in Haiti. Dalembert hopes the school will help underprivileged children in the long-term. “I want to start the kids when they’re little and to keep the same kids at the same school all the way through to university…. I want to make sure we grab them because I don’t want them to lose track of anything.”
Dalembert is designing a system of education that blends sports with academics in order to maximize the amount of opportunities for underprivileged children and envisions a circular process in which graduates mentor younger students. Even successful adults who make a living for themselves outside Haiti, he argued, have a responsibility to go back and give back. He hopes to see more children rise to or even surpass his level of success, though his size 16 shoes might be hard to fill. He has planned various phases of fundraising and hopes work will start on the school in March.
When asked about the “NBA Jam Session,” Dalembert explained that events like this allow organizers to get a feel for Canadian communities and their level of enthusiasm toward basketball. Though there is only one Canadian team in the NBA, Dalembert feels that this could very well change in the future. The cross-country “NBA Jam Session” tour is hailed as “a free interactive basketball festival,” with family-friendly activities, dance workshops, giveaways, and special appearances. Yet at Saturday’s event, basketball took the backseat to corporate cheerleading and products. It seems that his humanitarian work had no place at an event like this, which was a shame. But of course, Dalembert being surrounded by sponsors promotes his celebrity, giving him the power to give back.