When Haiti’s president visited New York City last year, it was Samuel Dalembert who hosted an evening reception. He’s no politician, nor does he wish to become one, nor would most even consider him a big NBA star. But the 6-foot-11, 31-year-old new Milwaukee Bucks center is very much an unappointed Haitian ambassador. When the 2010 earthquake shook Haiti’s already-fragile core, he was the NBA’s face for relief efforts, just as the league’s lone Haitian-born player has stood tall for so many charities, including UNICEF, Feed The Children and Project Medishare. Through his own Samuel Dalembert Foundation, he’s building the Samuel Dalembert Academy, a Haitian school focused on athletics and arts as well as academics. All this from a man who grew up on the poor streets of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince. He says he left for Canada at age 13 and got serious about basketball there, then moved to New Jersey at 16 to improve his shot at a hoops scholarship. “Not for the NBA. I was thinking about a free education.” But the NBA is where he ended up, and Haiti is where he keeps returning. To see old friends and family, and to do what he can to help, just as his grandmother, Hypromene Charles, did for so many years.
What do you remember about growing up in Port-au-Prince?
My parents left Haiti when I was 1 for Canada. So my grandmother pretty much raised me. She was tough on me, strict, and I love her. She passed away last year. That was really tough. But I would do it the same. When you’re a kid, there was nothing else to compare. I consider myself more fortunate than most of my friends. We had a roof over our head. We were able to eat one meal a day at least. But I used to share my meal with my friends. My friends sometimes wouldn’t eat for two or three days. Those times, we engrave into our heart until this day. It keeps you humble, keeps you focused, keeps you balanced.
What would surprise people in this city about Haiti?
How beautiful the country is. It has so much going for it. Too bad we haven’t really maximized and exploited that beauty. All we see in Haiti is the bad side.
You once said you thought you’d grow up to be a physician?
I was good in math, and I was always trying to invent stuff. My friends used to call me MacGyver.
You knew about MacGyver?
Oh, we knew about MacGyver. One of our friends, their parents had a little TV. The only house with TV. But they wouldn’t let us inside, so we would sit by the window watching.
Why did all of the charitable work become such a calling?
Because of my grandma. She used to be the most generous person. I’d see kids in the house and say, “Who’s that?” “Oh, it’s so and so, he’s gonna be staying with us for a while.” We used to live in three little rooms. It would be 10 of us sleeping on the floor, little kids. There are so many people she raised. Now they are doing well.
What is the academy’s status?
We have the architecture and design. We’ve got the land. And we’ve got the company we’re going to be working with. Soon, they should be breaking ground. I want something not like people have been doing in Haiti. My goal is to change the educational system.
This all sounds wonderful, but how difficult is it to implement?
In a country like Haiti, so much can discourage you. There are plenty of times I could’ve been like, forget it, I want to write a check to a foundation and feel good about myself. No. If I do that, I’m just like everybody else. That’s not getting the job done. If you want to see success, you’ve got to do it yourself. That’s what my grandmother used to say.
Why focus on sports?
Even in America, you hear a lot of successful kids tell you sport keeps them alive. If not, they’d be in the hood and be gangsters. So sport is incentive. But if you don’t do well in school, you can’t play.
What is Haiti’s sporting culture?
Sport is crucial in Haiti. Growing up, we played soccer. We used to play on the dirt street. So kids in the neighborhood, we get on our knees, we pick up all the rocks, because some of us don’t have sneakers, so we play barefoot. We keep it nice. Then we play. That was a distraction for the whole neighborhood. Everybody’s sitting on the side watching the game. It was big.
What are the Bucks’ chances this year?
Our chances are good. I’m not going to B.S. you. I’ve been with a lot of teams, and I would tell you. We have a mix, a young and veteran team, and the young guys listen. There’s respect from everybody. Everybody’s pushing themselves.
When you fly over Haiti and look down, what do you think about?
You know what I feel like doing? With all the billions of dollars that have been spent in Haiti, if I could have that money, I would move all the people to one area and trash the whole place flat, and we’d build it up. You see such a beautiful country that has so much going for itself. If you start putting infrastructure to a country like Haiti, you’re gonna find investors coming.
So what do you think about when you fly away?
I feel like my youth, a part of me, is always there. The time where there’s no craziness, you’re just a kid, you’re just playing.