PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- At the edge of the court, in a steamy Port-au-Prince gym, dozens of young players crowd the standout silhouette of Skal Labissiere. Their hometown hero is now living their NBA dreams.
This towering 21-year-old Haitian survived a major earthquake to then leave for the United States, and played in college before going pro in style. He played this season with the Sacramento Kings.
The young men who have turned out at the gym in the capital of poorest nation of the Americas can hardly imagine a National Basketball Association career -- or making more than one million dollars a year.
But thanks to Labissiere, they are getting encouragement and hope. If they work hard enough, as he urges them, they could end up playing with him and NBA stars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and James Harden.
"It's a blessing and a real pleasure to come back and share my experience with the young people here," Labissiere said with a smile.
"Seven years ago, I never thought I would be where I am today," he adds, thoughtfully staring down from his 2.11 meters (six feet 11 inches).
- Hurt in an earthquake -
Labissiere's home collapsed during Haiti's devastating January 12, 2010 earthquake, trapping him, his mother and brother in the rubble. Labissiere's legs were injured, and it would take weeks before he could walk again.
At this point Pierre Valmera, a former Haitian international basketball player who had already spotted the boy's potential as a hoops star, intervened to help get Skal to the United States despite his injuries.
Valmera is the co-founder of POWERforward International, a Boston-based nonprofit group that helps young Haitians gain a private-school education in the United States on a basketball scholarship.
"A lot of doors have been opened thanks to people like Skal who have made it to NBA level, and who have got recruiters to keep an eye on Haiti," said a hopeful Michael Alphonse, one of the gym players.
Measuring 2.06 meters high and a recent high school graduate, 18 year-old Alphonse dreams of holding the Haitian flag in international competitions.
"This is finally going to take away the old image of poverty that the world has of our country," said Alphonse, who with nine other young players will travel to Texas for a week of training in August.
For the Haitian Basketball Federation, the help and contacts mobilized by the national stars are invaluable.
"For sure, life is a chess match. It's tough. Young people already know that by living here. So if we can show them examples of success, show them that there is hope, it will help them fight hard. And that, it will definitely change the mentalities here," said Federation director Patrick Washington.
"If we take care of these young people today, they will take care of the country later," he added.
- 'Proud to be Haitian' -
Federation president Henry Jean says that the group's primary goal is promoting Haitian youth.
"It is our role as a Federation to find these talents, and Power Forward helps us in this and also helps place our children abroad in the hope of a better life," he said.
Labissiere motivates young people to improve their lot well beyond sports.
"I tell them to be proud to be Haitian," the NBA player said.
"Never let anyone tell you what you can or can not accomplish: it's your dreams, nobody can take them away," he added.
© Agence France-Presse
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