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Scott Howard-Cooper

Samuel Dalembert
Samuel Dalembert accepts the Human Spirit Award from Mannie Jackson last year.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

A year after the quake, Dalembert and Haiti struggle on

Posted Jan 12 2011 10:27AM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Are you watching TV?

Samuel Dalembert was at the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in Philadelphia with 76ers teammate Marreese Speights and World B. Free, a community ambassador for the team. He set aside his cell phone to watch the youth-league games and give a clinic and came back to find a traffic jam of messages that changed his life forever.

Are you watching TV?

It was one year ago. Late-afternoon, Jan. 12, 2010. A 7.0 earthquake devastated his home country of Haiti, the Caribbean country where family members and close friends still lived.

Dalembert was not watching TV. He was nowhere near a set. As panic of the unknown struck, the battery on his cellphone began to run down before he could gather details.

He got to his car, plugged the phone in, worked the Internet, read the text messages that backed up, listened to the radio and reached people in North America. Reaching Haiti was impossible. Dalembert tried six or seven people. No answers.

The news that came finally was mixed. His immediate family survived, some with injuries. But a second cousin and children of close friends perished as homes and buildings collapsed. Estimates eventually reached as high as 250,000 dead and $13.2 billion in damages amid the horrific scene of covered bodies piled in the streets and thousands of prisoners escaping from a destroyed jail in the capital city of Port-au-Prince.

Dalembert was born in Haiti, but he had moved to Montreal when he was 14. He played at Seton Hall, started his NBA career in Philadelphia and became a Canadian citizen in 2007. He was traded to Sacramento last summer. Still, he maintains a close connection to his homeland. His father lives there. A grandmother splits time between Haiti and Florida. Uncles and aunts and cousins lived there.

One year later, Dalembert is a part-time starter with the Kings. He's lost track of the number of visits to Haiti to help in the recovery. "Six or seven times," he said. Some have been rushed -- the first was playing 36 minutes in Minnesota on Jan. 18, being excused from practice the next day, accompanying aid group Project MediShare to Port-au-Prince, and then playing another 33 minutes against the Trail Blazers back in Philadelphia on Jan. 20, when an exhausted Dalembert scored 10 points and had 15 rebounds.

Raising funds as well as awareness, Dalembert estimates he has donated or spent $600,000 in the recovery effort, and that he may be only halfway to the amount of the personal investment. The goal, he said, is to build a cultural academy.

The most recent visit was just before his first training camp as a King. He originally planned to use the schedule break of All-Star weekend for the next trip, but family members and officials encouraged him to postpone it because of violence that followed the troubled Nov. 28 presidential election.

"Progress, it's very minimal," Dalembert said. "I'm not going to say there's no progress because I haven't seen the whole country. But overall, what I'm saying is that if there's a progress, it's very minimal. You don't really see it the way it's supposed to be. It seems like the way things have been structured, the way things have been, it's been very difficult.

"I'll give you a perfect example. My last time over there, I was there for about six days. I had a chance to see a few friends and family and other people and kind of help them out and get some people back to schools. I was in my friend's house, and it started raining. It was raining hard. Across from the house, there's a huge field and it's all [filled with] tents. I'm looking at people with candles under the tents, mothers standing up, babies crying, holding the babies, while the water is rising. There's no irrigation. It's all mud. They have to stand up and stand up for literally -- I'm not lying -- for like about an hour.

"I had to wait for the rain to stop because it was dark it was raining so hard. Mothers are shaking and babies are crying. They're trying to make the babies calm down.

"OK, things happen. They might happen for a few months, but after that, there has to be a better way. I know my people. We're hard-working people. We've got the toughness inside of us. We're just looking for opportunities."

Dalembert was given the J. Walter Kennedy Award for 2009-10 by the Pro Basketball Writers Association for outstanding charity work, and the Naismith Hall of Fame Mannie Jackson Human Spirit Award in 2010. But the problems in Haiti remain.

A cholera outbreak in October has resulted in another 3,600 deaths, according to the United Nations. Fighting after the contested election created additional problems. As many as a million people still are displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands, by some estimates, still live in makeshift tent cities.

It has been a year that seems like forever, a year that began with a flurry of messages and now has Dalembert building a legacy much greater than any he will leave in basketball.

Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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