The fish were so close and the water so clear that Cady Lalanne said he almost reached out and touched them.
He was a 7-year-old in the middle of the Caribbean, crammed on a rickety boat with 50 others from Haiti, hoping to make it to America.
Lalanne said he still remembers everything about that 600-mile trip in 1999.
Six hundred miles of choppy seas, where thousands have died while seeking a better life.
The smell of the ocean water mixed with the fumes from the boat’s motor. The noise that woke him up when the boat stopped for gas.
“I think about the boat all the time,” Lalanne said. “I remember when we pulled up to the shore. We were hiding in bushes, seeing cars pass by. We were picked up by a guy in a truck and we were here. In America.”
He said images of that trip appear to him in quiet moments, in dreams, and when he thinks about how far he’s come.
Cady Lalanne was the first in his family to graduate from high school and the first to graduate from college. Now, his newest journey takes him to Austin.
Lalanne was selected in the second round of the 2015 NBA Draft by the Spurs, taken 55th overall. Cady – pronounced “Caddie” - didn’t start playing basketball until he was 14, and will spend the season in Austin continuing to work on his development.
He’ll play in the AT&T Center for the first time on Dec. 29, when the Austin Spurs come to San Antonio to face the Santa Cruz Warriors.
“I don’t know how to explain how amazing this opportunity is to play in Austin,” Lalanne said. “To have my name called by the Spurs at the draft and be a part of this organization, I’m just so grateful. It’s more than anything my mom could have hoped for when she brought us to America.”
Bertha Lalanne brought her son and daughter, Betty, out of the poorest country in the Americas and settled them in Orlando, Florida.
She worked as a housekeeper at a hotel to support them. Cady describes his neighborhood as “not the best, but not the worst,” as his mother kept him in many after-school activities to keep him occupied.
Lalanne’s first love was football, which he played as a freshman in high school until the first time Bertha saw him take a hard hit on the field. It was then, at the age of 14, that Cady started playing basketball.
“My mom always did everything she could,” Lalanne said. “When I was drafted, she was the happiest one in the room.”
Lalanne played well enough in AAU basketball to earn scholarship offers, and signed with Massachusetts. He was already taking classes when he received a letter from the U.S. Government that mentioned deportation.
Because he came to America illegally, Lalanne had to return to Haiti to acquire legal status so he could play NCAA basketball.
Lalanne went to Port-au-Prince for a process he thought might take two weeks. It lasted six months. He stayed with a pastor in a land he hardly knew, and didn’t touch a basketball.
He said the six months in Haiti changed him, as he lived in an area that didn’t always have electricity or running water.
“There were times we thought I might not be able to come back to the country,” Lalanne said. “It was an eye-opening experience. After something like that, you don’t take anything for granted.”
The ordeal ended just before classes began in 2011-12. Lalanne returned to the United States with a valid passport and social security number and began playing basketball again.
UMass coach Derek Kellogg said Lalanne, a 6-foot-10 center, instantly became a fan favorite with the Minutemen. When players would make visits to youth clinics or churches or hospitals, Kellogg said that Lalanne would often look for the smallest kid in the group and pick them up to dunk the ball.
“He took your heart over immediately,” Kellogg said. “He has unquestionable character, works hard and listens to you. I think everybody he’s ever encountered wants to help him succeed.”
Lalanne thrived at UMass and became one of three players in school history to record 1,000 points, 800 rebounds and 100 blocks in a career, starting in every game his junior and senior year.
He also earned a degree in sociology, walking across the stage in Bertha Lalanne’s proudest moment.
Still relatively new to basketball, Lalanne said his progress has improved exponentially since he was drafted by the Spurs and joined their Summer League team.
One area of Lalanne’s development that Spurs director of scouting Brian Pauga noted is outside shooting. He was never asked to take long-range shots in college while playing primarily inside, but Lalanne said he hopes to be more of a stretch forward in the pros.
He’s attempted 40 3-pointers in 12 games with Austin, almost as many as the 47 he attempted in four seasons of college basketball. Lalanne has made 40 percent of his 3-pointers.
“Chip Engelland, San Antonio, and Austin coaches have reworked my whole shooting process,” Lalanne said. “Before, I wasn’t using my legs much. Now, I’m bending my knees, holding my follow-through and using all the right mechanics. I’m feeling more confident every day.”
Lalanne is averaging 11.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in his rookie season as the Austin Spurs are off to a 10-2 start.
Almost every day, Lalanne said he thinks about the boat that brought him to America. It helps motivate him to earn every opportunity.
“Every time you’re around him you just realize he’s going to keep getting better and better,” Austin coach Ken McDonald said. “He’s salt of the earth, and he just wants to get better.”