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Saved by Basketball: The Journey of Yohanny Dalembert

Yohanny Dalembert survived the devastating Haiti earthquake of 2010 before coming to the U.S. with his brother, where he gained a love for basketball.
Yohanny Dalembert survived the devastating Haiti earthquake of 2010 before coming to the U.S. with his brother, where he gained a love for basketball.(WHSV)
Published: Jan. 11, 2017 at 5:41 PM EST
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January 12 marks 7 years since a 7.0 earthquake ripped through Haiti, killing more than 200,000 people.

JMU basketball's Yohanny Dalembert was a teenager living in Port-au-Prince when the disaster changed his life.

But in the wake of tragedy, Yohanny found a calling and purpose on the hardwood.

Speaking with WHSV's Andrew Clay, he recalled the life-changing experience.

"I was coming back from school, taking a nap," Dalembert said. "The earth started shaking. I woke up... I, looking around and everything is crumbling. I'm frozen, I don't know what to do. My sister is screaming and I'm telling her, literally telling her to shut up. I was scared too, and I didn't know what to do. I was trying to be the tough guy, but the truth is I was pretty scared."

Internationally, it took days for people to understand the scope of devastation.

"Fears are growing that the earthquake in Haiti may have taken a staggering toll," the coverage on WHSV said on that day.

Countries around the world sent humanitarian aid and crews to help in the aftermath.

"I have directed my teams to be as forward leaning as possible in getting help on the ground," President Obama announced.

"I lost a lot of friends. Trying to find them that day, and reach them, the only platform we could reach them at was social media, so Facebook," Yohanny told us. "Some of the guys didn't answer the poke, some never answered the poke. Or messages. Then, a couple of days later, you find out they were, they were gone."

Yohanny Dalembert was 15-years-old when his life was shaken to pieces.

There are times when we've had to seek out people for him to talk to about it," said JMU Assistant Coach Mike Deane. "Because it certainly was an impactful event in his life."

As the world around began rebuilding, Yohanny came to the U.S. when his half-brother - former NBA starter Samuel - rescued him from the devastated island.

"We never grew up together," Yohanny said. "We never spent any holidays together or did anything together."

Yohanny is still impressed by what his brother did for him.

"That was a big step of maturity, because he was also 29. At the peak of his NBA career. To take in a 15-year-old and treat him like his son. Not like a brother, but a son," he said. "I'm not saying charity, but that was the biggest, best thing someone could have for me. To take me home and treat me like one of his own."

In 2010, Samuel was playing with the Philadelphia 76ers. And there, Yohanny found a new passion

"Going to his games and seeing the love that he got, and seeing him play as hard as he did, made me want to pick up a basketball."

Yo-yo had never played basketball, but as a senior, he led Lower Merion High School to a state championship.

"The culture there is about winning," Yohanny told WHSV. "Coach [Gregg' Downer coached Kobe Bryant for four years. That's, that's a legend."

"While his skill set is that of a center, said Assistant Coach Deane, "he's got more quickness and more athletic explosiveness than an awful lot of guys."

After high school, Yohanny arrived at James madison University where he's written a new chapter.

In his JMU career, he's made a name as one of the Dukes' fiercest defenders with more than 100 blocked shots and 500 rebounds.

"It's gone by so fast. It's kind of scary actually because it's our last year. What's next?" asked Yohanny. "Some of us have dreams to play more basketball, some of us have dreams to open up shops. We have different goals. But this is the end for us."

As his college career ends and Yohanny dreams of the pros, there will still be one thing on his mind - Haiti.

Ahome he hasn't seen in years. A land destroyed by a tragedy he was rescued from by basketball.

"I think everything happens for a reason, and hopefully God has a plan for me," Yohanny said. "Haiti will always be in my heart. And that's a part of the reason I play so hard. I want to compete to make the best out of a situation. I don't feel like I owe them, but I left people behind. In my mind. So, I want to make the best out of the situation."

Yohanny's parents still live in Haiti You'll remember that this past fall, Hurricane Matthew ripped through the island.

He says it's always scary. But he keeps in close contact with his family to make sure they are safe.

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