'We saw a group of people in need'

1/23/2010 - NBA

The speaker is Samuel Dalembert, Philadelphia 76ers center. The subject is his beloved and devastated home country of Haiti. The tone of voice is determined.

"I know that I'm not going to be able to save the whole country by myself," Dalembert says. "I know that I can make a difference in my way. If I feel like I'm not doing my best in my power and utilizing all the resources I have in my hands, I feel like I've failed. I know I'm not going to be able to help every single person back home, but I'm going to help a lot of them."

The speaker is Caryl Stern, president of UNICEF. The subject is Dalembert. The tone of voice is momentarily swooning.

"Oh, I love him," Stern says. "I love him."

Stern can turn solemn as she recounts stories of a child showing up at a UNICEF camp in Haiti, curling up in the fetal position and screaming for hours before finally revealing that he had watched both of his parents die in the earthquake; or the staff driver whose wife, son and daughter all died of earthquake-related injuries but who continued working, saying "I can't bring them back; I can only save lives."

But her voice turns giddy when she speaks about Dalembert.

"He has been an ardent supporter of Haiti [for years]," she says. "He has called upon us on numerous occasions to see what we're doing and how he can help."

The speaker is Olden Polynice, native of Haiti and former NBA player. The subject is Dalembert … and Alonzo Mourning and Dwyane Wade and Chris Paul and all the other NBA players who came forward to offer help to Haiti after a magnitude 7.0 earthquake wreaked havoc on the country. The tone is grateful.

"I'm very appreciative, and I'm sure the people of Haiti are, as well," Polynice says. "The guys have done an incredible job of stepping up. You hear all the negative. In this time of pain and misery, these guys have stepped up."

The speaker is Carlos Boozer, Utah Jazz forward. The subject is his peers. The tone is part defensive, part proud.

"People have a perception of the NBA as a bunch of thugs or whatever," Boozer says. "That's not true. We have guys that have big hearts that want to help out in times of need, that are good guys. Not all of us have friends from Haiti, not all of us are Haitian like Samuel Dalembert. We saw a group of people, a country in need."

The common sound audible in all of the voices was hope. Not one sounded defeated by the overwhelming circumstances in Haiti. No one seemed daunted by the task at hand. And none seemed to mind the additional duty that comes with this assignment … because in their efforts to rebuild a country, they just happen to be renovating the reputation of a league.

The NBA isn't the only league that's susceptible to scandal; it just seems to be the league where the scandals stick, where bad reputations are gained quickly and shed slowly. And as sports media coverage veers toward an increasingly tabloid tone, along came the Gilbert Gun Scandal to feed right into it.

But what we saw in response to the Haiti earthquake was the best side of the NBA. There was more than the expected mobilization by the people whose job descriptions entail it, such as Kathy Behrens, NBA executive vice president, social responsibility and player programs. Players took to Twitter to spread the word and give suggestions on how to donate funds via text-message donations. There also were player-sponsored initiatives, such as the Athletes Relief Fund for Haiti set up by Wade and recently retired Mourning.

That's how Boozer came into the network. An hour after he first learned of the tragedy, he got a call from Mourning, who was seeking donations that would benefit Project Medishare, an organization founded by two University of Miami doctors that has provided health care for Haitians since 1994. Boozer chipped in $10,000, and Mourning and Wade were quickly on their way to raising $800,000.

Boozer People have a perception of the NBA as a bunch of thugs or whatever. That's not true. We have guys that have big hearts that want to help out in times of need, that are good guys.

-- Jazz forward Carlos Boozer

There's a new generation coming of age in the NBA, symbolized by LeBron James' becoming the first 1980s-born player to win the Most Valuable Player award, and 28-year-old Boozer says, "As we all do mature, we feel a sense of responsibility."

When the Sept. 11 hijackings happened in 2001, Boozer was still in college, not in position to help financially. After Hurricane Katrina walloped New Orleans in 2005, Boozer participated in the benefit game in Houston put together by player-turned-TV-analyst Kenny Smith. He spent a week helping Katrina evacuees in the city, feeding people, handing out supplies at schools. At the league's day of service in New Orleans during the 2008 All-Star Weekend, his group, which included Wade and Caron Butler, went to help rebuild a school.

"I'll always remember the markings they had on the neighborhood houses, how many people survived, how many died," Boozer says. "There must have been 60, 70 people in a four-block radius that had died."

At the school, his group helped build a wall. It didn't feel like much to him, but he has come to realize the value of all contributions, lessons that stuck with him now in an even greater catastrophe.

About 2,000 people died as a result of Katrina. The extreme estimates in Haiti project a number that could be 100 times that.

Although those numbers are unfathomable, even on a personal scale the impact feels greater than anything we have experienced. On 9/11, it felt as if everyone knew at least one person who had lost someone close to him or her. For me, it was my friend's brother, who died in the Pentagon.

With Haiti, it's multiple people who lost multiple people. I've talked to a work colleague who had two deaths in the family. I've heard through the social media grapevine about a college schoolmate who is missing relatives. Even the elation of hearing Polynice say that his father was alive the day after the earthquake has been tempered by subsequent news that three of his cousins have died.

In the face of excessive numbers, the best solution can be to focus on the minutiae.

"When you can help, you've got to help," Boozer says. "And every little bit helps. If you send a toothbrush. If you've got 50 cents."

Money counts the most in the immediate aftermath of a catastrophe. It feels cold and impersonal to donors who would feel more connected by sharing their own possessions or want to see more tangible evidence of their charitable acts. But the people whose job it is to provide help, such as UNICEF's Stern, say the cost of delivering the items can exceed the value of the items themselves. And with an infrastructure as damaged as Haiti's, where the largest port is down to a single pier that can accommodate only one-way traffic, it's exceptionally difficult to get supplies where they need to be. (To provide a personal touch, Stern suggests writing thank-you letters to the rescue and recovery workers).

People at the NBA offices have come to know what to do and whom to deal with in these crises.

"All of this is the culmination of, unfortunately, our experience," Behrens says. "We've had and dealt with a lot of the same partners, for the tsunami in Southeast Asia, the hurricane in New Orleans, the earthquake in China. We've been though these. We have some history in terms of figuring out the right way to mobilize."

Their initial contact was with longtime partner UNICEF, and they quickly turned to Dalembert as a spokesman. He taped a public service announcement the day after the earthquake and it began running during TNT's nationally televised games the next day.

On Jan. 15, Stern came to the 76ers' game against the Sacramento Kings and Dalembert presented her with a check for $100,000. Then he challenged fans to donate at collection sites set up around the arena, and he matched their contributions, which resulted in an additional $22,000, according to Stern.

After playing in Minnesota on Monday night, Dalembert flew to South Florida, where he hopped aboard a Project Medishare charter flight to Haiti. He made it back to Philadelphia on Wednesday just in time for the 76ers' game against Portland, and afterward gave an emotional account of his experiences in Haiti.

Given the circumstances, Dalembert's 10 points and 15 rebounds make for the most impressive double-double you'll ever see. Just seeing his name in the box score ranks as an accomplishment. No one would blame him for spending the rest of the week in Haiti. Instead, his commitment to his job was just as strong as his dedication to his country.

"I think I use the game as a way of getting away," Dalembert says. "It's the way to clear my mind. If we were a winning team, maybe I would take a game or two off. We need as much help as possible. I could've said I'm taking the week off, but I don't think I can be as much use over there, from what's going on.

Dalembert The best way I can help is by coming here and bringing the message and telling people what's going on, letting them know the money's going to the right place and the right thing.

-- 76ers center Sam Dalembert

"It's sad, it's not a place that I can go unless you can do something. And the best way I can help is by coming here and bringing the message and telling people what's going on, letting them know the money's going to the right place and the right thing."

Dalembert's willingness to embrace this role as spokesman has turned a player with a career average of 8.1 points per game into one of the most visible faces in the NBA in the past week, just as Haiti ("the ghost part of the land that nobody knew about," Dalembert says) is suddenly on the minds of many Americans who couldn't locate it on a map last month.

"That's why I kind of have to look at this in two different viewpoints," Polynice says. "It's a tragedy, all the lost lives. I'm hoping in the future this will help Haiti grow and become stronger and be a beacon of light to other Third World countries. Now the world's eyes are open to Haiti, and they will stay open and it won't be the forgotten country.

"A lot of people owe a lot to Haiti. We were the first [post-colonial] independent black nation. When George Washington was losing in the war, it was Haitian slaves that were brought in to help the U.S. win the war. We have a lot of great people here in the U.S. that hold high positions in a lot of different companies."

Living in the most impoverished nation in the hemisphere, surviving the father-son Duvalier dictators for 30 years, Haitians had to develop a resilience just to get through everyday life. The same trait that helped Polynice forge a 14-year career in the NBA is evidenced in the willpower that enabled some earthquake survivors to last beneath the rubble for a week without water.

"We just persevere, there's something about us," Polynice says. "We've been through hell already.

"They're gonna keep fighting. I know that for a fact …

"I loved that image of that lady when they pulled her out. First thing she started doing was singing. That's it. That's Haiti."

Polynice wants to help in the coming weeks. He's planning a comedy benefit show at The Laugh Factory in Hollywood on Jan. 29. During Super Bowl week in Miami, he will host a display of sports memorabilia as well as an evening with Pro Football Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson (information available at TeamUpWorld.org).

What Dalembert took from his Haitian visit is the need for tents. Tents to provide cover for medical facilities, tents to shelter families, tents to provide relief for doctors so they don't have to waste valuable time and resources shuttling off the island to get rest.

That is an immediate goal of his Samuel Dalembert Foundation, but he doesn't want Haiti to slip from our minds once the crisis subsides and the next story or scandal comes along and captures our attention.

"Something this big has to happen for people to say we have to step up and do something," Dalembert says. "All the people have to suffer for the world to realize that now we need to focus and do something, not just leave it in their hands and say, 'Take care of yourself.' Now it's time to go over there. We need a hospital; let's build a hospital. We need a school for the kids; let's build a school. Four months from now, I want to see a lot of planes coming to Haiti and providing help. A year from now, I want a hospital built."

We've learned a lot about the needs of a neighboring nation in the past couple of weeks. In the process, we learned a little about the people we see on NBA courts, night after night.