Kentucky target Labissiere a walking, shooting 'miracle'

broberts@herald-leader.comJanuary 31, 2013 

When he's on a basketball court, Skal Labissiere makes quite the first impression.

Legendary Tennessee high school coach Terry Tippett clearly remembers his first encounter with Labissiere.

It was 2010, and the 6-foot-10 Haitian had left his homeland in hopes of playing basketball in the United States.

Tippett, a Hall of Fame coach with 40 years of experience in Tennessee hoops, was in charge of Evangelical Christian School in Memphis.

When he first saw Labissiere, Tippett was skeptical.

"He was a string bean," Tippett said. "I thought he was so thin and so weak."

Then they went into the gym.

"He shot the ball and I said, 'Oh, man!'" Tippett recalled. "It came out of his hands so soft. Jump hooks. He went right and left. He can really do anything with the ball."

Labissiere (pronounced La-biss-EE-ay) ended up enrolling at Evangelical Christian and playing for the varsity basketball team as an eighth-grader.

Word eventually spread to Kentucky Coach John Calipari, who called Tippett — an acquaintance from his Memphis days — to ask if Labissiere was "good enough" to play for the Wildcats.

"I think so," Tippett told him.

On that recommendation, Calipari made the trip to see Evangelical Christian's first game of the season.

"He came and took a look and really liked him," Tippett said. "And he offered him that night. He just came in and saw the potential that the kid has.

"That was great that he would think that much of him."

Labissiere, who ESPN ranks as the No. 5 overall player in the class of 2015, was scheduled to play in a showcase in Louisville on Saturday, but the game was canceled by the event's organizers.

He remains the only sophomore in the country with a scholarship offer from Kentucky.

Memphis, Georgetown and Mississippi State are among the other schools expressing early interest.

"He's still taking everything in and seeing what might happen," Tippett said. "But I know that he loves Cal and loves Kentucky and was very impressed with the offer."

The journey hasn't been easy for Labissiere.

He was 13 years old when a devastating earthquake rocked Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010. The disaster killed more than 200,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of others homeless.

Labissiere was in his home at the time. It crumbled around him, leaving the basketball-crazed teenager pinned under a pile of rubble and fearing that he'd never play again.

It took several hours for his father to dig him out, and Labissiere's legs had gone numb in the meantime.

Gerald Hamilton — Labissiere's legal guardian in the United States — said Labissiere wasn't able to walk for a few weeks, and he took several months to get back in basketball shape.

Hamilton operates Reach Your Dream, a non-profit organization that helps international kids get into schools in the United States in order to pursue a college education.

Shortly after the earthquake, Hamilton was put in contact with Labissiere's parents, who wanted to send their child to the United States.

Hamilton flew to Haiti to take care of the paperwork. He met Labissiere and his father at a hotel in Port-au-Prince.

"The first time I saw him, he was smiling," Hamilton said. "He didn't speak English, so he didn't say very much. His dad and I were talking.

"The only time he said something the whole time — I asked his dad, 'What position do you think he wants to play?' And (Skal) screamed out, '3 or 4!' That was the only thing he said. He knew then. He had it down pat."

Tippett and Hamilton both described Labissiere as a student of the game. "He knows all the old pros," Tippett said.

Hamilton, who Labissiere lives with, says the 16-year-old spends hours studying the game's legends.

"He's a YouTube expert," he said with a chuckle. "He watches old YouTube film of other big men — seeing what they do and what kinds of moves they had."

Tippett said his star player has taken to America "like a sponge," on the court and off.

Labissiere spoke little English when he arrived and required a French interpreter in all of his classes at Evangelical Christian. After three or four months, he didn't need the extra help.

Now, he speaks fluent English. "He's a sharp kid," Tippett said. "Really, really smart."

Tippett was initially concerned about Labissiere's ability to adjust to life away from home — the player's parents and siblings are still in Haiti.

The coach said he called his players together before Labissiere's arrival and told them to be mindful of his situation.

Turns out, he didn't need to worry.

"He is the most well-adjusted, happiest, pleasant kid you'd ever want to see," Tippett said. "He's grateful, he's thankful, he's a great kid. It's a miracle.

"I just think the sky is the limit."

Ben Roberts: (859) 231-3216Twitter: @NextCatsBlog: ukrecruiting.bloginky.com

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