Ex-Cats

Nerlens Noel’s career path can be traced back to hard-working mom

Dorcina Noel smiles as her son, Dallas Mavericks forward Nerlens Noel, chats with team COO Floyd Jahner in the tunnel before an NBA basketball game at American Airlines Center on Friday, March 10, 2017 in Dallas, Texas.
Dorcina Noel smiles as her son, Dallas Mavericks forward Nerlens Noel, chats with team COO Floyd Jahner in the tunnel before an NBA basketball game at American Airlines Center on Friday, March 10, 2017 in Dallas, Texas. Dallas Morning News/TNS

When Nerlens Noel’s mother, Dorcina, heard her son might get traded from the Philadelphia 76ers to the Dallas Mavericks, she prayed that the rumor would become reality.

It had nothing to do with the fact that in 1992, two years after she immigrated to Massachusetts from Haiti, Dorcina named her second child Rodman, after her favorite basketball player and Dallas product Dennis.

Mostly, Dorcina was prayerful because Nerlens, 22, needed a fresh NBA start and because, from afar, Dallas always seemed to Dorcina like a dynamic city that exuded opportunity.

“When the trade happened, Nerlens was so happy; I was so happy,” she said. “He said, ‘Mom, please come with me.’ I said, ‘OK. You make me cry, baby.’”

Since the former University of Kentucky star’s Feb. 25 arrival, Noel has won five of the six games he’s played and was on the court when Dirk Nowitzki scored his 30,000th career point. And, last week, he hosted his mom at American Airlines Center for the first time, although he sat out against Brooklyn because of left knee soreness.

Dorcina, 47, came to help her son find a temporary apartment and to attend the Brooklyn game and Saturday’s home game against Phoenix, which Nerlens also had to miss.

His decision to go the apartment route doesn’t mean he expects a short stay in Dallas. Actually, it’s the opposite.

I used to tell her that one day I’d be able to take care of her. Thankfully, that has worked out.

Nerlens Noel

Granted, he can become a restricted free agent this summer, but all signs point to Dallas keeping him, matching any offer he receives or, more likely, offering a significant multiyear increase from his current $4.38 million salary.

If that happens, he certainly will be able to afford a new house here, as well as one for Dorcina, maybe even nicer than the one he bought her in Wilmington, Del., 30 minutes outside Philadelphia, after he became a Sixer.

“I used to tell her that one day I’d be able to take care of her,” Noel said. “Thankfully, that has worked out.”

Though 6-foot-11, 220-pound Noel hasn’t been a Maverick long, the franchise and its fans have seen strong glimpses, causes for optimism that, health willing, he can blossom into the franchise’s center of the future.

The explosive leaping. The 7-4 wingspan. The surprisingly quick hands and sixth-sense nose for the ball. Though he’s far from polished offensively, Noel already has given Dallas a rim-protecting presence and shown signs of becoming the lob threat the franchise has lacked since Tyson Chandler’s departure.

Such intangibles, however, are not the only reasons Noel confidently predicted during his introductory news conference that being a Maverick “will let me open up my wings and play freely.”

On his way to becoming the No. 1-ranked high school recruit in the country in 2012, Noel resolved to make the most of the opportunities Dorcina paved for him and his older brothers Jim and Rodman and younger sister Nashdah.

Dorcina worked long hours as a nurse, often pulling double shifts. Usually the shifts would be 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Other times she worked 11 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift and the one preceding or after it.

“It taught me the value of being humble and knowing where I came from,” Nerlens said. “And valuing what you have. Small amounts. Big amounts.

“At the end of the day, you have what you have; that’s what you work with. It’s all from humble beginnings.”

Strong work ethic

Dorcina was 19 when she and her husband, Yonel, emigrated from Haiti to Everett, Mass., just outside Boston.

During her youth, Dorcina Saint Pierre’s parents stressed education and the importance of learning a trade, which for Dorcina became nursing.

Dorcina and Yonel arrived in America in November 1990. Nine months later, Jim was born. Their second child, also a son, came a year later.

“The doctor comes in and says, ‘Dorcina, you don’t have a name for your baby son?’” Dorcina recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, of course. Rodman. I love Dennis Rodman. He’s so funny. I love the way he plays.’”

“I love Rodman, too,” the doctor replied with a laugh. “Look at that. He looks like a Rodman.”

Had Dorcina known what the future held, she might have saved the name for her third son and the Mavericks would have a center named for a bad-boy, Dallas-product Naismith Hall of Famer.

Jim and Rodman Noel became standout football players. Jim was a 6-4, 200-pound Boston College safety who made the Seattle Seahawks’ 2013 rookie minicamp roster. He is in his second year as a Kansas City Chiefs scouting assistant.

Rodman was a 6-3, 220-pound linebacker who had 142 career tackles at North Carolina State and earned a Cleveland Browns rookie camp invite. He works for a hospital system in Delaware, helping uninsured patients apply for medical assistance.

Dorcina said that before Nerlens’ April 10, 1994, birth, she was so busy working that she had not given much thought about what to name him.

When the doctor asked for a name, she contemplated for a minute or two. She said it occurred to her that a first name that began with N would alliterate nicely with Noel.

“I said, ‘OK, let’s call him Nerlens.’ They said, ‘Good name, nice name.’ I said, ‘Yes, Nerlens, I love his name. … I’m glad I could give my son a good name like that. Nerlens Noel.’”

Nerlens, turns out, isn’t the only basketball player in the family. Nashdah is a 5-10 senior forward at Tabor Academy in Marion, Mass.

“I am so happy I had a good mom and dad; the education they gave to me, that’s what I gave to my kids,” Dorcina said. Her father died in 2004; her mother in June 2015.

“I say, ‘Lord, thank you. Thank you so much because it is not easy in America, working by myself to take care of four kids.’”

Yonel initially held down jobs as a taxi driver and hospital cafeteria worker. Dorcina said she and Yonel became estranged when he became verbally abusive toward her and seldom helped in child-raising.

“Everything we became comes from the rock of the family, and that’s our mom,” Jim said in a recent telephone interview from the NFL combine. “She has taught us that nothing in this country ever comes easy, so you’ve got to work for everything you want.”

Along the way, the Noel kids learned to be independent and how to maximize what little means they had.

Between her double shifts, usually as a caregiver at various Boston-area assisted-living facilities, she cooked the kids’ favorite Haitian dishes — fried beef and pork, fried and stuffed fish, rice and beans — making extra so that the refrigerator would be somewhat stocked.

“Nerlens was the picky baby,” Dorcina said. “When the food was gone, he called me. ‘Food is over. Mom, you cannot stay until 11 p.m. Come back home, Mom. I need you to cook.’”

During their middle and high school years, Jim, Rodman and Nerlens were given $5 each morning. A portion of that paid for their school lunches; the rest had to be stretched for post-practice snacks and, when necessary, dinner.

Sometimes the boys went to McDonald’s, or got Chinese fast food, or got something from the neighborhood Lil' Peach convenience store.

“Sometimes,” Nerlens said, “we’d just put our money together to buy a super-super meal to last a little longer than usual.”

Toughened up

Being the youngest of three Noel boys sometimes wasn’t easy, but Nerlens ultimately benefited.

He said he remembers walking back from the rec center with Jim and Rodman after basketball games. Sometimes they would suddenly break into a sprint, knowing little Nerlens couldn’t keep up.

“I think it built me up a little bit,” he said. “And whenever we’d wrestle, having older brothers like that, builds a toughness in you that’s definitely needed for the future.”

Said Rodman: “He didn’t ever want to take any (grief) from his older brothers, no matter how much bigger we were then. I think he carries that on his shoulders today.”

Like his brothers, Nerlens played football. He said he primarily played quarterback until his freshman year of high school, when he was moved to receiver to take advantage of his height and leaping ability.

“He wore the Randy Moss number (88 with the Patriots) because he kind of wanted to be like him,” Jim said.

After his sophomore year, though, Nerlens quit football because, unlike his brothers, he had continued to sprout in height and it became clear that his future was in basketball.

That also is when he transferred from Everett High to the Tilton School in New Hampshire. Originally slated to graduate in 2013, he reclassified and finished a year earlier, yet still was rated No. 1 in the nation by ESPN and Scout.com.

By then, Jim and Rodman were standout college athletes, yet Jim says baby brother Nerlens had become “the alpha dog” of the Noels.

“Out of the family, he is the most courageous one, I'll give him that,” Jim said with a laugh. “He will run through a brick wall in terms of trying to do anything. He won’t always realize the consequences, but he wants to do it because he wants to test the limits.”

Focused on success

Nerlens smiled, but didn’t disagree, when told that Jim had ceded him family alpha dog status.

He said that step forward probably occurred during his junior year in high school.

“That’s when I was transitioning into more of a professional mind-set of seeing toward the future,” he said. “I’ve always tried to be more unique, in a lot of different ways, to prepare myself to be more successful, think differently, have a different mind-set than everybody else.

“I knew that would set me apart.”

After suffering a left knee ACL tear during his only season at Kentucky, Noel decided to test his limits by declaring for the NBA Draft.

Four injury-shortened seasons while playing for terrible Sixers teams certainly tested him in ways he never imagined, but now he’s with a new franchise, in a new city, with seemingly a brighter outlook – and that bigger contract in his near future.

Dorcina and Nashdah landed in Dallas on Friday to 70-degree temperatures. Upon arriving at AAC for the Brooklyn game, Nashdah remarked that when she flew out of Boston that morning, it was snowing.

When Nerlens emerged from the Mavericks’ locker room before the game, Dorcina, wearing a cream-colored dress, beamed as she and Nashdah hugged Nerlens and posed for a few photos.

Dorcina said she has long wanted to live in a warm-weather city, although she joked about the “real” reason Nerlens wants her to move to Dallas.

“A couple of days ago he texted and said, ‘Mom, I miss you,’” she said. “I said, ‘I know why you miss me so much. My cooking.’

“When I come and make him food, he will get more weight.”

Since Mom made Nerlens’ NBA career possible, the Mavericks probably are encouraged to know she plans to be here to help him fill out his physique and basketball potential.

Although more than likely, they would prefer him to go easy on the fried stuff.

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