Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)
Before he announced his college decision, Yohanny Dalembert reflected on the journey he’d taken.
After all, he’d come quite a ways. First was 1,500-mile trip from his hometown in Haiti to the suburbs of Philadelphia, escaping the devastation of the 2010 earthquake. Then, he had to learn how to play the sport that would earn him a scholarship.
“When I first got here, I didn’t even know if I wanted to play basketball,” he said at the podium in Lower Merion’s Kobe Bryant Gymnasium, with his father Emanuel and sister Severine at his side. “I did it at first because my brother [NBA center Samuel Dalembert] did it. But over the last three years, I learned to love the game. It has become a huge part of my life,”
In the span of three years, Dalembert went from having never picked up a basketball to accepting a scholarship to James Madison University. The 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward donned a purple-and-gold JMU cap in front of a crowd of around 50 family and friends on Monday afternoon, ending one part of a long trip and beginning another.
Dalembert made the difficult decision to leave his home before high school, moving up to the Philadelphia suburbs for a better education and a hope of the American dream. At first, attending a new high school in the wealthy Main Line suburb was as difficult as could be expected for a fairly shy kid from one of the world’s poorest countries.
“That first year was tough, I have to admit, it was really tough, to just adjust to different things and different cultures,” he said. “Haiti will always be in my heart, it will always be home, but at the same time many people here welcomed me and made me feel like I was at home. They helped me get to where I am today.”
It was in that first year at the school that Dalembert went out for the basketball team, trying a sport he knew his brother played at the highest level but one he otherwise knew very little about. A soccer player his whole life, he began kicking the ball around his first time in the gym.
The first time he saw Dalembert, Lower Merion coach Gregg Downer had a feeling he had something special on his hands.
“He couldn’t make a layup and didn’t really know what to do….but he bent down and picked up the basketball like this,” Downer said, mimicking palming a ball straight off the ground. “He made it look like it was a grapefruit, and I liked the looks of that.”
And while the sport might not have grabbed him the first time he hit the hardwood, eventually Dalembert’s competitive side kicked in.
“I got dunked on, I got backed down and posterized a couple of times, and I was just like ‘enough,’” he said. “Now I’m the one doing the same things that they did to me when I first got here.”
Downer said Dalembert has improved more than any other player in the history of the Aces basketball program–though, as the longtime coach admitted, he was starting with a “blank slate.” He gave a lot of credit for Yohanny’s credit to former teammate Darryl Reynolds, a 6-9 forward who graduated from LM last year and attended Worcester (Ma.) prep school this season before committing to Villanova several weeks ago.
“They were very close friends off the court and when Darryl started having some success I thought that kind of rubbed off on Yohanny,” Downer said. “When you’re in our basketball program and you start having some success and playing in front of some big crowds and stuff, you can pretty quickly see that this can be a lot of fun.
“Where he has come as a player in the past three years is amazing, and I really think his best basketball is ahead of him. He literally had never touched a ball, and I think James Madison’s getting a steal. I think he’s going to have a great career there.”
In his senior season, the athletic forward averaged 11.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 4.1 blocks, helping lead his team to the PIAA Class AAAA championship. He was named to the second team in both the All-State and All-Southeastern PA honors and was named to the first team in the All-Central League and All-Main Line awards.
Dalembert’s recruitment had taken a number of twists and turns as his senior season wound down, with schools like Temple, VCU, Memphis, Middle Tennessee State and Villanova all showing varying amounts of interest. Eventually it came down to Drexel, James Madison and Hofstra; other colleges wanted him to take a year of prep school first, but he felt that he was ready for college this year.
In 2012-13, James Madison went 21-15 under head coach Matt Brady, winning the CAA tournament title and earning a 16-seed in the NCAA tournament. The Dukes beat LIU-Brooklyn 68-55 in a play-in game before losing 83-62 to top-seeded Indiana.
In addition to four graduating seniors, JMU will also lose sophomores Enoch Hood and Arman Marks to transfer, meaning there is certainly an opportunity for Dalembert to earn minutes right away.
By accepting the scholarship he fulfills a goal set not just by himself but by his father as well, though the elder Dalembert realized they might have slightly different reasons for being happy that day.
“I’m very proud of him, I’m very happy,” Emanuel Dalembert said. “As a parent, I think everybody wishes the best thing for their kids–so you want them to go to university, to college, to play basketball, as the first thing for him. But the first thing for me is to achieve his degree at a university.”
In going to the Colonial Athletic Association, Dalembert does ensure at least two trips per year up to the Philadelphia region when James Madison plays conference members Drexel and Delaware. Being just a few hours away from home–close, but not too close–was an important factor.
“I like to be able to come home, and a lot of people are going to come see my games,” said Dalembert, who plans to major in either business or communications and will head down to the school in July. “I’m in love with the campus, it’s a beautiful campus. I just can’t wait to see myself there.”