Meet the Wildcats: A journey unlike any other, Labissiere arrives at UK embracing competition

A new season brings new players and new stories to tell. Over the next several weeks, CoachCal.com will be profiling Kentucky’s newcomers in its annual and exclusive “Meet the Wildcats” series. Each story will be accompanied with video. Next up is highly touted big man Skal Labissiere.

O
n Jan. 12, 2010, Skal Labissiere’s life changed forever.

The day started off just like any other for Labissiere, 14 years old at the time, except that his dad picked him up from school instead of his mom. Later, that would prove to be a blessing in disguise.

Because it was his dad who had picked him up, Labissiere ran inside when he got home to say hello to his mother and little brother while his dad stayed outside to work on fixing a basketball hoop that Skal and his little brother, Elliot, played on. With basketball practice scheduled for later that day, Skal went to wash his hands before getting something to eat. It was at that point that his life, and the lives of millions of others, was affected forever, as the epicenter of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit just 16 miles from his home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

“I ran to my mom, my little brother ran and had just enough time to make it there. Then the house just collapsed on us,” Labissiere said in an exclusive interview with CoachCal.com. “The only reason my dad didn’t come inside the house was because of the basketball goal. He was fixing it. I remember just being there and how fast it happened. I thought I was dreaming at first. I just shook my head and was like, ‘Wow, this is really happening.’ ”

Bio Blast

Position: Forward
Date of birth: March 18, 1996
Parents: Lesly and Ema Labissiere
Hometown: Port-au-Prince, Haiti
High school: Lausanne Collegiate School
Nickname: Skally Wally
Twitter: @OneBigHaitian
Instagram: skallywally
Favorite TV show: NBA Gametime
Favorite food: Haitian food
Favorite superhero: Batman
Favorite player: Kobe Bryant
Favorite sport/hobby outside of basketball: Soccer
Favorite artist: Bob Marley

A computer desk was the only thing that stopped the wall to their side from crumbling on top of them, essentially saving their lives. The first thing Skal could remember was hearing his brother screaming about his foot, which had been caught in the rubble.  Though he couldn’t see where they were coming from behind the now ruined houses of Port-au-Prince, screams from people elsewhere echoed into the wreckage.

Because Skal’s dad was outside during the earthquake, he knew to look for them amid the rubble. Had he not been outside, who knows if or when the Labissieres would have been rescued from underneath their now demolished home.

“I remember us just praying and doing our repentance prayers because I thought I was going to die,” Skal said. “That was the only thing that was going through my mind. I remember my dad being on the outside. He came around and started screaming my mom’s name to see if we were alive, and she answered. It took him about two, three more hours to get us out of there.”

Both Skal and his younger brother had trouble walking immediately after the earthquake because their legs had been trapped for so long, and his mother received a cut on the nose by her eye. That there was nothing more was truly a blessing.

The Labissieres slept on the street that night, eventually ignoring the frequent rumble of the earth that continued to shake every 5-10 minutes in the aftermath of one of the largest earthquakes Haiti had ever seen. They continued to live in a tent for a long time after that for fear of going inside a house or school that might come crumbling down from aftershocks measuring a magnitude of 5.0 or greater.

Despite the disaster and everything that ensued, Labissiere maintains an admirable and impressive outlook on the event.

“I think about it a lot,” he said. “To see where I am today, where God put me today, I believe that everything happens for a reason.”

Instead of asking “Why us?” Labissiere and his family were thankful to be alive. Their next step was to get Skal to the United States as quickly as possible.

Labissiere says the earthquake made him into the person he is today.

When people doubt him, Labissiere says it only makes him work that much harder to prove them wrong.

Throughout his life, Labissiere’s dream was to play in the NBA. With no college basketball games on TV in Haiti, Labissiere often watched the Los Angeles Lakers and his favorite player, Kobe Bryant. It wasn’t Kobe’s jumper or his high-flying dunks that drew him to the game; it was his drive, work ethic and competitive spirit that enamored him the most.

“I just love working,” Labissiere said. “It might be painful at the time, but at the end of the day I know I’m going to get better. It’s just temporary, like the pain I’m going through when I’m working out. But after workouts I just feel like I got better. I just like to take it a day at a time, step-by-step, and it’s just a process. I really enjoy it.”

With that kind of mindset, it should come as no surprise that Labissiere wanted to get to the United States much sooner rather than later, but his father was hesitant to have him leave home until he was about 16-18 years old. Following the earthquake in 2010, Labissiere’s father quickly changed his mind and said, “Skal, you’re getting out of here.”

“Skal is in the same mold of Marcus Camby and Anthony Davis because he went from 6-2 to 6-11 and he has guard skills. He’s a talented two-way player from Haiti with long arms that have helped him both offensively and defensively. What really drew us to Skal is he’s a high-character kid with a 3.5 grade-point average who wants to get better.” – Coach Cal
Labissiere moved to Olive Branch, Miss., a small town of just over 30,000 at the northern most part of Mississippi, just outside of Memphis, Tenn., where he lived with his guardian, Gerald Hamilton. While Memphis is a big city with a lot going on, Olive Branch is a small town where “people know each other.”

Initially, the move was difficult for Skal, who had to get accustomed to American food.

“I remember trying to eat a burger, I would take a bite of it and throw the rest away because it tasted so weird to me,” he said. “The chicken was different. I remember my family at home cooking for me and I didn’t really feel like eating other food sometimes.”

Skal, with a determination as strong as any anyone’s, continued working hard toward his dream of playing basketball professionally, and he tried to live a normal life in what was anything but. He has not been back to Haiti since his move to the States, but his parents have come to visit and he talks to them on the phone frequently. There was also of course the language barrier to overcome.

One thing that did translate was basketball.

After playing well in camps as a freshman in high school, Labissiere began to move up recruiting rankings quickly, but he said he never paid too much attention to them because “it’s just a ranking.” What did get his attention was when John Calipari and the University of Kentucky began recruiting him.

“To be honest, (Coach Cal) didn’t really have to give (a recruiting pitch) because I watched Kentucky for myself,” Labissiere said. “I’ve been watching them since freshman year – actually every year since they had Brandon Knight and made it to the Final Four that year, and the next year I watched Anthony Davis and I loved the way he used Anthony Davis. I remember watching the Kentucky All-Access show the following year with Nerlens Noel and all those guys. … (Coach Cal) didn’t really have to tell me a whole lot because his track record speaks for itself. I just really wanted to come here.”

Labissiere is a player who doesn’t shy away from competition. In fact, he embraces it. Instead of going to a school where he could load up on shots and pad his stats, the 7-footer chose to go to a place where he was going to be challenged.

On a visit to UK, he played pick-up ball against the Cats and got “killed” by Willie Cauley-Stein, who he said went to work on him. Instead of shying away from the competitiveness of the pick-up games though, Labissiere relished it, ultimately making his decision that much easier.

A thoughtful kid with an appreciation for life, Labissiere is already projected to be one of the top picks in the 2016 NBA Draft.

A well-rounded individual with an appreciation for life, Labissiere is already projected to be one of the top picks in the 2016 NBA Draft.

“I’ll find any way that can make me better,” Labissiere said. “I thought coming here was going to make me better so that’s what I chose to do. I remember coming here on my visit and I saw what the level of competition was – there was nothing compared to this at the other schools I visited. I love competition, I love getting better, I love playing against the best because that’s going to make me a better player.”

That work ethic then makes sense when you hear what his career goals are.

“At the end of the day I’m trying to better myself because one day I want to be a hall of famer,” Labissiere said. “That’s my goal. I want to be a hall of famer one day.”

As for college, Labissiere’s goal is to bring a ninth national championship banner to Lexington.

“I think we have the team and the talent to do it,” he said. “We have a great group of guys. … We love each other and love playing with each other, and we have a great coaching staff. I think we have a chance to make it to the national championship. We just recently got Jamal Murray. Me and him are really good friends and I think that’s a huge addition for us. We have a chance to make it to a championship and win it.”

“At the end of the day I’m trying to better myself because one day I want to be a hall of famer. That’s my goal.” – Skal Labissiere
A self-professed great teammate and very coachable player, Labissiere believes he can only control his controllables. Can he guarantee 30 points in a game? No, he says, but he can make sure to run and dive on the floor, block shots and play hard. Labissiere, who says he “loves” school, is enjoying Lexington already and is excited about the independence that accompanies being away at college.

Despite being an 18-year-old living more than a thousand miles away from home, Labissiere is able to keep everything in perspective and have not only an appreciation, but an admiration for hard work and competition, thanks to what happened on that fateful day in January of 2010 when his life changed forever.”

“That’s why I am very thankful for life,” Labissiere said. “I understand that it can be taken away from me at any moment, at any second. It was a terrible thing that happened, but I think I learned a lot from it and it made me into the person I am today.”