The Small Caribbean Nation With NBA Prospects and a World Cup Dream
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this underdog story has a shooter’s chance.
By Matt Foley
Two years ago, inside sweltering Vincent Gymnasium on the south side of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Dallas Mavericks center Nerlens Noel leaned back with his hands on his head, gasping for air. What began as a philanthropic visit to promote the talent-identification camp of the Haitian Federation of Basketball (FHB) had turned into a full-blown workout. The camp, attended by nearly 100 of Haiti’s top young basketball players, was an opportunity to make the national team. So that’s exactly what Noel, a first-generation Haitian-American who was born in Massachusetts, chose to do.
“I’m ready to play for Haiti with the goal of putting the team in a good position internationally,” the 6′11″ former lottery pick told the Haiti Sentinel in September 2016. “I’m here to help create opportunity for the Haitian youth.”
Two years later, led by commitments from Noel, an NBA-affiliated head coach and, potentially, the only current Haitian-born NBA player, the tiny Caribbean country is returning to competitive international play for the first time in nearly four decades.
This June, in Suriname, the Haitian Men’s National Basketball Team will compete in the FIBA pre-qualifying round for the first time since 1981.
Much like the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup (international football), the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) holds a World Cup every four years. This June competition, the AmeriCup 2021 Pre-Qualifiers, is the first of a number of steps in Haiti’s quest to compete at international basketball’s highest stage. The top two Caribbean pre-qualifier teams will advance to a September tournament against the top South American and Central American clubs for a chance at qualifying for the 2023 World Cup.
For Haiti, a World Cup berth is a Steph Curry-from-the-rafters-level long shot. But considering the country’s recent history of disaster and its previous disconnect with the sport, qualifying for the AmeriCup is an impressive feat. And, as basketball continues its global takeover, Haiti has reason for wishful thinking. It won’t make the 2019 World Cup or 2020 Olympics, but a surprise 2023 Cup bid, or Paris in 2024, is possible.
Like most Caribbean nations, Haiti is a talent-rich, resource-poor, soccer-crazed place. Three Haitian-born basketball players — Samuel Dalembert, Olden Polynice and current Sacramento King Skal Labissèrie — have made the NBA, as have several Haitian-Americans, like Noel. Still, soccer remains the country’s dominant sporting interest.
But following the earthquake that devastated Haiti in 2010, basketball has made a comeback. “With the damage of the earthquake in 2010, basketball creates opportunities for young men like myself to seek a way out and to give the community something to rally behind,” says David Jean-Baptiste, a junior guard at University of Tennessee-Chattanooga who will play for Team Haiti. “‘L’ Union Fait La Force’ on Haiti’s flag means ‘Unity Makes Strength.’ Basketball brings the people together.”
But community spirit is not the only interest. Haitian basketball officials plan to compete on the world stage — and soon. In addition to Jean-Baptiste, seven players were selected from the 2016 camp in Port-au-Prince. Noel provides the team with a world-class athlete whose mere presence is invaluable to the roster. Labissière — who fled Haiti in 2010, played one season at Kentucky and became a first-round NBA draft pick — has not yet committed to the team, but he hosts youth camps in Haiti each summer, and officials remain hopeful that he will join. Cady Lalanne, a Haitian center who plays professionally in Turkey, completes the roster.
“Haiti is one of the few small countries with two players in the NBA,” Matt Brase, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers (G League) coach who will coach Hait, told reporters this spring. “We might not be able to get the basketball program to Olympic level right away, but I’m confident about the program’s future.”
At present, Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Bahamas are five of the 16 clubs competing for seven Americas spots in the 2019 World Cup. With top international teams in the U.S., Argentina, Brazil and Canada, it’s a crowded field — but not impenetrable. Of the Caribbean clubs, only Dominican Republic has a winning record in qualifying play. Come 2023, there’s reason to believe that Haiti could steal a final spot.
Like any comeback story, the realization of Haiti’s basketball potential will require good fortune and the right timing. Good thing this nation knows how to rebuild.
Correction: The original version of this story cited Jon Bostic and Jasson Valbrun as leaders of Haiti’s basketball revival. They are not affiliated with the Haitian Federation of Basketball.