HOUSTON – Samuel Dalembert stepped off the plane and barely recognized the land where he grew up.
Two frantic days after a magnitude-7.0 earthquake rumbled across his native Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, the veteran NBA center returned to the Caribbean nation and could hardly absorb the chaos and horror.
Victims missing limbs lying helplessly in the littered streets. Children covered in blood, screaming for their parents. Buildings pulverized and homes crushed into twisted piles of rubble.
"You felt like this was the end," Dalembert recalls. "It's like the end of Earth."
Dalembert lost a cousin and several close friends among the estimated 300,000 killed. Another 1.5 million residents were left homeless. Roads were impassable. Communication was impossible.
"You looked at the country," Dalembert remembers, "you felt like it was Armageddon. It was devastating."
Two years later, the NBA's only Haitian-born player prays for progress, while tempering his frustration that more hasn't been done to rebuild his crippled country.
Recently signed by the Houston Rockets, the 6-foot-11 Dalembert is on a mission to help, donating about $650,000 and establishing a foundation for relief efforts and putting down $1 million out of his own pocket to break ground on a sports academy for Haitian children.
"I know I'm not going to be able to save the whole place," he said. "But I know that I can make a difference in some young one's life, and give them hope."
The 30-year-old Dalembert made four trips back home this summer while the NBA's labor dispute lingered. He estimates that the country is "about 20 percent" back to the way it used to be.
President Michel Martelly acknowledged this week that the rebuilding process has been slow, and that he has made mistakes since he was elected last May.
Dalembert has become acquainted with Martelly, a pop star in Haiti when Dalembert was a boy, and he's optimistic that the new president has put the reconstruction on the right track.
"My buddy has become president of the country now, and he's tried to really make a change," Dalembert said with a proud grin. "He's really tried to make things move in. Sometimes, you've got parties that try to hold things down and try to get their own people in. It's politicking and I try to stay away from that."
Before the disaster, Dalembert took classes at Stanford on how to start a charitable foundation to aid his already impoverished country. It launched in 2007. But when he witnessed the scope of the catastrophe three years later, the foundation kicked into high gear, and he began mapping out plans for the first of several community centers that he wants to model after YMCAs in America.
A former first-round pick, Dalembert felt compelled once he reached the NBA to use his fame and wealth to give back to his fellow Haitians, a lesson his parents instilled in him.
He has been an active participant in the NBA's Basketball Without Borders Program, a campaign aimed at improving education, health and fitness for young people around the world, and has worked in the aftermath of the earthquake with Medishare, a Miami-based nonprofit agency trying to improve health care in Haiti.
"Looking back, and you say, 'Wow, God kind of gave you this opportunity, coming away from there and being in the league,'" he said. "I take pride in that. I feel like I'm very blessed, and I'll continue to do the best I can and help."
The country was hardly well off before the earthquake, and Dalembert has vivid memories of his own hard-scrabble upbringing.
Food was sparse and when someone cooked, the children shared their paltry portions without hesitation. Electricity was even scarcer, and controlled by the government, so when Dalembert cracked the books to study mathematics, history and Latin it was by candlelight most of the time.
"When they did give back electricity, one time a week, or maybe one time every two weeks," he said, "Mom's trying to iron as many clothes as she can for the days to come, because you don't know the next time they are going to give it back to you."
He moved to Canada with family members as a teenager, found his passion in basketball and earned a scholarship to play at Seton Hall. Dalembert became a shot-blocking specialist in college, and the Philadelphia 76ers took him in the first round of the 2001 draft.
He's in his 10th NBA season now, a respected presence in the Rockets locker room after less than a month with the team. His fierce national pride emerges when he talks about Haiti, even as he opens up about the most painful memories.
Dalembert smiles when he thinks about the country's future, the faith that he puts in Martelly and the resolve of Haiti's people.
"It's in our blood. It's in our blood to fight, and get things," he said. "We basically learn to operate under stressful situations, and we keep on moving, we keep walking on the same path and we're hoping for a better future. If it doesn't happen, hey, life continues."
But he also worries about the safety of family members who remain there, though much of his family has moved to Miami, and a younger brother is going to school in Philadelphia.
Dalembert tried to convince his father, a retired former government official, to leave. Emmanuel Dalembert refused.
"He said, 'Son, in all the life you're living, there's one time you can see your country can be rebuilt,'" Samuel Dalembert said. "Some people never live to see that. He said, 'I will never leave this country, and I will be there.' He's a patriotic guy."
"It's like when I go back home," he said. "You see your youth, you've got that sense of pride in you, and you be like, 'Wow, this is my country.'
"I always tell some of those kids, 'Listen, there are countries out there who were not independent until this day,'" he said, "and the only thing you can say is, 'This country is yours, and you've got to make the best of it.'"
Samuel Dalembert Foundation: http://www.dalembertfoundation.org