Samuel Dalembert is cruising Philadelphia in his brand-new, dark-gray Lexus SUV. As the sound system bumps some Bocelli, Dalembert thinks about how his new crib will look after the remodeling. Then his cell phone rings, and poof, the Sixers center is a poor shoeless boy again back in Haiti. Fine living is pushed aside by the need to keep a loved one alive.
His grandmother, Hypromene Jeanne Baptist, has had a stroke in Port-au-Prince. She raised Dalembert alone after his parents moved to Canada looking for a better life. She's the one responsible for his generous heart, streaming chattiness--and scarred forehead. Without her, Sam never sees his new six-year, $64 million deal.
He stops on the highway's shoulder. Relayed details frighten him in a way Shaq never will. While Dalembert was lost in a dolce vita reverie, his grandmother lay stricken in his boyhood home, waiting nearly an hour for someone to find a car that would start and take her to the nearest hospital. Once there, she waited six more hours on a gurney in a hallway for the lone doctor on call.
Dalembert does what he can from 1,500 miles away. He wires money for tests, a private room and eventually a move to another hospital. Helping Hypromene swallows the day and leaves her grandson a wreck. "Anything can happen," he says. "If the doctor didn't come … oh well, too bad.' That's all I could think about."
Hypromene is the most important of 20 Haitians whom Dalembert subsidizes. Some are family, others people in need. He knows life is a daily struggle for the inhabitants of the western hemisphere's poorest nation. He pays their rent, buys their groceries. The bills come directly to him.
His grandmother will be okay, but she's 75, and this is her second stroke. When she fell ill, Dalembert was sidelined with a muscle pull in his right quadriceps, so he had the time to deal. But now he's back on the court. What happens when the next crisis strikes? Will he be able to give complete focus to a game that's still new to him? How do you choose between helping those who helped you succeed and living up to eight-figure expectations of that success?
Confronted with these questions, the man who never tires of talking goes quiet.
The guts of the kitchen ceiling are exposed: wires, beams, naked bulbs. Dalembert peers into an open heating duct as if Michelangelo himself had created it. "I like the way they did that," he says. "But I'm going to have them move it in a little."
Dalembert owns two homes in Philly. The first, known as "the scary house" to his teammates, was previously a dentist's home and office. (Dalembert never took down the shingle.) His 10 unhousebroken cats--now relocated to ex-teammate Marc Jackson's horse farm--roamed free in the huge brick structure. It is no place for an NBA millionaire, but Dalembert uses it for any relative or friend who needs a place to stay.
His new 3,900-square-foot town house receives much more love. Dalembert proudly points out the crown molding and cedar-walled dressing room. Still, it is modest by league standards. Dalembert can't understand why his teammates so casually drop coin. He's quick to tell how they teased him about driving a two-year-old Escalade, and how they foolishly rushed to buy the first iPod, which just meant they had to buy the improved model less than a year later. He won't even treat himself to a new video game until he achieves a particular goal, say, five double-doubles. "Then it's a prize," he says. "Just to buy it is no fun."
Dalembert mapped out his new home's layout, but he's not doing the labor, although he could. A penchant for home repair is a trait, borne of necessity, that deep pockets can't erase. Dalembert built a closet for his girlfriend and has been known to fix a dryer or two. "If I pay somebody, it's because I don't have the time," he says.
These days, his handiness skews high-tech anyway. During his two years at Seton Hall, Dalembert routinely took apart his school-provided IBM ThinkPad to study the circuitry. When he couldn't put it back together, he'd take it to the computer center and watch as it was fixed. Today, at least three Sixers have laptops built by their big man. "He said he could save the franchise money if we let him wire everything," says team president Billy King. The town house basement is piled high with computer equipment, spools of cable and stacks of manuals and textbooks. He stores movies and music on a central server that he can access from anywhere, and he's installing a surveillance system that will feature a remote-controlled minihelicopter with a camera that will allow him to check on his stuff when he's on the road. "The world is the way it is," he says. "The only way to protect yourself is knowledge."
Thick skin helps too, as long as there are things, such as the human body, that not even Bob Vila can fix. A few weeks after he signed his megadeal in August, Dalembert strained his quad while honing the jets that make him arguably the fastest big man in the league. Although he tried to play through the injury in training camp, the Sixers thought it best to shut him down for most of the exhibition season. After a while, whenever Dalembert walked into the gym, Allen Iverson would riff on Notorious B.I.G.'s "Get Money." Play PlayStation/Don't want to practice … Several Sixers would mouth the beat, and everyone would snicker. Dalembert began to dodge his teammates whenever he came in for treatment, and he put athletic-tape stripes around his locker, warning Kevin Ollie and Andre Iguodala not to leave their gear in his space. "You can tease, but there's a limit," he says. "Why would I not want to play when that's what I've been hungry for?"
Teasing quickly turned to pleading once the Sixers started 0—3, allowing 112 points a game. After the first month of the season, Philly was third-worst in points allowed and sixth-worst in opposing field-goal percentage. The reason: "We were playing without one of the best shotblockers in the league," says Chris Webber.
With CWebb's balky knee still limiting his leap and agility, and AI's notorious defensive gambles, Dalembert's inside play is crucial. Although he's raw (he played his first organized game as a high school sophomore in Canada), his freakish agility and 90-inch wingspan make him a terror in the paint. And Dalembert is always a threat to snag a carom, flip it to a guard and fill a wing for a dunk. He doesn't need a play run for him to make an impact. What he needs is more time. He logged 177 minutes as a rookie under Larry Brown and missed his entire second season after knee surgery. He played every game in 2003, but his nearly eight boards and 2.3 blocks in less than 27 minutes went unnoticed on a lottery-bound 33—49 mess.
Dalembert is still figuring out the game. His obsession with wanting to know how everything works combined with his skimpy résumé makes teaching him a challenge. "He doesn't look at basketball the way I did," says his former Sixers coach Jim O'Brien. It mystified Sam, for example, that O'Brien wanted him to work on his 61% freethrow shooting but didn't want him to take 15-foot jumpers. "It's the same distance, no?" he says.
He refers to the elbows of the lane as "the edges," and when Brown told him to stop smiling after a loss, Dalembert frowned for two months, fearing he'd be traded if he didn't. When a teammate promised "to school" him, Dalembert was appreciative. "I hope you do school me," he said. "Then I will take what you teach me and use it against you." And Dalembert admits that although he memorizes the playbook, he also likes to "experiment." He'll detect a "flaw" in a play and try to circumvent it. He's learned to watch film after games to prepare explanations for the mistakes the coaches will point out the next day.
Although Maurice Cheeks has just begun to coach Dalembert, he's already noticed "the little kid in him." The constant questions can be annoying. But an honest, if skewed, perseverance not to mention a huge playoff against the Wallaces last April (11.6 ppg, 12.8 rpg)-convinced King to open the vault for the 24-year-old project.
"A genius off the court," Iguodala says of his teammate. On it? Iguodala smiles and looks away. Dalembert was a year old when his parents left him with Hypromene, with a promise to send for him. When they didn't, he grew up with several friends and relatives in a four-room house with no running water. The roof collected rain for drinking and washing. Charcoal provided heat, candles light. Kite wars and deciding whose latrine smelled worst passed for entertainment.
Hypromene, who had lost her own son, kept suffocating watch over Sam. "I've never really seen Haiti," he says.
"She wouldn't even let me go on church outings." He was 6 when, against his grandmother's orders, he was playing tag with a girl in the church basement and fell and split his forehead. Hypromene refused to take him to the hospital, saying the injury was punishment from God. Instead, she packed the finger-deep cut with a homemade poultice. "I had a headache for weeks," Dalembert says, touching the prominent, scarred bump he's had ever since.
Around that time, he saw a highlight of Dr. J dunking while watching the neighborhood's only tiny black-and-white. "I can do that," he said and began to long jump in a dirt lot, taking on all challengers. Later, when his parents finally arranged for Sam, then 13, to join them, he spent his last night in Haiti on a darkened outdoor court, committed to throwing down before he left the island. Unable to palm the ball, he was there for hours until he threw up the ball and tip-dunked it.
Two years in Montreal was enough for Dalembert to realize that his parents and a sister born in Canada were more acquaintances than family. But he also figured out how to achieve his hoop dreams. He heard about a high school powerhouse in Jersey, St. Patrick's in Elizabeth, whose coach, Kevin Boyle, saw Sam play for his Canadian high school team. Mutual admiration led to Boyle's finding a guardian family and Sam's enrollment.
After setting the school record for blocks, D1 schools started to circle. Wanting to stay in the area, he chose Seton Hall.
Now, Dalembert spends much of his free time thinking much less locally. Aside from his efforts to help out in Haiti, he has become a fixture in the league's Basketball Without Borders program, taking instruction and goodwill to all parts of the globe. He attended four weeklong camps the last two summers and has committed to at least two more after this season. He also took part in the NBA's Operation Rebound caravan to aid victims of Katrina. Everywhere he went, he was greeted by the troubled as one of their own, even before he told them he'd survived hurricanes too. Besides, studying by candlelight as his stomach growled had been business as usual once for Sam. "What I love about him is that he understands where he came from and the power he has now," says Kim Bohuny, the NBA's vice president of international operations. "A lot of people don't know Sam Dalembert, but they're going to."
Dalembert isn't worried about fame. There are more important issues at hand. He has considered going back to Haiti for the first time in five years, but that could be dangerous. A rich man in Port-au-Prince? If he isn't kidnapped, someone close to him could be. He has computers to build, a surveillance chopper to design, a visit for Hypromene to a Philly neurologist to arrange. He wants to give his teammates what they need, but they have to know his priority won't always be rebounds and blocked shots. "People tell me I don't take the game seriously," he says. "They haven't been where I've been. I wouldn't be here without putting all my sweat and blood into it. I want to win. But there's more than basketball."