Service with a smile
If you're out on the streets in Tigard and see a very tall young man walking a pair of dogs — a Chow Chow and a German Shepherd/Husky/Malinois mix — stop him and say hello.
Skal Labissiere won't mind.
He is 6-11 and rich and very talented as a basketball player, but he is also a very pleasant fellow with a quick and engaging smile who fluently speaks three languages and has good things to say about almost everybody and everything.
When asked his current role as backup center for the Trail Blazers, for instance, Labissiere — who had seven rebounds in 16 minutes in Sunday's 108-96 loss to Oklahoma City at Moda Center — offers this:
"Whatever I'm asked to do. If they want me to carry the water or be the ball boy, that's what I'm going to do. I'm just thankful for the opportunity."
That is not a misprint. An NBA player actually said those words, and he wasn't being facetious.
Maybe the humility comes from his near-death experience in an earthquake in his native Haiti as a 13-year-old in 2010, a disaster that killed an estimated 300,000 people and injured many thousands more.
Maybe it comes from the Christian faith that he believes helped carry him through to safety and has helped him reach this point in life in a positive state in mind.
"I've been very fortunate to have great people around me," Labissiere said. "Not everyone gets that."
Skal grew up in Port-au-Prince as the oldest of three children, speaking the native French and Creole tongues. His father, Leslie, was a college teacher who also built furniture. His mother, Emma, was an elementary school teacher. "I was always around people who pushed education," he said.
As he grew to be a very tall boy, Labissiere was also around people who pushed basketball. His youth coach helped him develop skills away from the basket — ball-handling and shooting. He was on his way to being a prodigy when the 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook the entire island in the Caribbean.
When the dust settled, Skal, his mother and brother Elliott were buried under a collapsed wall at his home. Skal was the last to get out, two to three hours later.
"It's fortunate we came out of it alive," Labissiere said. "We were in the only spot in the house where we could have survived. There was a computer desk upstairs that kept part of the wall together. If it wasn't there, we'd have all been gone.
"It had to be a gift from God. There's no other way to explain it."
When he was finally lifted from the rubble, he couldn't walk.
"I had two people holding me up and my legs were dragging behind as they carried me out of there," he said. "I couldn't walk for a long time — for weeks."
There weren't enough hospitals or medical units to care for all the injured in the weeks after the earthquake. Labissiere was fortunate to have his own guardian angel.
"My mom massaged my legs every single day, to get the blood flowing," he said. "With her help, I finally got to my feet and started walking — limping at first, and then after a couple of months, walking normally."
Five days before the earthquake, the Labissiere family had arranged for Skal to move to the Memphis area and live with a man named Gerald Hamilton, who ran the non-profit Reach Your Dream Foundation that relocated talented kids to the U.S. from disadvantaged countries.
"At first, my dad was very doubtful about it because he didn't know the people," Skal said. "He didn't know what Gerald or his family was about. He was reluctant to turn me over to strangers."
After the earthquake, with the entire island of Haiti in disarray, the decision became easier. Skal moved to the U.S. and lived with Hamilton and his family for the next five years.
"It could not have been a better situation for me," Labissiere said. "He took me in as one of his kids. He had two kids at the time, one on the way, yet his family accepted me as one of their own. I was very blessed."
Skal knew very little English when he arrived in the U.S. Fortunately, he was a quick study.
"When I first came, I didn't receive much help," he said. "I didn't have people at school translating for me. The school put me in regular classes, but they were patient with me. After two months, I could have a conversation (in English). After a year, I was able to fluently speak the language."
For three years, Labissiere attended Evangelical Christian High, turning into one of the nation's top college prospects and also developing his Christian faith.
"I had a great experience there," he said.
Looking for better competition, he transferred to a larger school his senior year but was declared ineligible to play by the state association. By that time, he'd already signed a letter-of-intent to play for John Calipari at Kentucky. When he signed, Calipari said Labissiere was in the same mold as Anthony Davis and Marcus Camby.
In his freshman season at Kentucky, Labissiere started in 18 of 36 games, averaging 6.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks in 15.8 minutes. He shot .516 from the field and .661 from the line.
"It was a good learning experience, learning about the college game," Labissiere said. "They really pushed me mentally, spiritually, physically — the whole thing. It didn't go exactly as I'd planned on the court, but in the long run, it's going to be beneficial."
Expected to go in the middle of the first round in the 2016 draft, Labissiere was taken by Sacramento with the 28th pick.
"At first, I was nervous and mad — a mix of emotions," he said. "But you can't let that get the best of you. That worked out in my favor."
Labissiere was a member of the Kings' rotation and a part-time starter his first two years, averaging 8.8 points and 4.9 rebounds. Things went south in his third season (2018-19), and he played sparingly, though he doesn't blame coach Dave Joerger for the demotion.
"He had to do what he had to do," Labissiere said. "There was a lot going on with the team that season. He felt pressure. I understand that. Sometimes as players, we think the coach has it all figured out. He's a human being, too, with his job on the line. He has guys he has to play. Whether I play or not, he still has a job to do.
"Sac was good to me. There's something special about your first NBA team. I'll always be thankful to Vlade (Divac, the GM) for taking a chance on me."
Last February, the Blazers traded forward Caleb Swanigan to the Kings for Labissiere.
"I was happy," he said. "At first, I didn't know what to expect. But once I got settled in, I really loved it."
Labissiere didn't play much for Portland last season, averaging 3.4 points and 2.1 rebounds in nine games. But the 6-11 center/forward gave one unforgettable performance, when Coach Terry Stotts rested the regulars on the final day of the regular season. Labissiere collected 29 points and 15 rebounds in a 136-131 victory over the Kings.
As the Blazers broke training camp in September, team captain Damian Lillard had a surprise pronouncement.
"If we had to pick an MVP from camp, it's Skal, 100 percent," he said.
It was like Tom Brady saying a rookie receiver had the makings of a Pro Bowler.
" 'Dame' didn't have to say that, the level he's at as a player," Labissiere said. "It felt really good to get that recognition. I was very thankful for it."
Labissiere has played in all 24 games heading into Tuesday night's home date with New York, averaging 5.9 points and 5.0 rebounds in 17 minutes a game. He is shooting a team-best .574 from the field, including .647 from 10 to 14 feet, making him one of the most accurate mid-range shooters in the league.
"He is a very effective mid-range shooter," Stotts said. "He has a high release. He is a confident shooter. He has had games where he gets on a roll."
Labissiere had season highs of 22 points and 12 rebounds, hitting 10 of 16 shots from the field, in a loss at Milwaukee on Nov. 21. He has scored in double figures five times.
"He is very comfortable with what he can do offensively, whether it's making shots or swinging the ball," Stotts said. "He's become a good screen-setter.
"Skal has proved he belongs on the court. He is getting an opportunity to play and is making the most of it."
Stotts admits he is not sure how much Labissiere would be playing if not for the injuries that have decimated the Blazers at the "4" and "5" spots. Labissiere is a natural "4" who has been backing up Hassan Whiteside at center. Labissiere has trouble muscling up to the league's best "bigs."
"Skal is adapting physically to what we need from him defensively," Stotts said. "It's tough for young 'bigs' to rise up to that level. But he has improved."
Labissiere is enjoying his first full season in Portland.
"The people are great — really nice," he said. "But I don't really do much, man. I go from my house to the gym to church. I'm very chill and laidback."
He is comfortable with Stotts and his coaching staff.
"Coach Stotts is a very nice guy who really cares about his players," Labissiere said. "I really like all the coaches. They're super cool. I don't think you find that everywhere in the NBA. I try to tell the young guys to take advantage of the situation. The coaches each take the time to develop you, and they know what they're talking about. Coming to the league, that's very important."
Young guys? Labissiere is 23.
"Yeah, but I'm in my fourth (NBA) season," he said with a smile. "I feel like I've been around for awhile. I hope to be around awhile longer."
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