By Alicia DelGallo/Orlando Sentinel
Cady Lalanne jumped over the side of a small motorboat and waded through the water toward shore. He was 7 years old and thought that’s how people from Haiti moved to the United States. “At the time, I just thought, ‘Some people take planes; some people take boats,’ “ said Lalanne, now 23.
It wasn’t until he applied for federal student aid his freshman year of college that he learned he was an illegal immigrant.
Lalanne spent the next six months stuck in a country he hadn’t seen since he was a child, staying in a stranger’s house with no electricity and, more importantly, no basketball.
Immigration issues were the biggest obstacles, but far from the only ones that stood between Lalanne and his dream of playing professional basketball. The Haitian-born center battled family problems, academic hurdles and injuries before the San Antonio Spurs chose him in the second round with the 55th overall pick in the NBA draft last month.
The former UMass player agreed on draft night to spend the upcoming season with the Austin Spurs in the NBA Development League. He averaged 10.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game for the Spurs’ entry during the Utah Jazz Summer League and is playing in the Las Vegas Summer League.
“We see a lot of potential there,” said Brian Pauga, director of scouting for the San Antonio Spurs and general manager of the Austin Spurs. “Like any rookie, it takes time to get up to speed on the system and the speed of the game, but we’ve had seven games now, and he’s done a nice job of continuing to move in the right direction and get better.
“He’s got long arms, a good, strong body for a big guy, (and) he’s not afraid to be physical in the paint. He didn’t get a chance to shoot a ton at UMass from the perimeter, but we feel with some work and development, he can become a pretty good shooter.”
Lalanne grew up in an Orlando neighborhood that wasn’t the worst the city had to offer, but it wasn’t the best. Lalanne was raised by his mother and stepfather, who married in 2006.
He was a star on his high-school basketball team, recruited by Division I programs and signed with the University of Georgia. Academic eligibility issues got in the way of playing there, so he entered a program at UMass called Proposition 48, which allowed him to be eligible after sitting out a year.
He was in his second semester when a letter came from the government, threatening to deport him.
“There was nothing that made me think we were illegal,” said Lalanne, whose mother became legal when she married an American. “She wasn’t hiding anything from us. If we needed to go on a field trip with the school, she would fill out the paperwork. We never had any issues.”
Lalanne and his sister, Betty, who was 14 at the time, were forced to return to Haiti to sort everything out. Their mother, Bertha, accompanied them. It was supposed to be a two-week process.
Once there, the embassy ordered his mother to return to the U.S. for a DNA test, Lalanne said, because her skin color was much lighter than his. UMass coach Derek Kellogg sent proof of attendance to show Lalanne was doing the right things. His mother hired an immigration lawyer.
The ordeal lasted half a year. “We felt stuck, like we were never going back,” Betty said. “You’re just sitting there not knowing, surrounded by strangers.”
Lalanne and his sister stayed with a pastor in a partially underground house made of cement, they said. Water leaked through the walls when it rained, and the sound of frogs filled the night. There was no hot water. Lightning had knocked out the electricity one of their first nights there and fried Lalanne’s cellphone, which was plugged into the wall at the time.
It wasn’t uncommon to see men walking down the street with machetes, Lalanne said. The first week he was there, his mother took him to the grocery store. As they walked in, Lalanne saw a man to his right holding an AKA gun. Another man with a shotgun was on his left. His sister whispered to him, “Look up.”
“There was a guy on a post with a rifle in his hand,” Lalanne said.
His quiet place was on the roof of the pastor’s house. He could see the airport from there. “Every day, I would see planes flying in and out, and I would be like, ‘Why can’t I be on one of those planes?’ “ Lalanne said. During that time, he never touched a basketball or saw a court. Betty said her brother formulated a plan in case they never could go home: play basketball in the Dominican Republic and find a way to the NBA.
One day in late August, they were called to the embassy. More paperwork, they thought. A few hours later, they left with passports and Social Security numbers.
“He’s really worked and made it through some things to get to this point, to actually be drafted,” Lalanne’s high-school coach at Oak Ridge in Orlando, Derek Heard, said. “You almost don’t realize it from talking to him, because he’s so calm about it, but when he had to go back to Haiti, it was really tough for him.”
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