He was rehabilitating on the Pistons’ injured reserve list at the time but couldn’t sit idly by, he said, while his people suffered. So he departed the team for the ongoing protests at the Miami center. “Danny Glover, just a slew of folks, too many to name, were getting arrested for my country,” Polynice told me Friday night over the phone from his Southern California home. “I was like, ‘If I don’t do something, then what am I doing here?’ ” Upon returning to the Pistons’ roster in late January 1993, he did do something. Polynice announced to the media, “As of today, I’ll be on a hunger strike to protest the U.S. policies against the Haitian refugees.”
It was reported by many at the time that Polynice was the first professional athlete to engage in a hunger strike during that athlete’s season. But, unlike Colin Kaepernick, he wasn’t celebrated on magazine covers and with awards. “I was a pariah,” Polynice said.
The racists found the Pistons’ address and sent him hate mail spiced with racial slurs. They told him to go back to Africa. He said his teammates laughed at him. Opponents trash-talked his efforts on the court. The league called and asked him why he’d joined the Haitian protests in the first place. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about, why am I doing this?’ ” Polynice said. “I’m protesting something that was near and dear to me. “Nobody was woke back then.”
Labissiere plans to venture back to Haiti soon, to set up basketball camps, connect with philanthropists, and potentially start an academy. The prospect of returning for the first time in years fills him with excitement: spending time with his sister, embracing the friends he’s kept in touch with, reconciling the Haiti of his memories with the unrecognizably altered one that he left. “He has a strong affection in his heart for trying to help kids [in Haiti],” says his agent, Travis King, of Independent Sports & Entertainment. “To give them the opportunity he had to get off the island and excel in the States in high school and college.”
Then the earthquake struck. A wall collapsed on Labissiere’s back, and forced him into a crouch that would make his legs go numb for weeks. Underneath the rubble, he couldn’t see a thing. He couldn’t move. The only hint of the outside world were screams: cries for help from families, friends, a whole community of voices outside, pleading for familiar voices to respond. Labissiere and his family, trapped inside, were screaming only for recognition, signaling for anyone at all who could hear them to help. Labissiere did this, too, until the moment came when he stopped believing help would arrive. “After 30 minutes or so, I just physically gave up,” he says. There’s no point in trying to scream, he remembers thinking. Nobody’s gonna hear us. Stuck in that crouch, Labissiere’s faith numbed with his legs. He pictured the end—of his dreams of basketball and the future, and of his life. He assumed that his father, nowhere in sight, was already gone.
Labissiere: “That’s when my dad came on top of the rubble and yelled my mom’s name out,” Labissiere says. “[It] definitely opens your eyes about life. Before that, me and my little brother complained about things that we didn’t have. After that experience, we were way more thankful for life. You see how quickly things can change, whether it’s from good to bad or bad to good.”