EVERETT — In this storied sports city, where “Everett Pride” translates into football and basketball championship banners, plenty of people held their breath at the beginning of the National Basketball Association player draft last Thursday in Brooklyn.
Locals had expected Everett native Nerlens Noel to be the No. 1 pick, but the gifted 6-foot-11 center slid to sixth, where he was taken by New Orleans, and then quickly traded to the Philadelphia 76ers.
In New York, Noel was disappointed. But in his hometown, there was joy. At barbershops, pizzerias, and on the stoops that line the downtown streets around his family’s modest two-decker home, people stood and cheered. In one moment, Noel became the most celebrated athlete ever to come out of Everett.
“Coming to America from Haiti, working two jobs, [my mom] never quit so I could be where I’m at today,” Noel told the Globe after the draft. “I wasn’t about to give up.”
For Dorcina Noel, it was a moment where she could finally let out a long, overdue sigh.
“It made me very happy,” said Noel’s mother, who arrived in Everett 22 years ago from Haiti seeking a quiet city near Boston. She chose Everett, which had a growing Haitian population, and found work as a certified nurse assistant — leaving the house most mornings at 5:45 and not returning until after 11:30 at night while working two jobs. This routine lasted for 18 years, while her three sons and her daughter were growing up in the shadow of Everett Square.
Athletics kept her children off the streets and paved a way to a higher education.
Noel, who is 19, attended Everett High for two years and then transferred to the Tilton School in New Hampshire, carving out a reputation as a defensive stopper on the basketball court.
In his one season at the University of Kentucky, he averaged 10.5 points and 9.5 rebounds this year before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee in a game against Florida in February.
His older brothers are also well-known athletes in the city.
Jim Noel, a standout athlete at Everett High and a senior captain on the Boston College football team last year, recently signed a rookie free-agent contract with the Seattle Seahawks to play cornerback. Rodman Noel is a linebacker at North Carolina State. And their younger sister, Nashdah, who is 14, plans to attend a prep school in Virginia next year and will play basketball.
As the city took note of Nerlens Noel’s new status, Jim Noel tried to absorb just how big an impact his younger brother had made on the city’s Haitian community.
“He’s a big role model for Haitians here. To see a little kid that the whole city helped raise; who has succeeded, just touches everybody’s hearts,” he said.
On draft night, 30 people crowded into Lou Diamonds’ barbershop, where owner Jean Altenor gave Noel his first high-top haircut eight years ago.
“I had goose bumps. I was nervous,” said Altenor, who cut Noel’s hair two weeks ago — a style he refers to as a tight, high-top fade, no Gumby. “He’s the American dream, and also the Haitian dream. He set a good example for all the young kids in the community. They all look up to him, they all love him; a lot of kids are getting high-tops because of him.”
Fran LaRovere coached Noel when he was a fifth-grader in Everett Youth Basketball and still keeps a photo of that team on his desk. Back then, Noel used to stop at LaRovere’s law office on the way to school, where he would eat candy and go over his homework with his coach.
“It was the first time I saw something extraordinary,” he said, describing the fifth-grader’s defensive prowess.
“He was deflecting and blocking shots and then catching them by himself,” said LaRovere, who spent part of last Friday staring at that team photo.
That year, Theluxon Pierre was a senior on the Everett varsity high school basketball team. At that point Noel was already working out with the team.
“He was holding his own in varsity practice,” said Pierre, who now teaches elementary school in Everett and serves as an assistant football coach. “He could outjump anyone on our team at that time.”
John DiBiaso, Everett’s high school football and basketball coach, has known Nerlens Noel since he was 7, and also coached Jim and Rodman Noel.
DiBiaso, who has won 400 games in basketball and more than 250 as a football coach, and has a gaggle of state championships — including a combined 28 Greater Boston League titles — called Nerlens Noel the greatest natural athlete he has coached.
During his freshman year, Noel was on the receiving end of an alley-oop pass that DiBiaso drew up on the sidelines.
“He dunked and nobody could believe it. He reminded you of Patrick Ewing and Bill Russell. He could block shots and change the game on defense, something that’s very rare,” said DiBiaso, who remembers Noel blocking jump shots and swatting away shots taken from beyond the 3-point line.
DiBiaso said he wonders what might have been if Noel had stayed at Everett High School. In his sophomore year, he played just a few games before injuring his kneecap. The next year he transferred to Tilton and, a year ago, enrolled at Kentucky.
Back at her home on Liberty Street, where she has lived for 22 years, Dorcina Noel is preparing for a change. She stopped working in March, when she hurt her back after lifting a patient. Although she loves Everett, she is planning to move to Philadelphia, where she can see her son every day.
Her son will also see change, including a three-year contract at a minimum of $2.5 million per season, though he is not projected to see action until early 2014 as he recovers from knee surgery.
“He’s 19 years old. I want to live in the same city and know what’s going on with him,” she said. “I’m supposed to be with him.”
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