As the Melrose High boys were closing out an impressive first quarter against visiting Wakefield on Tuesday night, pushing their cushion to 14 points, Samual J ean-Gilles was right in the middle of the 11-0 blitz.
The senior tricaptain with the imposing 6-foot-3, muscular frame was flying all over the court for the unbeaten Red Raiders. Leaping like a gazelle, Jean-Gilles pulled in rebounds and bolted up the court with his teammates, leading a terrific transition game that kept Wakefield spinning all night.
Up 15 points with four minutes left, Melrose held on for a 65-61 win, clinching back-to-back Middlesex League titles and extending its unbeaten streak to 15 games.
Melrose coach Mike Kasprzak calls his Red Raiders “a really hungry, old-school, humble team. There’s nothing fake about it – no one talks [or brags]; it’s all about the next game or next quarter. They enjoy themselves. It’s kind of a throwback team.”
That fits the persona of Jean-Gilles, who submitted a workmanlike 12-point, 11-rebound effort to the victory.
Just another day on the court. But to those around him, it’s a testament to so much more.
Just over three years ago, Jean-Gilles, as a 16-year-old, was living in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. He loved the game of basketball, and played on a team with friends.
On Jan. 10, 2010, just after he had left basketball practice with a friend, everything changed. The most catastrophic earthquake to hit Haiti in 200 years — 7.0 on the Richter scale — struck a few miles outside his city, killing more than 200,000 people.
The home his family was renting was damaged, and in the days that followed, Jean-Gilles helped pull bodies out of the rubble while searching for survivors. While he was not injured, his great-aunt, visiting from Boston, was killed. So was the point guard on his basketball team; had Jean-Gilles remained in the gymnasium, he likely would not have survived the earthquake.
“It was scary, I thought it was the end of the world,” he said. “Buildings collapsed . . . everything crumbled.”
He had a friend, however, who was looking out for his future.
Pierry Valmera had left Haiti to play basketball at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.
He reached out to the basketball coach at the Evangelical Christian School, in Cordova, Tenn., and then contacted Reach For Your Dream, an organization that helped Jean-Gilles secure a student visa.
With dreams of an American college education and playing basketball, Jean-Gilles left his mother, father, and older brother and flew to Tennessee.
In his first season of organized basketball, he helped lead ECS to the Division 2-A title in Tennessee, a 51-45 win over Franklin Road Academy.
Unfortunately, his host family could not cover his expenses for another year. So after consultation with his family, he moved to Melrose, with an aunt, in August 2011.
Less than a month later, Matt Sherlock walked into his history class at Melrose High and noticed Jean-Gilles. The “transfer student from Tennessee” story had made its way around the school’s rumor mill. He was sitting down, with a giant, shiny ring on his hand.
After striking up a conversation with Jean-Gilles, Sherlock confirmed the rumor: Jean-Gilles had won a state title in Tennessee, and was proud of it. Little did either know that their conversation was the start of a wonderful friendship.
“Someone told me he played basketball,” said Sherlock, now a fellow captain on the Melrose squad, “and I was like, ‘Are you going to try out for the team?’ ”
The pair started working out at the YMCA and hanging out at Sherlock’s home, which sits just a few houses away from the high school.
Jean-Gilles recalled that he was “pretty confident” about basketball tryouts. “He impressed Coach with how hard he worked,” Sherlock recalled.
Kasprzak called Jean-Gilles a “real pleasant surprise.”
The Red Raiders finished 20-3 a year ago, losing to eventual state champion Brighton in the Division 2 North sectional tournament.
Once again, though, Jean-Gilles thought he was on the move, to live in Dorchester, likely on his own. Instead, Sherlock’s father, Matt , acted quickly, and the family opened their doors to their son’s good friend.
“We thought some stability would be beneficial,” said Sherlock’s mother, Faith, who admitted she didn’t want to see Jean-Gilles go. He moved in last April, and has been with the family ever since.
His future, particularly regarding college, is still very much up in the air. When he moved from Tennessee his visa was voided, and because he is not a US citizen, he is not eligible for loans and federal aid. Continued...