An Interview with Haitian NBA Vet Olden Polynice
Olden Polynice played center in the NBA for 15 seasons. During that time, he distinguished himself as more than a hardnosed rebounder. He was the most visible Haitian athlete in the history of the United States. In 1993, Polynice was the first U.S. athlete to ever join a hunger strike during the season to protest the treatment of H.I.V. positive Haitian refugees imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay. Today Polynice lives in Los Angeles and runs the Olden Polynice Hoop Foundation. He calls himself "an activist for Haiti until the day I die.... whether it's chic or not." I spoke with him about the current post-earthquake calamity.
Dave Zirin: First question. How are your loved ones?
Olden Polynice: I just spoke to my father for the first time. He's in Port au Prince: He's good. He's alive. No injuries or nothing major. But we know that we've lost at least one cousin. The roof of her house fell on her. We are waiting to hear from an uncle and other cousins. We don't know if all four of them are dead. We've just heard nothing.
DZ: Where were you when you first heard what happened?
OP: Ahhhh! The irony of it all. I was at a funeral for my girlfriend's cousin sitting there at the church. This is about an hour before I heard the news. And for whatever reason, I'm thinking about my dad, Lester. Then after the funeral ended, my girlfriend and I walked to the cemetery and she showed me her father's gravestone and I swear on everything holy that this is true - her Dad's name was Lester as well.
And then at that moment my phone rings and I hear about the earthquake. I thought first that it was a joke. Earthquake? In Haiti? Haiti doesn't have earthquakes! We have everything else, but not earthquakes! Then I spent days trying to get through to my father and here we are.
DZ: Many people are giving to help rebuild Haiti...
OP: Yes people have been really good. Giving to Wyclef's group, the Red Cross, my group, the Olden Polynice Hoop Foundation. Everything helps. But Haiti needs the help when it's not chic as well. I remember when I went on the hunger strike to protest the treatment of the Haitian refugees in '93 and everyone got so mad at me doing it. If I did it now there would probably be a parade for me. But I didn't care about any of the criticism. That's my home. I've always done stuff for Haiti. I've always been an activist and I continue to be one. I want everyone to know: this earthquake is not a Haiti problem. It's a world problem. Anything that affects Haiti, affects the world and if you think that's not true, then you are sadly mistaken.
DZ: Do you think the Haitian people should be granted temporary asylum status in the US?
OP: Why not? We open our doors to everyone else. Cubans are granted asylum. I'm not saying bring the whole country up here but Haitians are the forgotten people. That cannot happen now. It is absurd to me that on an island like Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, that the Dominican Republic can possess wealth while Haiti suffers. How is that possible? It's all political. ... I'm very thankful President Obama has acted as swiftly as he has but I'll say it again: we are a forgotten people.
DZ: I have to ask you your thoughts about Pat Robertson saying the earthquake happened because Haiti made a pact with the devil for independence.
OP: Pat Robertson can suck a big one--you can quote me on that. He is not a man of God and shouldn't claim to be. And you can quote me on that. Please.
DZ: New subject: Have you tried to contact Haitian players like Samuel Dalembert of the Philadelphia 76ers?
OP: I spoke to Samuel last night. I am trying to reach out to as many as possible. I want to organize all the Haitian players with one goal in mind. The goal is to make sure that they continue to represent Haiti and their families: they are Haitian and proud. There are many players, unlike Samuel, who are Haitian and don't want to claim it. I am Haitian and proud of it! You always have to be proud. We actually have ethnicity. We have culture. I want to organize all the Haitian athletes and have them claim a sense of responsibility. Not just right now when it is chic but every day of our lives. As we play and we make money, as we make the highlight films, we should let the world know that we come from a different place, a special place. Let the world know: Haiti is already hurting, before any earthquake. Haiti has BEEN hurt. Don't wait for a major catastrophe to be involved. Claim your home. Don't let us be a forgotten people.
Dave Zirin is the author of the forthcoming “Bad Sports: How Owners are Ruining the Games we Love” (Scribner) Receive his column every week by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com .