If someone had told Lester Prosper back in 2011 that the then-NBA hopeful would one day play for Indonesia, he would have told them they were “crazy”.
“I would have been like ‘No way,'” the Dominica-born center, now 34, told AFP after doing just that in a 141-37 thrashing of Laos.
Players who once dreamed of major-league careers in the United States have become unlikely draftees in the battle for regional basketball dominance at the Southeast Asian Games.
Chief among them are Prosper, US-born Indonesian team-mate Anthony Beane Jr and the Philippines’ Justin Brownlee.
“I love it man, I love playing for the country,” said the six-foot-10 (2.08m) Prosper, who like Brownlee went undrafted by the NBA in 2011, the same year Kyrie Irving was the number one pick.
Irving won the NBA championship with Cleveland in 2016, is an eight-time All-Star and now plays for the Dallas Mavericks.
Prosper’s career went in another direction.
He embarked on an itinerant career that has taken him around the world, including stops in Slovakia, Venezuela, the Philippines and Indonesia, where he was given a passport to play for the national team. He has most recently played in South Korea.
He is a kind of one-man Harlem Globetrotters, the famed basketball team best known for travelling all over the globe for exhibition games.
“I love meeting fans all over the world,” Prosper said. “Love experiencing different cultures — showing them respect, learning about them, learning the language a little bit. Learn as much as you can.”
‘Basketball takes you everywhere’
Prosper scored 18 points in the one-sided group-stage opener against Laos on Wednesday in Phnom Penh, just behind top-scorer Andakara Prastawa Dhyaksa, who put away 21.
Beane, a Missouri-born point guard, was also in the Indonesian team, along with Senegal-born Dame Diagne, 17.
“Basketball will take you everywhere,” said Beane, who has had stints in Latvia, Belgium, and Bulgaria.
“It’s going great so far,” said the 29-year-old of his adopted country, adding that Indonesia’s aim was to win SEA Games gold again.
Playing naturalized athletes is fairly common across international sport, though often not with fast-track conditions.
Most of the imported players at the Games have been given speedy naturalization at their government’s behest, rather than going through the normal process after a certain number of years living in the country.
At least one player at this year’s Games has raised concerns about an excess of imported basketball talent.
“I think if there’s gonna be a lot of imports like this, I don’t think the essence of SEA Games is gonna be there,” said Jack Animam of the Philippines women’s 3×3 basketball team, after facing a Cambodia side composed entirely of naturalized athletes.
Like rivals Indonesia, Brownlee’s Philippines are also off to a winning start, having beaten Malaysia 94-49.
The Philippines are out for revenge after Indonesia beat them in the final at the last Games, ending their 20-year gold-medal streak.
Prosper would not be drawn on the prospect just yet of a rematch.
“We’ll see,” he said. “This is interesting… we’re just gonna take it one game at a time.”