The stories are as old as the sport itself. Players of all ages from all over the globe pack their bags and embark on journeys in search of better opportunities to get either a chance to play basketball or a better chance to develop. Some never make it despite all the sacrifices and others turn into success stories like that of Martinique-born center Mathias Lessort of Crvena Zvezda mts Belgrade. In his debut Turkish Airlines EuroLeague season, Lessort has been a handful and more for opposing big men. He is a monster on the glass, ranking second in the EuroLeague with 3.0 offensive rebounds per game. Having started all but one game for Zvezda so far, the 22-year-old leads the team with 5.9 rebounds and 1.0 block per game, while ranking fourth with 8.8 points per contest.
What may jump out most to fans is Lessort's thrilling style of play, which includes highlight-reel dunks and blocks as well as emotional celebrations of his plays. Fans in the Serbian capital may not need much to get fired up, but Lessort makes sure by showing all his emotion on the floor, helping to get Zvezda's supporters pumped and cheering even louder.
"That's how I grew up, that's my strength," Lessort explains. "From when I was young, I knew that in order to leave my island and succeed, I needed to be motivated and keep going like that. It is in my genetics, to be motivated and play with passion: That's what I love. I love when the fans yell after one of my dunks, I love when they are happy after I block one of the shots. I love to communicate with the fans, just to look at them and tell them to be louder. I know they love that, too."
The story of Lessort's success is not an ordinary one. After all, he hails from an island in the eastern Caribbean Sea that has less than a third the population of Belgrade, and where finding organized basketball is no easy task.
"It is a struggle for players to find teams," Lessort said. Growing up in the capital of Martinique, Fort-de-France, he often had to travel just to play. "Between age 5 and 15, I probably changed five different teams, because every time I would find a club near my house, they would soon close it, and I would be looking for another club. They would close that one, too. I would join another club, but that was too far for my parents."
Despite the difficulties, young Mathias never considered quitting. He fell in love with basketball by following his older brothers, Garry and Gregory, who are 12 and 10 years older, respectively, than the Zvezda rising star. If there were no teams to play for, Matthias always had his brothers to lean on. "I played a lot of playground. I grew up playing on the playground with my brothers," Lessort said.
Gregory has been playing professionally for more than a decade now in the French lower divisions. France, which is 7,000 kilometers away, is the place where the most-talented kids from Martinique go in pursuit of their dreams. Lessort, with his size and talent, was always likely to follow that path, but first he had to get on a team on his own island. That's where a local coach, Charles-Henri Palvair, came to play a big role. With Lessort having "issues" in school, Coach Palvair pushed him to do well in the last semester by promising to take care of him basketball-wise. Both the coach and 14-year old Lessort fulfilled their promises and set the foundation for what is now a great career in the making.
"I was definitely not ready to go to France and leave my island at that time. He told me, and I trusted him, that he would take care of me, make me become a man, make me grow," Lessort said. "I spent an entire year with him and not only did I become a better basketball player, but a better man, ready to be far from family, far from everybody, and become responsible."
The next step was to move to France, which is what all kids from the island hoping to become basketball players do. It is far from perfect, but as Lessort explains, there is no other way to start one's professional career from where he is from. "I was not thinking to get out of Martinique, I love my island, but for basketball, it is not the best place to get better and become a good player."
The first step involved his team's tour of France, where they practiced with French teams and tried to impress local coaches. He impressed the decision makers in Chalon and signed there. For the 15-year old Lessort, it was like entering a whole new basketball world. "When I walked into the gym, it was the biggest gym I have ever seen, for 5,000 people," Lessort remembered. "It was like, wow! Well, that's not a big gym, but for me it was like going into Madison Square Garden. I had not seen anything like that before."
He was soon playing for U18 Elan Chalon at the Adidas Next Generation Tournament as a 16-year old and spent a total of five years with the club. Lessort then transferred to fellow French side JSF Nanterre where he shined last season, before joining Zvezda over the summer.
"I always went step by step," Lessort explained. "When I signed with Chalon, my goal was to get playing time with a junior team. Then when I got playing time, my goal was to become a starter with a junior team. Then once I became a starter on the U18 team, I wanted to get playing time with the U21 team.
"I was not even thinking that I was going to be a pro when I was 18 years old. I was just thinking how can I get more minutes, then become a starter, then get minutes on the next team, then become a starter there."
He has been Zvezda's starting center from the start of the season, but that feels like it may just be the beginning for this ambitious young man. "Being a starter is good, but the next step is to dominate the EuroLeague and the Adriatic League," Lessort said. "I have never lost focus of what I want. That's how I have always seen things, and that's how I keep growing."