Diligent student, star athlete and role model – these are the three easiest ways to characterize SUNY Old Westbury senior and basketball star Lester Propser. But as Prosper will tell you himself, he was not always the model citizen he has turned into.
Prosper came to the United States from the tiny island of Monserrat in the Caribbean Sea when he was 12 years old.
“The transition was not bad. It’s a lot faster pace than Monserrat, but you have to get used to it,” he said in an interview with Patch.
Upon his arrival Prosper bounced around until he eventually moved into his aunt’s house in Freeport, but his time there didn’t last long.
“When I did my first year at Freeport High School, [I was] misbehaving, coming in whenever I wanted, fighting in school,” he said. “I was just not being a good citizen, a model citizen.”
After being kicked out of his aunt’s house in Freeport due to behavioral problems, Prosper spent just four months in a shelter in Hempstead called Project 29. The teenager was then sent to a group home in Plainview, which he referred to as “another holding facility.”
“You can’t really learn anything educational there,” he said. “It’s like a group home that holds you there.”
Prosper spent about six months in Plainview before interviewing for a spot on the Bellmore group home. “I didn’t just get into the Bellmore group home,” he said. “… They had someone come interview me before I went to the Bellmore group home because that was the best group home. It was very nice. … I just told the guy, ‘Basically I’m just going to try and get back on my feet.’”
It was the town of Bellmore, specifically Mepham High School, which Prosper credits as the first major change in his life.
“Mepham, at first, I didn’t really expect it to be as good as it was. I thought it was just going to be a regular school with too much freedom, going back to the same things that I was doing in Freeport,” Prosper said.
He added: “It was actually a big, drastic change because of the friends I had around me and the people who were around me. I saw them succeeding and I know I wasn’t too good at school, but I would try, and the teachers would see me try and they would help me out everyday. I can say that Mepham was definitely a better change for me. … That school helped me to become a better man.”
While Prosper played just one season for the Mepham basketball team as a junior, the staff at the school remembers him not just on the court, but as a gifted young man.
“He was a great kid who was liked by all,” Mepham Athletic Director Mike Muscara said. “He made great personal growth at Mepham. … I’m very happy he is doing well. He deserves all the best life offers.”
James Koester, a current coach at Mepham who was an assistant on the boys basketball team when Prosper arrived, remembered the star’s potential to be great. “In terms of a basketball sense, he was very raw,” he said. “… From a social standpoint he got a along with the other kids. It was really just about understanding the basics of what we were trying to do from and offensive and defensive point of view.”
Koester added: “He was a great kid. He was always smiling. … I just think it was a matter of time before he picked up the ball and ran with it. I think he enjoyed being here [at Mepham].”
After finding success and a home at Mepham, the 6-foot-10 Prosper was spotted by SUNY Old Westbury men’s basketball head coach Bernard Tomlin and got the opportunity to flourish on an even bigger stage.
Tomlin found Prosper at the Island Garden basketball facility in West Hempstead. The Panthers head coach said that after speaking with Prosper in the summer of 2006, he lost contact with him because Prosper did not play his senior year at Mepham. After a whole year without contact, Tomlin and assistant coach Neale Johnson found Prosper again at Island Garden.
“We went through a whole year and then we saw him again the next summer, at the summer league at Island Garden,” Tomlin said. “Ironically, it was a couple of days before he was going to court for a hearing. I guess that this time the decision that had to be made was whether or not he was going to stay in the States or go back home. At that time he pretty much made a commitment to come here. The judge allowed him to stay and get registered for classes.”
“They thought that I was going to go to a D-I [school] or something like that, but they didn’t know that I never played basketball like that,” Prosper added. “They recruited me. I was going to go back to the Caribbean and they said, ‘You should come play for us.’”
Prosper received most of his training as a player at Old Westbury and has been a machine on the court. He is a two-time Skyline Conference Second Team selection and has wont countless other academic and athletic awards.
“He’s a late bloomer,” Tomlin said. “He started his basketball career in college, which is very unusual. Most athletes come to college with a high school background and at least two or three years of competition at the high school level. … He pretty much had some on the job training and he did an excellent job. He’s made a lot of progress and he’s still improving.”
Prosper spent his freshman year commuting from the group home in Bellmore to Old Westbury. His financial arrangements with the school were ironed out in his sophomore year and he was able to dorm on campus, something Tomlin credits with his development.
“In his second year of being a college student, being able to eat in the dorms, the dorm room, those things really helped him,” Tomlin said. “Each step of the way he was able to make the adjustments.”
Prosper said that the school was a great for him. “It’s a great school. There aren’t too many distractions,” he said. “With less distractions, it makes you focus on what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to accomplish in life. … It helped me focus and basically stay out of trouble.”
Prosper has been named to the Skyline Conference weekly honor roll three times so far this season and an impressive 12 times over the course of his career at Old Westbury.
“He’s always been a solid citizen,” Tomlin said. “I know that he did have some troubles early in his developmental years, but as a student here he has been a model citizen. We really are happy to have him represent the program.”
On the court, Prosper has been more dominant than ever this season. His 18.8 points per game is tied for 58th best in the nation in Division III. While his scoring is good, Prosper's size makes him a valuable rebounder and shot blocker. He currently sits at sixth in the nation in rebounds with 12.6 per game and second in the nation in blocks with an incredible 4.6 per game.
Prosper, a criminology major, would like to continue his basketball career upon graduating in the spring, but if that fails, he has a good idea of something else he’d like to do.
“If the sports thing doesn’t work out, I would love to be in S.W.A.T.,” he said. “… I love the action, I love everything that goes on with that. I know it’s a very dangerous job, but we all die someday, and I like living my life on the edge when it comes to stuff like that.”
The Panthers’ center also said that he wants to help out kids who are in a similar situation to the one he was once in. “I would love to help other people in my position and from the Islands, to get opportunities to come out here and develop their talent and hopefully do something with it.”
It has been a long and arduous journey for Prosper, one that had taken him down many paths before he found the right direction. But now that he has, the sky is the limit.
“Work hard and things will happen. You can’t just sit there and think it’s going to happen automatically, you have to make it happen,” he said. “… Success is a destination, not a journey, but you have to go through a journey to be successful, and that’s what I’m doing.”