Cuesta College entered the season with 10 players from seven countries outside the U.S. They left on common ground.
They may have been intimidated, if they hadn’t already been fearless enough to chase their dreams oceans away from home.
“We played so well,” remembers Zohar Meidan, a freshman guard for the Cuesta College men’s basketball team of San Luis Obispo, Calif.
He speaks of his Cougars’ 73-71 loss November 28 to the Fresno City College Rams, who won California Community College Athletic Association championships in ’05 and ’07 and, at 34-0 and counting, likely will again this year.
But Meidan had no reason to tremble at the mention of the rugged San Joaquin Valley city of nearly 500,000 that goes internationally unheralded, lurking behind the recognizable, iconic panache of San Francisco and star-powered glitz of Los Angeles.
“Because for us, we didn’t know,” he says with a shrug. “‘Where’s Fresno?’”
You can’t really blame Meidan for being oblivious.
After all, he’s from Rishon LeZion, Israel, making him one of 10 players on the Cougars’ 15-man roster hailing from seven countries outside the U.S. Every time they took the court this season, they wore the flags of their home countries on the backs of their jerseys.
“When you’re out there playing, it’s not about where your teammates are coming from,” says freshman center Petter Wenehult, of Stockholm, Sweden. “You just play.”
They came to the states to pursue Division I scholarships while being allowed the time to go to class, too.
“In Europe, it’s hard to put school and basketball together,” says freshman forward Xavier Mylleville, of Oostkamp, Belgium. “In America, it works.”
Freshman guard Tom Schumacher, a Dudelange, Luxembourg native, couldn’t agree more.
“This is the best way to combine school and basketball,” says Schumacher, once the leading scorer for the Luxembourg Senior National Team. “I want to try to go professional, to go back to Europe and play professional ball. That’s why I came here, to do something in basketball, but still do something in school.”
During this season, the Cougars — several of whom speak up to five languages — began doing a little educating of their own.
“I (talk) about the situation in Israel, about the war, so people know,” a wide-eyed Meidan says.
“There are two parts of people,” says freshman forward Frank Muller, also of Dudelange, Luxembourg and a teammate of Schumacher on the Luxembourg Senior National Team. “There’s the one part that’s really ignorant and doesn’t even know anything about America — maybe just California, and then the other part that knows maybe a lot about America, but just not about Europe.”
“Someone once said, ‘They speak German in all of Europe,’” Schumacher recalls with a they-know-not-what-they-do grin. “It’s funny.”
“I’ve had people ask me what language we speak in England,” says sophomore forward Henry Utku, of Norwich, Great Britain, who played for the country’s under-20 national outfit.
“Some people think Europe is just a country,” says freshman guard Christian Koutras, of Solna, Sweden.
Don’t forget about Belgium.
“It’s surprising how over here, nobody knows anything about Europe,” Mylleville emphasizes, as teammates nod along. “Nothing! Like, they only know France, Italy…”
“Germany,” Schumacher interjects.
“We learn a lot about everywhere, from Asia to America,” Mylleville continues. “We learned that in school, but I guess they don’t do it like that over here.”
Teams they faced weren’t immune to the ignorance.
“They saw we were from Europe, so they would start to laugh on us all,” says freshman guard Roger Guardia, of Matadepera, Spain.
If any of them were to try to pass for being American, the most convincing might be Koutras, whose plain-dealing diction and gruff accent wouldn’t stand out on the scratchy blacktops of Oakland or Venice Beach.
“They try to, you know, trash talk and all that stuff,” says Koutras, who recently guided Sweden’s under-30 squad to third place at the European Championships. “So that’s when we understand that (having so many international players) is unique.”
Gathered in a circle, the players vividly recount being called “f—ing Europeans” by an L.A.-area coach early in the season. “That game was really intense,” Mylleville remembers. “The coach didn’t want to shake our hands after the game.”
The Cougars didn’t give opponents much to be overly welcoming about, going 24-11 and claiming their first Western State Conference title in a decade.
For the most part, though, “it’s not that bad,” explains Muller, who made the conference’s all-academic team, as did Wenehult. “Mostly, if we lose, it’s just like, ‘Welcome to America.’”
Now, they’ll be welcoming students to Cuesta, as their signed team photo hangs in the school’s Extended Opportunity Program and Services building. It almost resembles a table of contents for a world atlas, with players’ home countries glistening in silver sharpie beneath their signatures.
The impetus for the international influx can be traced to March 3, 2002 at the America East Conference semifinals, where Boston University’s Stijn Dhondt, a Belgium native who transferred from Cuesta, hit a game-winning, buzzer-beating three-pointer that was televised all over the world.
International players instantly noticed Cuesta’s potential as a portal to Division I.
“It’s been an accumulation over a period of years,” says 17th-year head coach Rusty Blair, who coached 13 international players over the previous decade, although no more than three were on any of his teams. “They’re back overseas now, playing professionally and spreading the word.”
Kristof Ongenaet heard it in Belgium, where he was a member of the national junior team. After leading California in rebounding from ’05-’07, Ongenaet transferred to Syracuse, where he started 15 games as a junior a year ago. In the process, he provided Cuesta more free advertising than it ever could’ve imagined.
“It meant a lot to everybody,” Koutras says. “That’s a big-time college. It means people have their eyes on the players on this team.”
Blair estimates he was “flooded” with nearly 100 overseas inquiries.
At the community-college level, Blair isn’t allowed to initiate contact with any players outside of his county (San Luis Obispo), which boasts a population of about 260,000 — 24th in the state.
“Kristof, he was the big guy,” Blair says. “All those (Syracuse) games are on TV directly over there, so they’d see his name and ‘Cuesta College,’ and all of a sudden — bang! They go on the (Cuesta) Web site and check out our e-mail. With all these (international) guys e-mailing me, I thought, ‘I’m going to go for it.’”
About 60 percent, Blair says, never got back to him after being informed the state’s community colleges are non-scholarship.
Others simply didn’t belong in a ruthless, 95-school circuit that served as the launching pad for coaches like Lute Olson, Jerry Tarkanian and Denny Crum, as well as players such as Dennis Johnson, Mark Eaton, Michael Cooper, Cedric Ceballos, J.R. Rider and Rafer Alston.
“If you’re not a high-level player in Europe, you’re probably not going to be successful here, because this is a higher level,” Blair says. He would know. After starting for three years at Oregon, Blair played professionally in Europe for 11 seasons in the ’70s and ’80s, in Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain. He even led the continent in scoring in ’78-’79, at 38.5 points per game.
“He knows how it is to play over there, and he can give us advice about how it is to play over here,” Koutras says. “And he knows, because he played both of them. He understands where we come from, and that’s good, because a lot of American coaches don’t.”
Koutras and the others who responded to Blair did so with the understanding they’d have to pay about $20,000 a year out of their own pockets — an investment that could eventually pay off in pursuing professional careers in Europe.
“It’s going to be a windfall down the road,” Blair says. “They’re going to get that $20,000 back. If you’re just a straight European, you’re on the market as a straight European. If you play in the states, your value has increased tenfold. For one, basketball in America is still thought to be No. 1. It always has been. Secondly, they can get the game experience of playing at a higher level, against better athletes.”
Cuesta’s best isn’t from Europe or North America, but looks to follow in Ongenaet’s footsteps. After leading the Cougars with 18.7 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game in ’07-’08, Josimar Ayarza of Panama City, Panama, became one of the most sought-after community-college recruits in the country, ranked as the third-best in California by JuCoJunction.com.
The 6-8, 230-pound Ayarza, whose first name has since been truncated in news releases to simply “Joe” — “He’s an American now,” laughs sports information director Pete Schuler — can complement slashing windmills with a feathery outside touch stretching to 25 feet. He signed a letter of intent with Southern Mississippi in November.
“He has NBA potential,” Blair says of Ayarza, who was chosen to represent Panama at the FIBA Americas Championships in 2005, when he participated in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program. “He can be as good as anyone in the country, but he’s got to understand that the next level is going to be much more difficult.”
Blair says if he gets back his top six international freshmen — Coutras, Schumacher, Guardia, Mylleville, Muller and Wenehult — all of them could end up at Division I programs. About a dozen have already expressed interest, he says.
Schumacher, a 6-4, 205-pound rock and unanimous conference player of the year, could be the most heavily pursued. He’s already received full-ride guarantees for next year from several Division I mid-majors and could be courted by up to 80 Division I schools next year, Blair says.
But Schumacher and the others, Blair stresses, will have to patiently resist the urge to latch on to fast-money pitches from lesser programs in order to make a truly vertical move and fulfill their initial purpose in coming to America, as Ongenaet did.
“That’s not really what they came here for,” Blair says of the possibilities of playing at low-level Division I, Division II, Division III or even scholarship NAIA programs. “They came here to go to the highest level.”
Finances will be the “overriding factor” in whether they wait it out, Blair says.
“It’s very tough,” Koutras admits. “We just take it year-by-year.”
In such an economic downturn, the gamble becomes even more high-stakes.
“It’s exciting, but it’s scary, too, because you don’t know what you’re going to do after this season or next,” Utku says.
The journey has also indefinitely put them out of sync with home.
“It’s harder to keep in touch with friends,” Utku adds. “Family’s all right, but there are a lot of friends I haven’t spoken to in a while.”
But it could all be worth it. Coaches from a few Pac-10 schools even came to practices this year.
At the start of the season, Blair says, he was “overwhelmed” with months of paperwork to make the team an actuality, but that amount could be dwarfed by the pending workload of managing recruiting inquiries from coaching staffs that might not have heard about the group had it stayed overseas.
“I think I’m going to be swamped,” Blair says. “I said to those guys, ‘If you decide not to come back, you’re going to save me a lot of work. But that’s not what I’m here for. I’m here to work for you. I want to work for you.”
However many return, their time spent together was eased by knowing they weren’t alone.
“It’s easier for us because we’re all in the same situation,” Muller says.
That situation seemed unfathomable when Blair played overseas.
“We were playing in high-school gyms,” Blair recalls. “Now, these guys are showing me these 10,000-seat arenas of the same teams I played for, and I’m going, ‘I was born in the wrong time!’ I’m dumbfounded at how far it’s progressed. When I went to Belgium, I knew nobody — I mean nobody.”
Koutras knew the feeling when he landed in America, but not these days.
“When I first got here, I didn’t know anybody,” he says. “I had nobody. And now, we’re like a family.”