Elias Desport has always seen the world a little differently.
As a child in Stockholm, Sweden, the pictures Desport drew never looked quite the way they were supposed to. Desport was handy with a paintbrush, marker and colored pencil, could draw captivating images and color within the lines, but the colors were never quite right.
“You know in school and in middle school when you draw pictures, my colors were always off: Instead of drawing the grass green, it would be brown; instead of drawing the sky blue it would be purple,” laughs Desport, now a 6-foot-8-inch, 230-pound junior forward for Saint Peter’s University.
For most children, a purple sky would be signs of creativity and originality — two traits that Desport has in spades — but in his case, it was something more.
“My mom, who happens to be an art teacher, would look at the drawings and be like, ‘Why is the sky purple? Why is the grass brown? It’s supposed to be green.’ and I’d be like, ‘I don’t know, I thought it was the right color,’” he explains. “As I got older, my mom was like ‘I think you might be color blind,’ and we figured it out from there.”
As a child, being color blind was often frustrating for Desport, giving him a feeling akin to being constantly left out of an inside joke.
“Growing up I would always have to ask, ‘What color is this? What color is that?’ You know when you’re a kid, kids are really into bright colors with toys and stuff like that, and I could never really experience it,” he explains. “I can distinguish between dark and light, unless it’s something like red and orange.”
At age 22, Desport, who averages 2.8 points, 2.6 rebounds and 16.8 minutes per game as a physical and energetic front court reserve, has learned to overcome his visual impairments, but they still present a few problems, even as an adult.
“It’s still hard at times. It’s hard to know when you’re buying clothes, so I’ll have to ask somebody,” he says. “I never go to the store to buy clothes myself. I always bring somebody with me because I don’t know if things match or are completely mismatched.”
But as interesting as Desport’s colorblindness is, it is only one part of his fascinating journey from Stockholm to Jersey City.
“It’s definitely been a roller coaster,” he says. “You go through a lot playing this game: Injuries, losing, picking yourself up and learning from it, putting in work. A lot of ups and downs, a lot of self doubt, but you have to make sure you learn from your downs to always stay up.”
That Desport is Swedish to begin with comes as a surprise to many. While he shares the same towering, broad-shouldered build as many a Norseman and Viking, that is where his physical similarities with the likes of Thor end. The biracial child of a Brooklyn-born, Queens-raised father and Swedish mother, Desport often finds himself playing the role of educator with Americans.
“The biggest misconception is that everybody is blond, blue eyes,” he says. “Sweden, and especially Stockholm, where I’m from, is very diverse. We have a large population of Arabs, Africans. There’s a lot of immigrants who come to Sweden because it’s a good country to live in socially and health-wise. It’s a very safe and secure country. Very easy going. Slow pace of life. It’s not what people think it is. Obviously it’s cold in the winter — I can’t disagree with that — but it’s very diverse.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘What are you? Where are you from?’ and most of the time they don’t believe me, so I start speaking Swedish or show them my ID,” he says.
It was the case when Desport arrived for freshman orientation in 2012 and met his classmates for the first time.
“The first time, for orientation, when I met Chaz Patterson for the first time. The first time we met, he looked at me and his eyes were wide open, like, ‘What the hell?’ He was expecting a blond guy with long hair, blue eyes, a surfer type dude,” he laughs.
Growing up in Stockholm, Desport, who spoke both English and Swedish at home, enjoyed playing soccer — one of the most popular sports in Sweden — in his neighborhood, but it was basketball that was in his blood.
“In the neighborhood, all the kids played soccer, so growing up I played soccer a lot for fun,” he says. “Basketball was something everyone in my family was doing. I started playing organized basketball when I was eight or nine, and my father was playing over here (in America) in college and he kept playing in Sweden (professionally), and my older brother played basketball growing up. So I would always go with him (my brother) to his practices, and go with my dad to his practices and his games.”
In Sweden, the game came easy to Desport, who competed for the Under-18 national team and starred for his local club, earning Player of the Year honors in 2010, and leading his team to State and Swedish Championships in 2012.
With citizenship to a European Union country, Desport could have pursued a career in professional basketball in Europe straight out of high school, but felt that refining his game while earning a degree from an American university was his best option.
“I felt that it was a better opportunity for me to mature as a player and a person instead of going straight to the pros,” he says. “Plus, the economy over there is tough, it’s tough for players to go right from high school to the pros over there. I have a lot of friends from high school who have tried it, some of them have made it but most of them haven’t.”
When he arrived at Saint Peter’s, Desport found himself struggling to adjust to both a foreign environment and foreign game.
“My freshman year I felt like I had to learn how to play basketball again, like I was eight, nine years old,” he says, adding, “It’s been a huge adjustment.”
Desport has also adjusted to the distance between himself and his family.
“It’s tough being away from family. You have to enjoy the time being with them when you have it,” he says.
But despite his early struggles and lack of a starring role on the court, and the distance between himself and his loved ones off it, Desport doesn’t regret his decision to travel halfway around the globe to Saint Peter’s.
“I’ve definitely grown a lot as a player and even more as a person,” he says. “You have to leave the nest sometimes, it helps you grow as a person. I’m all about doing whatever it takes to win and to grow.”