08 October, 2019
04 October, 2020
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Sant-Roos, Polas Bartolo paving way for next Cubans in BCL

ATHENS/BONN/BURGOS/ZARAGOZA (Greece/Germany/Spain) - Howard Sant-Roos and Yorman Polas Bartolo really don't consider themselves pioneers. But Jasiel Rivero and Javier Justiz would say they are - that they played a major role in helping Cubans etch themselves an integral part in the Basketball Champions League.

Cuba is known for a lot of things - among them cigars and baseball. But basketball is not high on that list. Still Sant-Roos, Polas Bartolo, Rivero and Justiz make up a quartet of players from the island off the shores of the United States who have their teams eyeing the BCL Play-Offs going into Gameday 10.

Sant-Roos is playing at an MVP level with AEK Athens, who are in first place in Group B. Polas Bartolo also has his team in first place as Telekom Baskets Bonn top Group D. Justiz and Casademont Zaragoza rank third in Group D at 5-4 and Rivero and Burgos are fourth in Group B at 5-4.

A thrilling sight for Cubans fans - Justiz going head-to-head with Polas Bartolo in the BCL

With the four Cubans split up in two groups, that means the quartet have been able to face each other - setting up special moments for those back home in Havana and around the island.

"I was really excited. First off, playing against Zaragoza was a good challenge. Second, I never thought of meeting a fellow Cuban on the court. I was really proud to see my country represented like that," said Polas Bartolo about the Gameday 1 match-up with Justiz and Zaragoza - an 85-71 home win.

"It's very exciting every time I face another Cuban player because we're not many playing at this level. It means a lot for us and for Cuban basketball," said Justiz, who watched Polas Bartolo and Bonn beat him and Zaragoza twice, losing 77-72 at home on Gameday 8.

Sant-Roos and Rivero had to settle for a pre-game chat and post-game handshake as Rivero did not play for Burgos when they lost 74-66 on Gameday 5 in Greece.

"It was very disappointing because you want to have two Cubans on the court," said Sant-Roos, while Rivero said: "The game was very exciting, even though I wasn't on the court. I'm really happy to play in this competition outside the island and get to find friends and brothers from Cuba."

Sant-Roos is arguably one of Cuba's best-ever players. The 28-year-old definitely has built up the biggest accolades of a Cuban in the game. Sant-Roos's mother married an Italian and he moved to Europe in 2007 at 16. The Havana native hooked up with a Serie C side in Italy. He moved to Germany in 2011 to play for Braunschweig's third division ProB team and a handful of BBL games. Sant-Roos headed back to Italy after two seasons and played with Casalpusterlengo in the A2 Gold in 2014-15 before making another jump to Czech powerhouse Nymburk, who he played two seasons, including in the Basketball Champions League in 2016-17.

Sant-Roos' reputation as one of the best defending wings in the European game grew and he made to Turkey for the 2017-18 season and helped Darussafaka Istanbul win the EuroCup - becoming the first Cuban to win that competition. After one season in Turkey, he started leaving his mark at AEK - where he is one of the team's chances for a BCL title this season after helping the team win the FIBA Intercontinental Cup in 2019.

While Sant-Roos left Cuba at 16, Polas Bartolo was already 27 years old when he headed to Germany, landing with the fourth division side Munich Basket in 2012. The Camaguey native jumped to the second division with ProA side Crailsheim Merlins the next season and followed that with the 2014-15 season with Giessen 46ers in the ProA.

The swingman's defensive prowess helped Giessen earn promotion to the BBL in 2015 and he played one more season with the team before heading to his current side Bonn in 2016. Bonn played the 2016-17 season in the FIBA Europe Cup so Polas Bartolo made his BCL debut the next season.

The efforts of Sant-Roos and Polas Bartolo were not overseen - neither by other European clubs nor young Cubans looking for similar chances.

When asked if his two older compatriots were pioneers, Justiz said: "Yeah. Although Howard moved very early and he gained a lot of experience and recognition here in Europe, he could be considered a pioneer. On the other hand, Yorman played some years in Cuba and moved later to Germany, where he's completely established."


Rivero agreed with Justiz about Sant-Roos and Polas Bartolo being pioneers for him and other countrymen.

"Yes, they were the very first to take the leap to these leagues. Because of that, we have had the chance to come and play here. We hope, as we did, many more will come," Rivero said.

Justiz for his part is spending his second season in Europe after joining Zaragoza last season. The 27-year-old had played the previous three seasons in the Argentina LigaA. The center also debuted with the Cuban senior national team in 2014 and played at the FIBA AmeriCup 2015.

Rivero actually is very thankful to Justiz for his help getting him to Europe. The two played together in Argentina at Estudiantes Concordia as well as the Cuban national team in 2014, 2015, 2018 and in 2019 in the FIBA AmeriCup 2021 Pre-Qualifiers. All that helped him land a deal with Burgos, which actually kept Rivero in Argentina one more season as the now 26-year-old played the 2018-19 campaign with Boca Juniors.

Justiz sees Rivero as a brother.

"We have known each other for so long, since we were kids. Some years later we played together in Argentina and then faced off there. There's a healthy rivalry when we play against one another, but over all it's a nice friendship; he's like a brother for me," said Justiz, who has the same agent as Rivero.

Rivero expressed his thankfulness to Justiz.

"He had a huge influence on me. I was quite happy when he came to Spain, which he couldn't even dream of. He, just like others, began this road and we hope that many more compatriots will have the chance to come in the future," Rivero said.

It seems pretty clear that Sant-Roos and Polas Bartolo paved a path for Cubans, but they don't like using the word pioneer.

"I wouldn't say pioneers. Howard and I were lucky to get these chances back then. Together with hard work we saw these opportunities develop. That doesn't make it easier for other Cuban players, but it might demonstrate that aspiration can pay off," Polas Bartolo said.

"I don't know if everything started there. I am just happy that more people started coming to Europe and got known here. I don't know about Yorman but I don't consider myself a pioneer. I'm just happy that everybody gets a chance," added Sant-Roos.

Pioneers or not … Sant-Roos and Polas Bartolo have helped get Justiz and Rivero to the Basketball Champions League. And the exposure of the quartet in the European competition could lead to more Cubans in the game soon.