In this conversation with Panathinaikos OPAP Athens guard Howard Sant-Roos, he discussed his journey from his native Cuba to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague.
Howard Sant-Roos, Panathinaikos: 'I can see a lot of talent in Cuba'
Panathinaikos OPAP Athens guard Howard Sant-Roos talks about the journey from his native Cuba to the Turkish Airlines EuroLeague.
“Just a kid with big dreams,” is how Howard Sant-Roos described his younger self, when he first started to take basketball seriously. Never did he then imagine he would reach the heights he has, to become a key player for two of the most successful clubs in the EuroLeague.
Sant-Roos grew up in the Santo Suarez district of Havana where he mostly played streetball. He never gave playing basketball at a high level any thought until he moved to Italy with his mother at age 15. And then everything changed. He first played for his school team.
“They saw that I was tall and capable of playing, so they immediately tried to get me and that’s when I started,” he recalled. “It was quite an adjustment because I just came from basically playing streetball to five-on-five at a European level, which in Cuba is so different. We just play one-on-one, so I didn’t know the five-on-five concept that they had in Europe.
“To go from there to adjust to five-on-five in Europe, which has a lot of rules and a lot of things to understand before you actually can perform at a higher level, it was quite a transition.”
Sant-Roos remembered changing the way he looked at basketball when one day one of his friends told him that he thought Sant-Roos had the talent to play professionally. Even so, what he has achieved was beyond his imagination at the time.
“I never thought as a long shot I would be able to play for CSKA or Panathinaikos. We just thought, okay maybe we can do this at a good level because you’re kind of like a good player. He was trying to be as honest as possible,” Sant-Roos said.
Sant-Roos’s professional career began in the lower divisions in Italy and Germany. He then spent two seasons with CEZ Nymburk, which he led to back-to-back Czech League titles in 2016 and ’17. And each stop contributed to Sant-Roos’s growth as a player.
“It was a great experience to go through all that because each year it would show me something different about my game and how to read the game, quicker and faster and be more selective with my decisions,” he explained. “So I feel like every year I needed to take just to get here right now. Every year was a little more talent, a little quicker, a little bit tougher, the teams around me. I needed that to get where I am right now.”
The first big step he took to the highest levels in EuroCup came when David Blatt recruited him to play at Darussafaka Istanbul. There Sant-Roos teamed with Scottie Wilbekin, Will Cummings, JaJuan Johnson and others to win the 7DAYS EuroCup.
“It was a great experience. I thank god we came out and won the EuroCup, which is, I would say, one of the greatest accomplishments in my career so far and being able to play with such talented guys, friends to this day, was a great experience. It taught me a lot,” Sant-Roos said, “Blatt also, he taught me a lot.”
From there, Sant-Roos went to Greece, where he starred for AEK Athens. In the middle of his second season there, in January 2020, Sant-Roos got a phone call that changed his life forever.
“Coming from AEK to go all the way to CSKA Moscow was kind of unreal. I didn’t expect that at all. I knew I was having a good season, but not that good in my eyes. When Itoudis called and the whole CSKA thing happened, it was still unreal until I flew there and had my first EuroLeague games. I was like ‘wow, we’re actually here. We actually made it all the way to the EuroLeague.’ That was pretty cool,” he recalled.
“When I finally got there, when I had my first moment in the EuroLeague, all I thought was me, my mom, the struggle that we actually went through and she texted me and said ‘I’m proud of you. To see you got this far, you’ve actually reached your goals.’ That was one of my proudest moments to see that my mom was there with me to share that moment with me, that was my greatest moment.”
Sant-Roos is well aware of the fact that he is flying the flag for Cuban basketball in Europe, though there are now other talented players from his homeland playing in top leagues, including Jasiel Rivero with Valencia Basket. The number has risen since he started playing and Sant-Roos said he tries to keep in touch with the younger players and offer guidance.
“I didn’t have anybody to guide me, so I’m trying to guide them now that I have such experience here,” he said.
Looking forward, Sant-Roos could see many more players from Cuba playing in Europe.
“I feel like there are a lot of players that don’t have the opportunity there that I had, so they don’t get to show what they can really do. I do feel there is a lot of talent there, especially because they do it with passion, they know that there is no money in it, they just do it because they love the sport, they love basketball just as much as I do or even more,” he added.
“I can see a lot of talent there. With the right mindset, great things can happen there.”