Playing the game he professes to love, Sebastian Saiz was back in familiar surroundings on Sunday afternoon.
It was normal in one sense (a 40-minute game). It was also strange (no spectators in the arena) at the same time.
“Playing in a league without fans in a game is something you don’t see every day,” Saiz told reporters after the Sunrockers Shibuya defeated the Akita Northern Happinets 85-79 at Aoyama Gakuin Memorial Hall. “This is weird.”
“Without the fans,” he added moments later after several more questions were asked, “it doesn’t matter where you play, there’s no home-court advantage because we don’t even practice here every day. … For us, it’s like playing in a neutral court.”
He went on: “Every time they are here, we play for them. .. It’s a big part of all the sports, not only basketball, I think, the fans in this job we have is one of the best things and one of the important things.”
Saiz’s heartfelt comments were made before the B. League announced on Tuesday night that it would suspend the season (doing so for the second time) until at least April 1, citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak.
But two days before the announcement the 205-cm big man said he hopes the B. League games can inspire people at home and abroad paying attention to his career during these difficult times.
After all, these are unprecedented times for basketball and global sports, too. The NCAA’s college basketball tournaments were canceled. The NBA season is suspended for at least 30 days (probably longer) due to the coronavirus pandemic, while leagues throughout Europe, Africa and elsewhere are shut down as well.
Regardless of the circumstances, the energetic Sunrockers center made his presence felt on the court in the series finale, competing at a high level from start to finish. With 13 points and 13 rebounds, the 26-year-old Spaniard delivered a typical performance for him this season, his first in the B. League. Saiz’s all-around effort helped the Sunrockers improve to 27-14.
Halfway around the world, Saiz’s homeland and home city are dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak. Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez declared a state of emergency on Saturday. A day later, The New York Times reported that “Spain — like Italy and France to varying degrees — is now on lockdown, struggling to contain a virus that already seems out of control, with about 8,000 people infected and almost 300 dead.”
How is the Madrid native handling the demands of his job while coping with the reality of what’s unfolding in Spain?
“It’s tough,” acknowledged Saiz, who wrapped up his stellar collegiate career at the University of Mississippi in 2017 as an All-Southeastern Conference First Team selection (15.1 points, 11.4 rebounds in 36 games as a senior).
“Obviously it’s hard not (just) for us, for everybody. . . . It’s affecting everybody in the world, so it’s a bad situation.”
He added: “We have to take care of it as best as we can.”
Spanish League powerhouse Real Madrid loaned Saiz to San Pablo Burgos and Iberostar Tenerife over the past two seasons. In the 2019-20 campaign, he’s emerged as one of the B. League’s top newcomers. He won the Slam Dunk Contest at the All-Star Game in Sapporo in January. He’s averaging 20.6 points, 12.5 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.3 blocks in 26 games, providing inside muscle and a commanding presence at both ends of the floor.
Despite the uncertainties of the current season — the Kawasaki-Hokkaido game was canceled on Saturday due to players having a fever; a Chiba-Utsunomiya contest on Sunday was called off for the same reason (but due to a referee’s temperature) — Saiz remains determined to do his job the best that he can.
“You’re playing and you don’t know what’s going on, but it’s our job. We just go and do it. We’ve just got to continue to do it until they (league officials) say something else.”
League officials have spoken, and now it’s a waiting game again.
The Sunrockers were sidelined from Feb. 16 until facing the Northern Happinets on Saturday. Before the B. League followed other Japan pro sports leagues in suspending operations due to the coronavirus outbreak late last month, the team also had time off due to FIBA continental tournament qualifiers.
Saiz suited up for Spain in a 2021 FIBA EuroBasket qualifier on Feb. 25. In an 80-69 home defeat to Group A foe Poland, he had 15 points and a team-high 12 rebounds. On Feb. 20, Saiz finished with 17 points, 10 boards and two blocks in an 84-71 road win over Romania.
Nearly a month later I asked him if his family and close friends are OK despite the widespread COVID-19 outbreak in Spain.
Saiz nodded and said yes, but noted people are staying at home in a nationwide effort to fight COVID-19 “for 15 days to be able to eradicate the virus.”
“All the businesses and the (sports) leagues, everything’s canceled,” he said. “I think it’s a good measure . . . because it hasn’t been in Spain for too long, only three weeks, almost a month, and I think it’s a good way to stop it.”
As for being back on the court for the Sunrockers, Saiz, who sat out Saturday’s game because Charles Jackson was penciled into the starting lineup, displayed joy during and after the weekend finale.
“At the end of the day, it’s what we love to do,” he said of playing basketball, “and we are lucky that we can make it our job.”
Even though the league schedule is in disarray right now and there are legitimate doubts the league will complete the season due to the COVID-19 crisis, Saiz is clearly committed to raising the spirits of team boosters in Japan and in his homeland.
Saiz said he considers it an honor to play for fans in Spain, supporters whom he said find joy in following his career.
“A lot of people over there watch it,” he said, “and I’m so thankful for all of them. Obviously, it’s my home country and I’m so thankful for everything that they’ve been doing for me, and every time I’m here playing, I play for them.”