HELENA — When you see Alejandro Santos Piqueras – or as his teammates call him “Alex” or “‘tos” – on the court, you’re seeing a kid chasing his dream.
When he reacts to big plays or officiating, it’s a type of bravado unlike any other Saints. He also possesses a skillset unlike anybody else, with his ability to shoot from anywhere on the court or drop no-look passes with ease.
A 6-foot-8 point forward is not something you see in the NAIA very often. His European flair enriches the Saints.
The Spaniard out of Madrid is a big-city transplant, building toward a dream to one day play professional basketball. A redshirt junior majoring in business administration, he’s taken on a variety of roles with the Saints this season. His stats won’t jump off the page, but his playmaking and passion are key parts of the Saints.
“How hard he pulls for everyone, whether he's playing a lot or not so much,” Saints coach Carson Cunningham said partly defines Santos. “He's always been that way. It's a very endearing quality.”
It’s no surprise after you learn Santos’ story. He’s keen on making the most of his journey in America.
Santos comes from a family of hoopers. His father, older and younger brother all played basketball and found different levels of success. It’s part of the reason at a young age — “three or four years old” — Santos with the utmost certainly knew what he wanted to do with his life: play pro basketball.
“Growing up you hear a lot of people saying that,” Santos relates in his accented English. “They act like it’s something easy to say. I’ve always actually wanted to be (a pro).”
Santos parents put him on a pathway toward that dream, consulting early on and researching the best possible route. Santos’ elder brother, Jorge, is three years older than him and he, too, had a dream to play professionally. In Spain, however, it’s nearly impossible to pursue higher education and play competitive basketball. There is no college basketball, only clubs.
Alex and Jorge both played in one of those clubs, CB Estudiantes. Until you reach the top level, they are age restricted teams, U-14, U-15, etc. Jorge learned from experience that being contracted with the club meant he’d miss exams. Missing an exam meant a zero and likely failure of the course. He was forced to choose education or basketball. He chose education.
“He had to quit basketball,” Santos said. “That was the main reason I chose the path.”
Santos knew he wanted to pursue basketball, but valued an education, too. His mother learned of American college basketball through another parent of Santos’ brothers’ teammate. She asked if he would be interested, noting there would be no ultimatum between basketball or an education. His teachers in Spain –whose voices grew louder when he was 14 or 15 – constantly reminded him he would need to choose basketball or studies.
Now Santos could do both.
He enlisted the help of a Spanish agency. The agent would contact different coaches in the U.S. and promote Santos. One of those coaches happened to be Cunningham, and the Carroll coach’s interest piqued.
“I saw film on Santos,” Cunningham recalled. “I liked his length and ball skill and his ability to play pick and roll hoops.”
Cunningham made Santos a scholarship offer and Santos’ journey began – 10,000 miles into the heart of the Rocky Mountains. A different culture, drastically different weather patterns and an English learning curve awaited him.
Santos knew the weather would be cold in the winter, he packed coats and boots. He didn’t know how much spoken English – especially slang – would be different than what he’d practiced writing during his studies for 14 years. English was mandatory in Madrid since he was four years old, but when the conversation shifted to a group of people, Santos couldn’t keep up.
“If I was in a one-on-one conversation, I could handle,” he said. “I was so lost. I learned so much English so quick. It was a survival thing.”
His roommate, senior guard Lorel Johnson, helped Santos pick up on expressions that were foreign to the foreigner. At first simple word choice could trip Santos up. He learned “how are you” and “how are you doing” are similar questions.
“At first I didn’t know how to answer,” he said. “It really wasn’t that hard, but it was a matter of time. I was just talking to people and making a lot of mistakes.”
As he adjusted within the community, he also had to acclimate to a new brand of basketball. Santos grew up playing under FIBA rules: a 24-second shot clock, longer 3-point line. The style of game under those constraints lends itself to spacing, shooting and more individual flair. Santos also grew up playing against other teenagers with builds like his.
As soon as he played the college game, he would be taking on more mature, stronger players.
“When I got here I was 17, but we had a 23-year-old on the team,” Santos said. “They had grown man strength. I was hard to adjust.”
The American game was more brutish, favoring physical play over finesse. It didn’t take long for Santos to learn less fouls would be called. And under Cunningham, the Saints looked to execute within the full frame of the shot clock.
“The way Carson coaches, we play long possessions,” Santos said. “I played (in Spain) with individual stuff and pick and roll and here it was very strict.”
Santos at times is still striking that balance between executing what the Saints’ want and showing his playmaking.
“Alex is a willing listener and super-competitive and wants the team to do its best — he pulls for everyone,” Cunningham said. “So really that has made it much easier. He thinks about the game and brings some neat European perspective to matters.”
Santos travels back to Madrid each summer to spend time with his family. His first year in Helena, the Saints had enough downtime during their Christmas break, Santos was able to fly back in the winter. Since then, it’s a once a year trip.
A few years ago, it was a devastating one.
Santos went back to Madrid on June 30th and played in a three-on-three tournament on July 4th.
“It wasn’t super competitive,” he said.
The all-day tournament meant his team would play seven or eight games. The first game started at 8 a.m. In the very first game, Santos’ knee betrayed him.
“I was driving in the lane and I went to jump stop,” Santos said. “(Another player) was a lot stronger than me. They were 30 or something. They bumped me and my knee landed funny. It didn’t hurt that bad and I nearly kept playing.”
To be sure, Santos saw a doctor. The doctor assured Santos he was fine. Yet, Santos asked for a MRI. The MRI revealed an ACL tear. Santos had surgery to repair the ACL in Spain and redshirted his sophomore year. He used to wear a bulky brace on the knee, but now it’s usually a single band when he plays.
He’s overcome the knee injury and contributed to the Saints in any way he can.
Looking forward, Santos plans to keep playing basketball after college. He sees himself back in Europe after graduation and then searching for a team to play professionally.
“I really don’t know where,” he said. “That’s the plan.”