Regina-born Kai Williams was playing for the British Basketball League in Newcastle, England, when the pandemic hit. The BBL was one of the last professional sports leagues in the world to stop, he said.
“Obviously, things were going south,” he told CBC’s Saskatchewan Weekend.
“We booked our flight, gave ourselves a week to pack up the house and then we got notified that the borders were closing and we need to leave earlier so we kind of had to do everything within 48 hours.”
That included making sure all of their paperwork was in order — his daughter and wife are British citizens, so crossing the border was “a little bit tricky,” he said.
Back in Saskatchewan with basketball on hold, he didn’t know what to expect.
He got in touch with the Rattlers general manager Barry Rawlyk, and ended up getting picked up for the Canadian Elite Basketball League (CEBL) summer series in St. Catharine’s, Ont.
He said he’d always wanted to play for the Rattlers but he didn’t think it was going to happen because he was already in a contract with the BBL.
“I just thought, you know, if this is gonna happen this summer, I’d definitely like to be a part of it,” he said.
“I never thought that I would be given an opportunity like this … I’ve always enjoyed representing Saskatchewan.”
The CEBL started its 2020 season on Saturday — one of the first professional sports leagues in Canada to do so since the COVID-19 pandemic started.
The Saskatchewan Rattlers won their first game of the series on Sunday against the Niagara River Lions, with a score of 96-79.
All seven teams will be playing in a round robin tournament, and one team will be eliminated at the end before they move to single game elimination.
The Rattlers are the defending Canadian Elite Basketball League champions and Williams said he’s confident the team will perform well.
“We really gel as a team and I think that goes a long way in a short tournament,” he said.
Williams said having a professional basketball team in Saskatchewan is an important development for the sport.
“It’s provided … a lot of opportunities for people in Saskatchewan to watch some high-level basketball, live, so I think it’s pretty special.”
Growing up in Regina, he said he never thought there could be a professional basketball team in the province.
“I definitely wish that this team was around when I was younger.”
He’s seen the sport grow year after year, which is why he knew the CEBL would be successful — but it has done even better than he was expecting, he said.
“I guess that’s just a testament to everybody’s love for the game in the country.”
The CEBL Summer Series is on now, with the championship game scheduled for August 9. The games will be streamed live on CBC Sports and CBC Gem.