WOLFVILLE, N.S. - When Paulo Santana left Acadia in the summer of 2008 to play basketball professionally in his native Angola, he left some fairly important unfinished business behind.
After three years at Acadia and three successful seasons as a member of the basketball Axemen, Santana departed a few credits short of earning his Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology.
While he felt the change to play professional basketball was too good an opportunity to pass up, Santana regretted not graduating with his degree, and pledged someday to rectify the omission.
Starting this past September, Santana fulfilled the promise he made to himself 10 years before, re-enrolling at Acadia (at the age of 34) to complete his degree. He has spent the 2018-2019 academic year as a full-time student as well as a student assistant coach with the basketball Axemen.
"It's been a good experience," Santana says of coaching with the Axemen. "I've had all kinds of experiences as a player. Now I'm getting to experience being a coach, and I like it."
A native of Bengo, Angola, in southwestern Africa, Santana grew up speaking Portuguese as his first language. He first came to Canada in the fall of 2001 to attend Central Commerce high school in Toronto, from where he graduated in 2004.
After graduation, he attended Southeastern Junior College in Iowa for a year, then experienced "problems with my (student) visa," which required him to "return to Canada for six months."
He spent the summer in Iowa, then returned to Toronto. "I had not ever played university basketball in Canada. The guy who ran the YMCA in Toronto asked me what I planned to do."
It turned out the man was good friends with Les Berry, who had just taken over as the men's basketball head coach at Acadia. He passed Santana's name along, and "the next day, Les called me." In the meantime, he had agreed to visit Carleton in Ottawa, and "got a call from them the next day."
He agreed to come to Acadia "to visit, not to stay," but ended up falling in love with it "and never got a chance to look at other schools." In hindsight, he says, "I'm glad I came here."
Santana took over as Acadia's point guard, and in the second of his three seasons in Wolfville, was named the AUBC Most Valuable Player as the Axemen captured a surprise conference championship.
In 2007-2008, he missed part of the regular season due to injury but was able to return for the post-season. Playing less of a regular role than before, he helped Acadia to a berth in the CIS national final.
Santana was first offered a professional contract following the 2006-2007 season but chose to return for a third year at Acadia. During the summer of 2008, he heard that Berry was leaving as head coach, and decided to take the plunge and turn pro.
He ended up playing professionally for 10 years in Angola, eight seasons with Petro Deluanda and two with Inter Deluanda. During the 'off-seasons', he also suited up with the Angolan national team.
He was part of "four national championships and three club championships" during his successful pro career. In FIBA Africa Club Champions Cup competition, he and his Petro Atletico teammates won silver medals in 2009 and 2012 and a gold medal in 2015.
He competed for Angola at the pre-Olympic tournament in 2012, defeating Team Venezuela before "losing our final tournament game to Russia."
He adds, "playing pro was a lot of fun. I counted it up, and I've been in 29 different countries, just playing ball. I probably could have played longer, but I didn't want to play anymore." He had been dealing with "all kinds of different injuries" and was "having a hard time of it" by the end of his career.
He had taken one class at Acadia in 2010-2011, and deep down, he "always knew I would come back someday" as a full-time student and finish his degree. After his retirement from Inter Deluanda, he took the plunge in the fall of 2018.
The first month back, he recalls, "was crazy. A lot had changed since I was here before." Fortunately, "I still had a few friends here," including current Axemen head coach (and former teammate) Kevin Duffie, "who helped smooth the way." Duffie also "gave me a place to stay until I found my own place."
It wasn't always easy, but Santana "has no complaints about how the year went. In some ways, it's actually been easier than I thought it would be. The first time, it was all about basketball. Now that I'm 10 years older, I can see a lot of things more clearly."
Originally, Santana planned to study through the summers and graduate in the fall of 2019. He acknowledges, though, that he has "liked the experience of coaching," and if everything works out, can see himself "maybe coming back next season in a similar role to the one I've had this year.
"For the last seven or eight years I played, I was one of the assistant captains. I became familiar with some things about coaching, though I still have a lot to learn."
As well, "I've gotten to play for a lot of coaches in a lot of different leagues. I've learned a lot about how to talk to players, and how players react to coaching."
More than anything, though, "the main reason I'm back here is to get my degree." He has had "no real challenges" being a university student again at age 34. "It's been amazing fun," and because he is 10 years older, he finds he has a whole new perspective on things.
Looking back on the past 10 years, Santana says, "time goes really fast. You can't play forever." He acknowledges that if he had it to do over, he might not try and play pro and play for the national team at the same time.
"I overdid it, and my body gave out on me," he says. "I had too many injuries to deal with. My body still hurts, even now." In hindsight, "I should have tried to take better care of myself." At the same time, "I had a really good run, a really good pro career, and I got to play for my country."
The thing he remembers most about his time as an Axemen player "was the fun we had. I tell the players here now, play hard and have fun, that's all you can do."
He reiterated, "I'd like to be back here this fall," in whatever capacity, "but you never know for sure. I know I still have a lot to learn, and this is one of the best places I know to learn."