This story is part of a series on the impact of COVID-19 on New Brunswick athletes
Erik Nissen is hoping he can get back to playing professional basketball once leagues return to the court. The Quispamsis basketball star had been playing for Iwate Big Bulls in Japan, but the COVID-19 pandemic suspended and then cancelled the final part of the season.
"It was definitely pulling on my heart strings in different ways," said Nissen.
"That was tough for sure. Having to leave such a successful season early was at the time probably the hardest thing I had to deal with."
The league was suspended in February, and Nissen waited in Japan for a month, hoping games would resume. But in March, Nissen watched a news conference when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urged Canadians abroad to return home.
Nissen decided to get on a plane, but leaving meant he had to cancel his contract. Shortly after arriving back in Canada, the league announced the rest of the season was cancelled. Nissen wasn't paid for that final part of the season.
"That was a little unfortunate but it makes sense. It was out of the team's control," said Nissen. "With the league being cancelled, their funds kind of go to a halt so I wasn't really upset that that happened."
Nissen and the Iwate Big Bulls were on a roll before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The team had the best record in the Tier–3 league.
But, a short losing streak just before the pandemic cancelled the rest of the season dropped the team out of first place.
"Part of me was saying I got to get home as soon as I can, but part of me was saying let's just stick it out. One more game could be the difference," said Nissen.
If the team had stayed in first, the Big Bulls would've been bumped up to the Tier–2 league, which would've reflected well on Nissen, who is one of the few international players the team is allowed to have.
"It would've been a really good mark for my resume as a basketball player to take a team from one league and move them up to the next," said Nissen.
Disappointment for fans
During Nissen's time in the province of Iwate, he developed a connection with the team's fans. While he didn't speak the language, he felt the love during his time there.
"My experience with basketball in Japan was incredible," said Nissen.
"A lot of times I'd be going out to restaurants and I'd have people come up to me asking for autographs, or the chefs are giving me a little extra food or a little side dish for free."
He'd see people in the stands with Nissen on their shirts, and fans would thank him for representing the team and the province.
"The amount of love I felt in Japan playing basketball there was incredible. It was unlike anything I've felt."
That made the decision to go home even more difficult. Nissen wanted to be able to finish the season and reward the fans for their commitment to the team.
Return to play
While some leagues have gotten back to competition, that isn't possible yet for the Iwate Big Bulls and the Tier–3 league in Japan.
The league doesn't have a broadcasting deal, so it wouldn't be able to make money without fans at the games.
While Nissen is looking forward to playing again, he's enjoying the rare bit of time off. He's still working out, and practicing at outdoor courts, but he said the break from games has him feeling stronger than ever.
"I've been going basically two years straight with really no break," said Nissen, who has been jumping between pro teams.
"Hopefully I start to hear soon about contracts but, for right now, yeah, I'm pretty okay with how things are going."
Nissen isn't worried about the risk of playing basketball before there is a vaccine for COVID-19. Now that he's rested, he's ready to find a contract and get back to playing the game he loves.
"For me right now the anxiety around that would be minimal because I don't have a contract," said Nissen.
"Maybe my thoughts on that will change as it gets closer to that time but, for right now, I feel like having that anxiety probably isn't beneficial."