Cuban Basketball

Fifteen international players from 11 countries participated in last season’s Final Four. None were from Cuba. There was an American who played in the Cuban equivalent of their NCAA Tournament. That would be me, the guy nervously standing at attention for the Cuban national anthem in front of thousands of spectators and millions on national television.

This is how I got there. 


Last spring, I got the chance to study abroad at the University of Havana at an exchange program managed by Butler University. It was my junior year at Gettysburg College and, as a Political Science major and Spanish minor, I jumped at the chance to study in a country so close, but so different.

Students at the University of Havana (UH) take four classes a semester, but there the similarities with a U.S. education end. Professors show up and lecture for an hour – no overheads, few handouts, little homework and only a final paper to determine your semester grade, where most exchange students receive about the same score. Therefore, I had a lot of time to do other things, which, as a former high school captain, meant playing basketball.

UH has no dorms so all international students must find housing with local families.
I started playing Cuban basketball on a couple of open courts near my host family's home. There are only a few courts in the city and it took some time to find one nearby. Several are very much needing repair.



In April, 2015 Steve Nash and Dikembe Mutombo of NBA Cares, working with the Cuban Sports Ministry and the Cuban Basketball Federation held the first joint basketball development camp after relations with Cuba were reestablished. Part of that program was to refurbish three local courts, one of which was close to my home and where I spent many hours. The NBA Cares logo was on all the baskets.

Every evening around 5 p.m. players of all ages and abilities started to show up. Many times, mine was the only basketball, and when I had to go home for dinner, the games ended.

Games were three-on-three, where players called fouls on each other, rather than on themselves, which led to endless arguments. Many occasions, there was more time spent arguing calls with arms waving than actually playing – I even saw players walk of the court in disgust mid-game. Fairness is a large part of the Cuban mindset and it came out in spades on the court.

The basketball gear was unusual. While everyone had shorts and jerseys (tank tops are the casual shirt of choice), basketball shoes varied greatly. Some players played barefoot, some had what looked more like bedroom slippers and a few had legitimate basketball shoes, most likely brought in by relatives from Miami. Both Nike and adidas had company stores in Havana, but the Cubans called them "Basketball Museums” because people only went in to look as the prices were way beyond local affordability.

There were a few NBA jerseys (Rudy Fernandez being the most popular), but many were clearly outgrown years ago and washed almost to point that you couldn't see the number, team or, sometimes, even the original color. Jerseys are highly prized as these are quintessential American products and not available because of the U.S. embargo.

While playing, I met Miguel Angel Rodriguez Villavicencio (we called him Kacho). When he learned that I was enrolled in the philosophy department (which included my class on Marxism and Leninism), he invited me to play on a club team. Other departments in the school, such as mathematics, had a team and played in an intramurals-type event. During the tournament, I was approached by the coach of the UH team and invited to try out for the university team.

I share the following information so you can judge the competition in Cuba. I was captain of the Groton High School team, a small town in central Massachusetts. I was a decent player but not a star. We were about a .500 team, made the league playoffs and were eliminated in the first round. My game was a small forward, being 6-3 but I had a nose for rebounds. I had no desire to play basketball at the Division III college level, not from a lack of will but from the time commitment required for college sports. They own you - they tell you what to eat, when and how to work out and have practices pretty much across the school year – I wanted a broader college experience, like being free to studying abroad.

University of Havana Team
At UH my coach was a young woman in her late 20s, a physical education professor named Mariana who had acquired a love of basketball from her father. When I saw and heard her on the court, and saw the way the players respected her, I knew she was qualified. Women climbing into higher ranks of employment is one of the changes in Cuba, and my coach “Profe” was a great example.

The gym was located in the back of the university campus. The first thing you see in the gym is a massive photo of Fidel Castro playing basketball when he was in college. “El Comandante” was rocking the short shorts well before Larry Bird, and basketball was said to be his best sport. The gym itself looked as old as Fidel; loose floorboards that killed a dribble instantly, old concrete bleachers covered in dust and cigarette butts, lights that just eerily illuminated the court and a patchy aluminum roof with birds nesting and sometimes defecating on the court below.

We practiced every weekday at 7 p.m. I was usually the first to show up because of what we called “Cuban time.” The Cuban transportation system is, like many other industries in Cuba, old and outdated, which meant that players who lived outside of the city were often late to practice. Once we lost the keys to the gym and couldn’t practice for a week.

A lack of equipment at the UH gym was very apparent. Because of the embargo, sports equipment is hard to acquire and expensive, so much so that during baseball games, fans are required to retrieve foul balls so play can resume. Players would slide all over the court, the few balls had either too much or not enough air and occasionally the lights wouldn’t work, signaling the end of practice. The water fountains didn’t work, so we filled up our water bottles using a shower without a head.

Cuban Basketball History
Cuba has a history of basketball – the only Olympic medal ever won by a Caribbean nation was a Bronze won by Cuba in 1972, the year the Soviets beat the US for the gold. Most Americans know about the Russian Gold, but Cuba played a role in another American embarrassment a year earlier. In the 1971 Pan American Games in Cali, Colombia, the U. S. lost to Cuba in a round-robin game, then were eliminated from medal consideration by what appeared as collusion between Brazil and Cuba.

According to the New York Times, to qualify for the medal round, the Brazilians needed at least a 5-point victory, and the Cubans could not lose by more than 7 points. Brazil led, 73-62, with 1 minute 50 seconds left but never attempted another shot. Cuba rallied for 6 points, just enough to qualify with Brazil and eliminate the United States. This happened during the cold war and further increased tensions between the U.S and the communist world.

In 1977 basketball players from the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State went to Cuba to play the Cuban national team. They were one of the first American sports teams to visit Cuba after the revolution in 1959 (the U.S. had previously sent delegations to international competitions held in Havana, including the 1969 fencing world championship and the 1974 AIBA world boxing championship).

After President Obama re-established diplomatic relationships basketball became part of the cultural exchange. In August 2015, Coastal Carolina became the first U.S. college team to tour Cuba. They played the Cuban national team and hosted clinics to teach basketball skills to young players. In 2016 Louisville and Bowling Green played a preseason game in Havana, making them the first college women’s basketball game ever in the country.

Rich American
Before leaving the U.S., I vowed that I would live as a Cuban, hoping to be accepted as "one of them.” This was impossible, not just because of their stereotype of "rich Americans," but because we really are so much richer in terms of material possessions. Every time I walked onto a court with new players, I could see everyone looking at my shoes.

I had only brought an older pair of Nike Hyperdunks from my High School team with me not knowing how much basketball I would be playing, so I asked my brother to buy me a new pair and bring them down on a visit. The day I took them out of the bag my UH teammates stood around going “Ohhh!” with several immediately asking to buy them when I left. I gave my old pair away.

One of my father's favorite things to do is to visit Goodwill and find used NBA jerseys, usually costing about $5.00. He found dozens, so I brought about 20 of them with me to both wear and share. One of my favorite basketball times was giving each of my UH teammates a new (by Cuban standards) NBA jersey – most had never had one before. It was like a feeding frenzy. They agreed to wear the NBA jerseys to the college championships to show off.

Even the coach was not above taking advantage of her American. She regularly hit me up to transfer minutes from my phone to hers. The exchange program issued us old-fashioned flip phones – the most advanced phones that could be supported on Cuba's mobile network. These required prepaid minutes which could be purchased on time cards at a government center called an ETECSA. My father could add value to my phone on the Internet (www.ding.com) without me having to wait in a line for hours. Cubans had a practice of taking your phone and pressing a code to see how much value was stored. They were constantly surprised to see me with $10-$15 in saved value. They were also not afraid to ask me to transfer some of that value to their number.

Tournament
University teams from all over Cuba travel to play a championship tournament each school year in Camagüey, a large city in the center of the island. Seven schools had teams that were divided into three classes with three, including (UH, University of Camagüey and the University of Pinar del Río and Santiago) in the highest bracket.
All the UH sports teams traveled the eight hour drive in a single, slow moving bus. The basketball team was joined by gymnastics, karate, and the one member of the chess team. There is no baseball team at UH, primarily because there is no room for a baseball field. In fact, there were few fields in crowded Havana. Baseball players tend to come from the more rural areas of the island.

Over the five-day tournament we lived in the U of Camagüey dorms – five sets of bunk beds about 15 inches apart in each room with writings and old pictures of Jessica Lopez and Justin Timberlake on the wall.
We ate in the school cafeteria together; typical Cuban fare – chicken or pork (Castro decided that Cuba would be a dairy nation so there is a long prison sentence for anyone killing a cow without a permit) as well as black beans and rice. We slept on a sheet of plywood with a very thin mattress. There were no sheets, towels, blankets or pillows, and I didn’t know to bring any. My teammates laughed themselves into tears when they saw me sleeping on a bare mattress pad using folded up shirts for my pillow. When I said I thought they would be provided, they laughed and said, “Dude, this is Cuba.” In the common Cuban manner of sharing, however, one of my teammates gave me his sheet to use so I wasn’t sleeping on the old scratchy mattress that was older than me.

The opening ceremonies were widely attended by about 2000 locals and broadcast by Cuban national television. There were 610 athletes taking part (I was not only the only American; I was the only foreigner) and we all stood in the entry way while exhortations were proclaimed over the loud speakers - "VIVA La Revolucion ...VIVA Fidel ...VIVA Raul.”
We entered the arena following the UH flag, with fog machines and purple lights for effect. It was clearly a very proud moment for all the athletes to represent their school. Cuba has a mandatory military service; a few soldiers carried in the national flag and everyone stood straight as an arrow with their hands at their sides. Everyone, and I mean everyone, sang the anthem, and loudly.

You can only imagine how far I was out of my comfort zone. I don't know if the people in the stands knew that UH had an American player. I just knew that I stood out, and that the fans and athletes were staring at me. I was the only person wearing Nike LeBrons and mid-calf socks. During the national anthem, I saw players from other teams looking at me to see how I would act; I am sure they thought "What are you doing here?” Since I didn’t know the words to the anthem I couldn’t sing it so I stood at attention and tried to look as respectful as possible.

UH and Camagüey were the first games after the opening ceremony. The play quality was between a good U.S. high school and a Division III college. It was clear that there is little formal basketball coaching available. While there were some real A-T-H-L-E-T-E-S, there was little in the way of advanced play such as pick and rolls, positioning for rebounds, or any real effort to play defense. When a shot went up, every pair of eyes (including the refs) looked up to follow the flight of the ball.

I was a starter, playing small forward. I was one of the leading rebounders and played the most aggressive defense as I was taught (commanded) to do by every coach for whom I ever played. My specialty was getting into rebounding position earlier than my opponents so I could box out – a practice not widely employed by Cuban players.

You would assume that UH, from the largest city, would have the best athletes but that is wrong. Camagüey won it all. Camagüey and Santiago are also large cities with Camagüey had the important home court advantage. All the UH players (including me) were nervous and playing in front of the largest crowds they had ever seen at a basketball game. Camagüey had several players attending the college that also play in Cuba’s semi-pro league, The Liga Superior de Baloncesto (Superior Basketball League), the highest professional basketball league in Cuba.

Camagüey easily won the game 71 – 48. During our game, there was a hard foul that led to some heated words but no where’s near a fight. Cubans don’t play basketball with the same intensity (anger?) as Americans. They hugged it out.

After the game, Camagüey players worked hard to console us on the loss. I wasn’t sure if this was part of the Cuban psyche or just the fact that we had to share a ride back to the dorms on a tiny bus all crammed together. In any case it was one of the most awkward bus rides I have ever taken.

Conclusion

The U.S. embargo is clearly having an impact on the growth of basketball in Cuba. Embargos are blunt instruments that have many unintended consequences. While our embargo may be targeting the military and secret police (something I absolutely did not see any evidence of as I was completely free to roam and talk with anyone about anything), they do affect people just wanting to live their lives. My friends want to buy basketball shoes, watch NBA games on TV, follow their favorite players, and learn the finer points of the game. Basketball is part of America's "soft power" and has great influence in winning the hearts and minds of Cuban youth. In a foreign policy that focused on the next generation and not the last, a lifted embargo would allow the attraction of basketball to work its magic.

Scott Csaplar can be reached at csaplar@hotmail.com

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