In over half a century, this is the first time NBA visits Cuba in order to share experiences by means of its “Basketball without Borders” program, which is supported by FIBA America and includes 220 countries. Such legends as Steve Nash, Dikembe Mutombo and Ticha Penicheiro, accompanied by coaches and referees, participated in several activities in Havana, inaugurated a court, donated sports equipment and were constantly followed by their fans.
The NBA initiative was supported by 29 out of the 30 franchises. Miami Heat was the only one that stepped aside since the very beginning. The new context of the relations between Cuba and the United States paves the way for different kinds of sports approaches; although leaving the political aspect behind is a difficult task, since that’s what happened with the team that plays at the city with the highest number of Cuban-American citizens.
The NBA delegation was also made up of coaches Quin Snyder (Utah Jazz), James Borrego (Orlando Magic), Victor Ojeda, director of the Americas Basketball Academy, and Alberto Andres Garcia, regional head of FIBA Americas.
Mutombo was one of the sensations in Havana. The 2.18-meter-tall Congolese giant played 18 seasons with the NBA and he presently stands as its international ambassador. This player mastered the art of defense in basketball and his physical condition is impressive, although he’s nearly 50 years old.
“If we have developed the program in farther countries, why couldn’t we do it in Cuba? This is a historic moment. We’ve opened a bridge between Cuba and the United States. We thank all the people that made this program possible”, Mutombo said during the initial press conference, where he also aired his opinion on the way to improve the basketball level in the country: “Cuban players only need to be put on the map. They will join the elite as soon as they can show their worth, just as we’ve seen in other sports like baseball.”
Steve Nash also caught the eye of many people. Short time ago, this tremendous Canadian player was an outstanding figure on the courts of the top basketball league of the world, where he played with the Phoenix Suns, Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers. He never won a champion ring, but he was named Most Valuable Player twice. At the Cuban capital city, Mr. Nash gave several pieces of advice to members of the Cuban female team and his suggestions, with more gestures than words, were attentively received by girls that also dream about scoring baskets.
“Cuba has always been the cradle of remarkable athletes and these clinics are going to help strengthen basketball on the island”, Mr. Nash underlined and added that he hasn’t seen the Cuban team playing in a while, but its athletes “have always been characterized by their speed and physical condition. I believe that all players have to work hard to put an end to their weak aspects: maneuverability, shooting technique, court view when it comes to passing the ball. These elements, along with the capacity to smartly use that speed, will help them get positive results”, the talented 1.91-meter-tall player said.
Penicheiro’s experience with WNBA is great, since she won a title with Sacramento Monarchs in 2005. The Portuguese athlete never played against the Cuban team, but she did share court with Yamilet Martinez, one of the best pivots in the history of Cuban basketball, when they played with Moscow’s Spartak Club, 2005 – 2007.
“I’m very happy because my dream of coming to Cuba came true. I believe that all expectations have been fulfilled, ours and the Cuban athletes’ and coaches’. This is a very friendly people and the players are in excellent technical condition, they just need more international competitions. I hope that our presence can strengthen the ties in terms of the development of world basketball”, she underlined.
Quin Sneyder, coach of Utah Jazz, also showed his satisfaction for the initiative. “This experience in Cuba has been very successful. The hospitality has been charming. Several technical workshops were developed and both athletes and coaches have shown their interest. We’ve seen the potential of young players and the male team, with excellent performance and speed on the court. They only need the experience given by numerous games.”
The Cuban basketball authorities were pleased by the initiative. According to Ruperto Herrera, President of the National Federation, the fact of “being visited by representatives of the best basketball on the face of earth is very important and it benefits athletes and the rest of the attendees (…) These have been four days of joy and they have expressed their gratitude for the organization and everything we’ve done. We’re willing to welcome them as many times as they want to come.”
The Camp inspired Cuban players. The most complete basketball player at the moment, 21-year-old Jasiel Rivero, 2.04 meter tall, said to be motivated. “We rarely count on the presence of great NBA legends. These have been days of intense training, we’ve learned a lot and they have seen that we’re not that far from reality. I wish this happens again.”
According to Alberto Andres Garcia, they wanted that Camp to be “the initial jump. We all have to thank the effort that is being done by the governments of both countries. Their citizens will benefit from this step they have taken.”
The program of activities included the inauguration of a basketball court, nestled in 23rd avenue, a central artery of the Cuban capital city. The contribution of the NBA Cares program helped remodel this premise, and the donation included balls. Furthermore, national, junior and children teams were given sneakers, pullovers and shorts.
Beyond the knowledge they shared, the Cuban basketball was also given another great piece of news: two players are going to be handpicked to participate in a development camp organized by NBA, in the Dominican Republic.
Sports keep on establishing bridges between the United States and Cuba. On June 2, “Pedro Marrero” stadium is going to host a game between New York’s Cosmos team —with Spanish Raul Gonzalez as one of its main figures— and the Cuban national team. MLB has also announced, by means of Commissioner Rob Manfred, that it’s willing to hold games of the spring training, before the 2016 season, at the Latin American stadium. “Sports Diplomacy”, that’s how some people label these developments and the term seem to be pertinent.
Written by M. Gómez (with Y. Masó)