Cuba. Mention of the place conjures images of the bearded one smoking a cigar and wearing fatigues. You might think of missiles or maybe airplane hijackings. You don't think of basketball.
But roundball is big in Cuba. In fact it is second only to baseball in popularity. When the Harvard Classics Basketball Club traveled to Havana over spring break to take on the Cuban National team in a four-game series, squad members found that basketball there is big in every sense of the word.
The Cubans apparently have been running a genetic experimentation program designed to produce basketball players as long as some of the cigars they smoke down there. Classics center Dave Coatsworth spent much playing time trying to persuade the 7-ft. 3-in. Cuban center, Felix "All-Mellow" Morales, that he wasn't a CIA operative--so would he please be careful where he put down his size 18 shoe.
The Cubans happily surrounded Felix with two 6-ft. 11-in. mates and a slew of other flag poles hovering around 6-ft. 6-in. They weren't skinny either; the first time I saw them, I thought we were playing a bunch of shotputters.
Besides their size, the Cubans could all jump. For long stretches they waged sort of aerial battle of Havana about a foot above the rim. Morales and amigos proved particularly adept at flying in from nowhere to dunk, then quickly ducking their heads so they would avoid hitting the backboard.
For the Classics this was no ordinary trip. Or competition. While the Classics have grown accustomed to meeting the likes of Bunker Hill Community College. Deer Island Penal Institute, and the Harvard J.V., the Cubans were, well, nothing to sneeze at.
The Cuban team was an assemblage of the island's 15 top hoopsters. Their play, in many instances, dazzled. By any standard they resembled a top ten NCAA team. Trading hoops with them was not like playing pick up at the IAB.
But while the Cubans had an obvious size and age experience over the Classics, one disconcerting feature marred the trip. The extreme roughness and physical contact in the games bordered on intimidation.
Instead of a friendly international foray, the four-game series was marked by the Cubans' determination to approximate Saturday night wrestling matches. This was the same Cuban team which broke Kentucky All-American Kyle Macy's jaw in the 1979 Pan-American games.
Some of this overzealousness could be attributed to the Cuban Olympic committee's selection of 12 players to go to Moscow for the Olympics. But much of the blame should rest squarely on the shoulders of nationalism--or political pressure.
In the Ciudad Deportiva, Havana's Boston Garden, two reminders that sport and politics are not separate in Cuba stick out. One, a ghostly mural of Che, grossly out of place in a sports arena. The other is a Maoesque dictum on the wall: SPORTS IS THE RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE--Fidel.
Forcing The Issue
We got the feeling while watcning the games that the dictator meant victory at all costs is the right of the people. Fidel may or may not have been watching the games, but the Cuban team played like it knew where its paychecks were coming from.
For the record, the Classics did not pull off any David and Goliath miracles in the four-game series. The point margins were a little bit bigger than I feel comfortable dealing with. But it was an interesting trip. International competition does not always provide lasting friendship. Sometimes it is not meant to.