The NBA Was Always a Reference Point in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

nash-nba-cuba-28014-_mn-620x330Miguel Frómeta, a light-skinned Afro-Cuban about six feet tall and around 50 years old, will have to follow the news about the basketball clinic to be taught in Cuba by former NBA players on April 23rd, from a dirty kitchen in Valle Grande prison on the outskirts of Havana.

30 years ago Frómeta emerged as one of the most promising small forwards in national basketball. He studied at a sports school west of the city and was a rabid fan of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the phenomenal center of the Los Angeles Lakers.

The NBA, just like the Beatles, was banned by the olive-green regime of Fidel Castro under the pretext of causing harmful ideological influences in a uniform and Marxist society.

Young basketball fans like Frómeta had to make do with secretly watched NBA games. In the 80s, when there was no Internet, Joel, a neighbor, remembers spending hours watching the incredible plays of guys like Larry Bird or Magic Johnson on a VCR.

During those years, in the courtyard La Vibora college prep, 25 minutes from the center of the capital, hoops fans leafed through magazines illustrated with photos and statistics of the NBA, which arrived secretly in the luggage of Cuban residents in Miami.

Every afternoon at twilight, they set up a basketball tournament under the lights, in a three-on-three format known as “guerrillas.” The court was solid cement. And up to fifty large boys took part in the improvised matches. The winning team got the right to continue playing.

The losers gathered in the shade of a leafy ceiba tree to discuss Michael Jordan’s latest moves or find out how the NBA season was progressing. All the information was oral.

The cream of the cream of Havana basketball competed in those fiery pickup games. Richard Matienzo, the power forward of the national team with the spectacular dunks, was a fixture. As was Adalberto Alvarez, Rolando Alfonso, and a dozen players from provincial and national teams.

Under a blazing sun, Luis Castellanos, a gray-haired coach who had played college basketball in the United States, trained in two sessions some thirty children and adolescents, in the methods and vision of an offensive game based on physical dominance, athleticism, aggression, and spectacle, which was a carbon copy of the basketball that is taught in the United States.

In Cuba there has always been a remarkable fan base for the sport of basketball. In the late 40s, Fidel Castro spent hours playing on the court of the stadium of the University of Havana.

Started in 1946, the NBA did not then have the same media outreach on the island as Major League Baseball. But in Havana neighborhoods such as La Vibora, Luyanó, or El Vedado, basketball of undeniable quality was played.

With the arrival of the bearded ones to power in 1959 the sport became massive. It was common for Castro to train with the national quintet in the City Sports Coliseum.

A retired basketball player says “Fidel had a good level of play. He played forward and center and was relentless on the boards. We knew about his character, at times he could be touchy, so we let him play. On average he scored 25 to 30 points. Only then would he leave happy.”

Miguel Calderón, a member of the basketball team that won the bronze medal in 1972 at Munich, and later coach of the national team, lived in La Vibora and was part of that batch of boys who became players on the neighborhood courts.

Luis, now an incurable alcoholic, recalls how in the early 90s, together with several neighbors in Santos Suarez, using a homemade antenna, they intercepted the signal of a television channel intended exclusively for foreign tourists. “Every night we followed the NBA season. I still rub my eyes when I remember those incredible moves of Michael Jordan, Johnson, or Dressler.”

Later on the court he tried to imitate those moves of that pack of great NBA players. Luis could not play at a high enough level not to be sentenced to five years in prison for “dangerousness,” a bizarre legal rule that imprisons people who the State believes “undermine the socialist society.”

In the late 1990s, Cuban television aired some tape-delayed NBA games and this led to a rebound in basketball play. In the national league tournaments interesting players emerged like Angel Oscar Caballero, Roberto Carlos Herrera, Richard Matienzo, Lazaro Borrell, and Andres Guibert, who later left the country.

Borrell and Guibert were able to break into the NBA. Right now, either by means of an illegal antenna or through matches broadcast on  Sundays by a local sports channel, basketball lovers know the NBA inside and out.

Probably Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Nash would be amazed at the large number of followers they have in Cuba, and by the deep knowledge of the NBA. LeBron James is a big deal, as are James Hardy, Curry, and the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc.

Despite state censorship in one form or another, Cubans manage to get all kinds of sports information. You may have the impression that Cuba is more an island than ever. But thanks to popular ingenuity, increasingly we are less.

Iván García

Note – from April 23 to 26, the NBA and FIBA (International Basketball Federation) organized in Havana the first joint basketball camp for boys and girls. This agreement makes the NBA the first professional sports league in the United States to visit Cuba since last December 17, when the two countries restored diplomatic relations.

Steve Nash (pictured), twice winner of the MVP (Most Valuable Player) of the NBA; Dikembe Mutombo, international ambassador for the NBA; and Ticha Penicheiro, Portuguese legend of the WNBA (the female version of the NBA), will lead the camp and community projects in collaboration with the INDER (National Institute of Sports, Physical Education and Recreation) and the Cuban Basketball Federation, presided over by former basketballer Ruperto Herrera.

The NBA and FIBA, through the NBA Cares program, rehabilitated three basketball courts and organized youth camps in two places in Havana.

Photomontage taken from Journal Gol.

21 April 2015