“It’s like living in the past, some people call it the sleeping beauty,” said our guide Guillermo Mena, introducing Cuba to the Coastal Carolina University men’s basketball team on the bus ride from José Martí International Airport into central Havana. “There was nothing we could do when the relations were broken between the two parts (USA and Cuba).” Now with several amendments to US foreign policy on Cuba, there is a feeling of growing momentum and new possibilities on the horizon for relations between Cuba and the United States. Sport Tours International has had a long relationship with the Cuban Basketball Federation but has been unable to organize trips due to the travel restrictions. This December, when President Obama lifted the travel restrictions, Sport Tours International immediately began talks to bring a team to Cuba.
The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers (Chants) and head coach Cliff Ellis enthusiastically agreed to make history as the first NCAA team to play in Cuba. "This foreign tour to Cuba is a great honor for our program as the United States begins to open its relationship with Cuba," said Ellis. "It is not only an opportunity to get additional time together as a team prior to opening the season, but also an immense educational experience for our student athletes."
From their arrival the Chants were in awe, commenting on the eye-opening sights in Cuba. After checking into the hotel the team went on a walking tour of the city. Havana truly does appear lost in time. The weathered facades of Art Deco and Colonial style buildings are striking. Down skinny pastel colored streets, one can find endless old American cars and bustling human activity. After a hot and eye-popping journey, the team returned to the hotel for dinner and some rest before their first game the next day.
Before the first game, there was a meaningful ceremony representing a new union between Cuban and American basketball. Sport Tours president Lee Frederick gifted the the Cuban Basketball Federation a basketball with the words, “Our dream comes true.” It was an emotional moment for many. Over the next three days the Chants and Cuba’s National team played three great games. The Cuban team won all three with the last game being the most closely contested. Chants guard, Jaylen Shaw said, “Although we came out on the short end in the games, I feel like we got better. Playing against professionals was a good thing for us, and we are all glad we came on this trip to play.”
The Chants also enjoyed two salsa lessons. None o f the players or staff had experience dancing salsa and the Cuban style of salsa is unlike any other salsa in the world. The team was met by 20 professional dancers on the open-air top floor of the Plaza Hotel. The first lesson focused on learning the basics. The second lessons built on the basics and began incorporating turns and other slick Cuban tricks. At the end every participant was given a certificate of achievement as proof of their mastery at the art of dancing salsa. The team then invited the Cuban dancers to learn some current American dances including the Dougie, Whip and Nae Nae. The Cuban dancers caught on quickly and the dancing that followed was a marvelous cultural exchange far transcending the language barriers.
The Chants also con ducted clinics in Havana and Matanzas. During the two clinics the team taught dribbling, passing and shooting. Both were well attended, organized, and enthusiastically received. Head Coach Cliff Ellis was particularly graceful, his advice was universal and not overly technical making it easily translatable and potent.
Following the hustle and bustle in Havana the team spent a relaxing two days on the beach in Varadero. On the day of their departure, the Chants left early in the morning to get back to Havana for a chance to witness the historic flag raising ceremony at the US embassy. When they arrived, the streets were lined with thousands of people. The team had some incredibly good luck and were escorted through the fence, into the gates of the embassy to be among a few hundred people inside to watch the ceremony. U.S. poet Laureate Richard Blanco read a poem, John Kerry gave a fantastic speech, and the American flag was raised. Cliff Ellis said, “A great day in the history of America and Cuba.” After witnessing and making history, the Chants departed Cuba leaving in their wake a new relationship between Cuban and American basketball.