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An Opened Door

Amid thawing relations, American college teams are venturing to Cuba

Coastal Carolina men’s basketball coach Cliff Ellis said he was heartened by the reception from locals. COASTAL CAROLINA UNIVERSITY PHOTO

There were almost a dozen of them – 6 feet 5, 205 pounds, on average – being wheeled around the streets of Havana in horse-drawn carriages, gazing at cars made decades before they were born, soaking in a place few Americans have had an opportunity to visit. It was a strange sight for locals, certainly, relative giants being squired around their city. They soon may become accustomed to it, though. For a week in August, members of the Coastal Carolina basketball team got to immerse themselves in a culture hidden from view for decades. More, it seems, are eager to follow.

The trip was made possible in the wake of a Dec. 17, 2014, announcement that the United States would begin to normalize relations with Cuba. In the time since, both countries have reopened embassies and eased travel restrictions. Arranging a trip to Cuba isn’t simple, but American travelers can head south if they meet one of 12 criteria. One of those is participating in athletics competition.

This softening has opened the door for college teams to make a journey that used to be nearly impossible to coordinate. Already, athletes from Vanderbilt University, Pennsylvania State University and Coastal Carolina University have taken advantage of the new rules. “It was an intriguing adventure,” says Coastal Carolina men’s basketball coach Cliff Ellis.

Coastal Carolina made the trip, primarily, to play three games against the Cuban national team. Cuba’s team won them all, but the Chanticleers didn’t return home lamenting the losses. Instead, they were left reflecting on what they had gained: perspective. “Being here in the U.S., we get a lot of stuff easily that they don’t get over there,” Coastal Carolina forward and economics major Badou Diagne says. “I learned to be humble.”

The highlight of the trip – for Ellis, at least – was being present at the Aug. 14 ceremony where the U.S. flag was raised over the U.S. Embassy in Havana for the first time since 1961. Being privy to history has had a lasting impact on his team, Ellis says: The bonds between his players are stronger than usual.

Competition may draw teams to Cuba in the future, but it’s not the only reason teams will visit. Vanderbilt athletes brought shoes to needy Cubans. The Penn State baseball team spent time visiting historical sites and attending lectures about Cuba’s history.

And, as relations between the nations improve further, Cuba could prove to be an untapped market for recruiting. Ellis was surprised to learn Cuba’s literacy rate is 99.8 percent. The language barrier, he thinks, is the only impediment to the country’s young athletes one day flourishing in American schools.

What was it like before tensions between the nations eased? The University of Tampa baseball team ventured to Cuba in January 2014, but doing so required Tampa’s head coach, Joe Urso, to spend time over a holiday break ensuring his players had proper documentation for travel. They jumped through countless hoops, he says, and at one point near their planned departure date, Urso had to fight back tears when telling his team that the trip faced cancellation.

Ultimately, the Spartans got the license they needed, and Tampa players made the trip. They returned changed, Urso says, after watching the Cuban athletes they played against drag old dumbbells onto the field for workouts or beg them for gloves or sunglasses after the games. Months later, the team sent $52 – a dollar for every win during the 2014 season – back to a tour guide they befriended during their week there. For the guide, that gift represented three months’ pay.

Despite some trepidation before they arrived, players and coaches who spent time in Cuba say they had a positive experience. Cubans wanted them there and seemed happy about what their presence represented. One pitfall teams that head south may want to keep in mind: Diagne says the $5 rides they were offered when they got in the carriages had been marked up to $30 by the time their jaunt was over. Irksome? A bit, but given the poverty he saw and the kindness he and his teammates were shown, the trip proved well worth the price.

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Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.