By Anne-Marie Garcia
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
HAVANA _ Basketball great Dikembe Mutombo sank baskets from seemingly every position on the court Thursday as a half-dozen Cuban players watched admiringly on the first day of an NBA training camp aimed at boosting the game’s popularity on the communist-run island following the declaration of detente between Washington and Havana.
The flags of Cuba and the United States flew at the Havana university where the four-day camp began Thursday. Steve Nash, a former MVP, and Mutumbo, a Hall of Fame inductee, were joined by former WNBA player Ticha Penicheiro and NBA coaches in teaching the more than 100 athletes in attendance.
“As you know, basketball is a sport that can connect people, give them a bridge for cultural change,” Mutumbo said. “I’m glad that we’re about to build this bridge that will help so many young men and women here in Cuba to develop the game of basketball.”
The NBA is the first U.S. professional league to visit Cuba since the detente announcement. Basketball is arguably fourth most-popular sport, after baseball, boxing and soccer.
Cuba’s men’s team finished third in the 1972 Olympics and its women’s teams dominate International Basketball Federation(FIBA) play in Latin America, but basketball has been one of the Cuban sports hardest-hit by players’ departures for other countries. It’s widely perceived to be at a historic low point on a national level.
That doesn’t deter thousands of young Cubans from taking to street courts and abandoned lots to race between improvised hoops mounted on posts or even trees. The NBA and FIBA plan to renovate three courts as part of the four-day event.
“Our job is to expand our game globally,” Mutumbo said. “It’s a very historical trip.”
After he and Mutombo coached players on a series of skills, Nash lauded the Cubans as talented but lacking international experience.
Waiting his turn on the court, Cuban national player Esteban Martinez said he was fascinated by the NBA players’ shooting efficiency.
“That’s what I’m thinking about asking them about,” the 27-year-old said.
Felipe Chavez, a 16-year-old player from Havana, watched every one of the players’ movements, calling it “a great opportunity to develop, to work on technique and the mental aspect of the game.”
“I’d like to get to the top level of my sport and that’s the NBA,” he said.
As part of his move to engage Cuba, President Barack Obama this year did away with a requirement for athletes to request U.S. government permission before heading to Cuba for a sports event. Participants in competitions and exhibitions now have blanket permission to travel to Cuba, along with 11 other categories of travellers such as academics and people participating in religious activities.