By Ronal Quiñones
HAVANA TIMES — Those of us with some gray in our hair, or those who left Cuba after the severe economic crisis struck the island in the 1990s, will recall that, at the time, basketball was the second most popular sport in the country, second only to baseball.
In practice, the material conditions facing players back then weren’t a whole lot better than they are today, but a successful generation of athletes would fill the court with fans, eager to enjoy the magical way in which Roberto Carlos Herrera handled the ball, or how Lazaro Borrell or Richard Matienzo dunked it.
They – and less spectacular players such as Andres Guibert, Leopoldo Vazquez or Angel Oscar Caballero – decided to leave the country, and the public’s interest in basketball gradually faded away, as the team’s performance also waned internationally.
Cuba’s Higher Basketball League (LSB), whose members they trained for the future, is still Cuba’s elite basketball tournament, but players no longer shine as they did during those first competitions, where the country’s four teams gathered some of the best talents out there.
Today, the competition includes the National Qualifying Tournament (TNA), divided into the country’s three regions (West, Center and East). The country’s four teams play each other in two different rounds, but not against teams from the other regions. The eight best teams are selected following these matches and, once in the League, take on a number of reinforcements from the losing teams. Between the two tournaments, no one plays more than 50 matches (8 or 10 in the TNA, 28 in the regular phase of the LSB and a maximum of 12 games in the post-season).
If we add the fact that a single team has consistently come out on top for the last decade, and almost always in competition against the same rival, we begin to understand why public interest cannot be expected to grow much.
On Monday, Ciego de Avila and Capitalinos had their ninth championship series in the past eleven years. Seven of these were won by Ciego de Avila’s team and, luckily for the show, Havana’s players managed to come out victorious this time (previously, they had only managed to defeat the Bufalos, in 2010).
Results have been more varied in women’s basketball. This is not to underestimate women’s teams, as, historically, they have performed much better than the males at the international level, but they are not typically the ones that fill stadiums. This is the case everywhere, not only in Cuba.
Cuba’s basketball season will now enter off-time for some time and, in the coming months, the country’s squadrons will be preparing for international matches, particularly the Pan-American Games to be held in Toronto.
To converse about these and other issues, including the most heated one in Cuba today (international contracts), we headed down to Manglar park, in Havana’s neighborhood of Centro Habana, a place popularly known as La Normal (in reference to the nearby school). As Havana’s team had won the men’s basketball tournament (the women came in second, behind Pinar del Rio), people were high-spirited, as Alberto demonstrated.
“The LSB had become boring, because Ciego de Avila always won. Capitalinos won the first phase several times, but, whenever they got to the play-offs, Ciego de Avila beat them. Luckily, we now have Jasiel Rivero, who’s a natural leader. That kid’s going to make history.”
“Yes,” Donel says, “he’s probably going to be one of the first to be hired abroad. He’s only 21 and he already plays like a seasoned player. If it hadn’t been for him, Capitalinos’ story would probably have repeated itself this year.”
“I hope they hire a number of them, so they’ll get better. If they don’t, the same thing that’s been happening over the years will happen again. They only play in Cuba, and when they compete against other countries, they get destroyed. They couldn’t even win at the Central American Games. Seeing them, no one would imagine we once even had Olympic basketball medalists,” Felix recalls.
“The times were different,” Ernesto says. “if they don’t make it to the NBA, they’re not going to win anywhere, because you have Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Argentines, Brazilians, Venezuelans and just about all Europeans playing in the league. Those are the people you have to play against at world tournaments, and the difference in skill is huge.”
“Who even remembers the world tournaments, bro?” Jose asks. “Our teams haven’t made it there for a very long time. They don’t even manage to win the Centrobasquet tournaments. If they make it to the World Tournament, it’ll be because a meteorite struck the Earth and killed half the world. The women play a bit better, but they haven’t even qualified for the Olympics. I think they haven’t made it to the Olympics since 2000.”
“Cuban basketball players need to play more abroad,” Pablo remarks. “I’m talking about both genders. Not enough matches are held here and it’s always among themselves. When they play abroad, you can tell they have a long way to go. You can train a lot, but basketball isn’t volleyball. You actually come into contact with your rivals in basketball, and we’re not even remotely on a par with NBA or European players.”
“We don’t even have statistics here, it’s a disgrace,” Sandro interjects. “Journalists often complain they don’t know who scored in a game, or the fact a team’s means of transportation failed, or the 24-second clocks malfunctioned.”
“If it’s not one thing, it’s the other. To say nothing of TV broadcasts. They’ve aired only two live games, the last two. They didn’t air a single live match during the regular phase or semifinals, and we got to see the first finals after the fact. How do they expect to fill arenas that way? The last one did fill up, but only because we’re talking about the Mariposa arena, which can accommodate only a handful of people.”
“They didn’t do a good job of promoting the matches – they held the games in the afternoon, when everyone’s at work. To top things off, the matches coincided with baseball games. You can’t expect to get people behind you this way. They were lucky in Havana, because Industriales baseball team had been eliminated. If it hadn’t, the Mariposa would have been empty.” Rene points out, adding: “Before, the Ramon Fonst Stadium would fill up, but there was more of a show. If you don’t air the matches on TV, people don’t follow the sport. Look at what’s happening with soccer. Now, everyone’s a fan of Madrid or Barcelona, and before that was like speaking Japanese here. Any sport that aspires to have a following must have that.”
All of the problems pointed out by these aficionados aren’t new – they have been evident for many seasons and are still unresolved. Until they are, Cuban basketball will be unable to recover its past glory.