When South Dakotan College Basketball Players Became Sports Ambassadors to Cuba
In 1977, basketball players from the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State made a rare trip to Havana to play the Cuban national team in an effort to thaw relations between the two countries.
Tom P. Nelson-South Dakota State University Archives
In April of 1977, about 70 South Dakotans boarded a DC-9 airplane bound for Havana, Cuba. Among them were two United States Senators, a cigar store owner, a mozzarella maker, an orthodontist, the owner of a field of fossilized mastodons, the founding owner of the Miami Dolphins, and, most importantly, 11 members of the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State men's basketball teams.
The trip, organized and led by South Dakota Senators George McGovern and James Abourezk, was ostensibly about basketball. The plan was simple, really: Show up in Havana. Play two games against the Cuban national team. Enjoy the sights.
From the start, the Americans had no chance of winning. These were young players from NCAA Division II schools; the Cubans, meanwhile, had finished seventh in the Montreal Olympics the previous year, and a few players were still on the team who had won bronze at Munich in 1972.
Still, victory on the court wasn't really the point. No, the true reason for the trip was political, and amidst the larger Cold War rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it was anything but simple.
After Fidel Castro overthrew the U.S.-backed regime of Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and established a communist government, relations between the two nations rapidly disintegrated; within a few years, Washington had severed diplomatic ties, imposed a restrictive embargo, and was plotting covert operations to oust Castro.
But in the 1970s, tensions had thawed at least somewhat, and some Americans began to push for normalization. By 1974, U.S. elected officials started to visit Cuba again; among them, eventually, were McGovern, who visited the island nation several times that decade, and Abourezk.
The South Dakotan basketball players would be one of the first American sports teams to visit Cuba since the revolution (the U.S. had also sent delegations to international competitions held in Havana, including the 1969 fencing world championship and the 1974 AIBA world boxing championship). The senators hoped that a friendly sports exchange might help promote goodwill further, perhaps opening dialogue between Castro's government and the relatively new administration of President Jimmy Carter.
In other words, they were hoping for some Cold War sports diplomacy, something akin to American table tennis players visiting China in 1971—a trip that was widely seen as helping pave the way for President Richard Nixon's historic visit to Beijing one year later
"I was very curious about Cuba and wondered why we couldn't normalize relations," Abourezk told VICE Sports in a recent interview. "For me, it was crazy. Here's a country that's ninety miles from our bottom shore and we were enemies with them, and we shouldn't have been."
"It was my brainchild," says Dave Martin, who back then was the Sports Information Director at South Dakota State.
According to Martin, McGovern came back from one of his visits to Cuba talking about bettering diplomatic relations, and that one way to encourage that was a potential sports exchange between Cuba and a Major League Baseball team.
"And I thought, Why not South Dakota State basketball?" Martin says. "So, I wrote him a letter and proposed for SDSU basketball to take a trip to Cuba, and he liked the idea. But about a year later, Senator Abourezk went down to Cuba and came back and had an invitation for the USD basketball team to go down, and so I saw that and thought, They're not going to go before we go."
A plan to send players from both schools was put together, but the Ford administration refused to grant necessary permission. President Gerald Ford and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, had been working on thawing U.S.-Cuba relations in 1975, but those efforts ended when Cuba sent troops to Angola to support that country's Marxist government. (Kissinger was so infuriated by Cuba's actions—which he saw as Castro passing up a chance to normalize relations with the U.S. in favor of pursuing his own foreign policy—that he drew up secret plans to "smash" the country with retaliatory airstrikes).
After Carter arrived at the White House in 1977, his State Department gave the trip a go-ahead; the flight to Havana required the Carter administration to waive a longstanding travel restriction in place since the Cuban Missile Crisis 16 years earlier.
The people who boarded the Southern Airlines flight at Andrews Air Force Base that April could be divided into three groups. There were players and coaches from South Dakota and South Dakota State; there were 42 curious and/or connected private citizens who reportedly paid $660 each for the rare opportunity to visit Cuba, including USD Law School alum and Dolphins owner Joe Robbie; and there were members of the press, on hand to document the trip.
There also was a flight crew, whose members were no strangers this particular flight path. Captain Robert Haas, his co-pilot Harold Johnson, and their two stewardesses had been in Havana just five years earlier after their plane was hijacked—a not entirely rare occurrence during the rash of 'skyjackings' that plagued the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s.
Hijackers, seeing Cuba as a nearby gateway to freedom, would often direct American pilots to fly to Havana. That's what happened to Hass and his crew in 1972. Following a 28-hour, multiple-airport ordeal that saw the airplane's wheels shot to pieces by federal agents and Johnson shot in the arm by one of the hijackers, the plane landed in the Cuban capital (for a second time!), and the three hijackers were promptly arrested by the military.
The South Dakotan basketball delegation received a far warmer welcome when they arrived.
"We got off the plane and they literally had a red carpet stretching all the way from our plane to the terminal," Martin says. "They held a little cocktail reception for us. Daiquiris all over."
Cuba had much to gain by easing tensions and pushing for normalized relations with the U.S.—both could lead to an eventual lifting of the trade embargo, which in turn likely would boost the country's economy and give it greater access to vital resources like food and medicine.
Robert Huish, an associate professor at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, who has written about Cuba's use of sports as diplomatic tool, believes Castro's government may have been especially motivated to make a goodwill gesture following a series of anti-Cuban terrorist attacks in the Western Hemisphere. In 1976, Cubana Flight 455 was en route from Barbados to Jamaica when it was downed by plastic explosives hidden in a toothpaste tube, killing all 73 people on board, including several teenage members of Cuba's national fencing team. Cuba accused the U.S. government of being an accomplice to the attack; Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative and anti-Castro Cuban exile, was linked to the bombing in declassified American intelligence reports, but denied any involvement and was never convicted.
Cuba was no stranger to sports diplomacy. "[For Castro], this is sort of business as usual," Huish says. "You had sport [exchanges] that take place frequently with the [United Kingdom], Australia sent boxing teams down [to Cuba], there's been the baseball diplomacy that took place between Cuba and Japan. Even though there are no formal relations with South Korea, I do believe a baseball team [went] back and forth there at some point.
"For them, the idea of using sport as a tool of goodwill and extending diplomatic relations is certainly very intentional and very strategic on their part."
Castro had a personal penchant for both baseball and basketball, having played both sports as a young man. While Cuba is best known for its world-class baseball teams, the country's national basketball program was well developed, too..
"Cuba was strong in basketball before the Revolution," says Roberto González Echevarría, a Yale professor and author of The Pride of Havana: A History of Cuban Baseball. "Because the social clubs fielded excellent teams, had magnificent facilities, and players came up from the public and private schools, which played in very well-organized and competitive leagues.
"Castro's government, as with everything else—baseball, boxing, ballet—took advantage of those pre-Revolutionary legacies and claimed their success was due to the regime's policies."
"You didn't know what you might experience in the arena itself with the basketball games, but it couldn't have been better," says Gene Zulk, SDSU's head coach at the time. "In fact when they played the National Anthem, and the Cuban National Anthem, it wasn't kind of touching. It was touching."
After tipoff, the crowd reacted in equal measure to good plays by both sides. They whistled more than they clapped, and apparently got sour only once.
"The only time there was booing was when a U.S. official, he got booed once on a call he made," Zuk says, but regardless of country, "the officials were still catching heck."
The games were played with 20-minute halves. The USD and SDSU players platooned on and off the floor as units every five minutes or so, almost like hockey lines. "That's not ideal and doesn't give you the kind of game flow that you're used to," Zuk says. "But that's not what this was about. It was about having a connected relationship with the Cuban Olympic team. Naturally we wanted to play well, we wanted to do the best we could for sure, but we also recognized we were playing against an Olympic team."
The Cubans won both games by 19 points each. "But we were competitive," Zulk says, "especially early in the games."
When the Americans weren't playing basketball, they toured Havana, visiting schools, a baseball factory, farms, and a senior facility. At one point, they were visited at lunch by three-time Olympic gold medal boxer Tiófilo Stevenson and gold medal middle-distance runner Alberto Juantorena.
The Cuban team would take a tour of the U.S. that winter, traveling to some of the best universities in the country to play exhibition games. They played powerhouse programs Marquette and UCLA, but also made time for stopovers at SDSU and USD.
SDSU provided their Cuban guests with pairs of jeans—a thank you gesture for coming to their state.
"We knew that a lot of things in Cuba were rationed," Zulk says. "And so a pair of jeans was like quite a gift. We had a bunch of extra pairs because we didn't know what sizes they would all need. And let me tell you, there were a lot more jeans than needed for their team, but there weren't any left when they left."
Abourezk still remembers his speech at the trip's opening banquet. Off the cuff, he joked that the South Dakotan contingent was the largest group to make landfall in Cuba since the Bay of Pigs invasion, which saw CIA-armed exiles launch an ill-fated amphibious assault on Castro's regime.
"The Cubans cracked up," he says. "And I started getting nasty mail from Miami in my Washington office."
Abourezk had met Fidel Castro on his first trip to Cuba in 1975, and the two reportedly spent hours discussing the relations between their countries. Following Castro's death in 2016, Abourezk said he considered the Cuban leader "a friend" who "wasn't a good leader for the United States, but he was a good one for Cuba."
Castro was in Moscow when the South Dakota delegation played in Cuba, which meant that the highest-ranking government official was his brother Raul, now the president of Cuba. On the last night of the trip, Abourezk and McGovern met with Raul and members of the press; elsewhere in Havana, the rest of their delegation went to the Tropicana nightclub.
The friendly flavor of this encounter was epitomized by Abourezk, who has his own antic sense of humor and does not try very hard to suppress it. Late one afternoon, a small group of American and Cuban friends gathered in his hotel room to drink a little rum and talk diplomacy and listen to his country-and-western tapes.
The senator got out his guitar eventually and Teofillo Acosta, former first secretary at Cuba's U.N. Mission, sang the only Cuban song that Abourezk seemed to know - "Gurantanamera."
Then Abourezk sang some sacred music and some country songs and Acosta, though he winced a bit, accompanied the senator on a few tunes - a rich Cuban voice mixing with a twangy American.
"I'll tell you one thing," Abourezk announced after the song," "these Communists got rhythm."
Looking back, Abourezk is hesitant to call the trip a success. Yes, the sports exchange was friendly, but it accomplished little, politically speaking. McGovern's subsequent attempts to build support for two-way trade with Cuba failed; as Lars Schoultz recounts in his book That Infernal Little Cuban Republic: The United States and the Cuban Revolution, a rising Republican political star used the basketball trip to criticize McGovern and other Democrats during his weekly radio show:
"Now we've removed all obstacles to American travel to Cuba, and we are negotiating, or at least discussing, re-opening of trade and political relations with the Cuban government ... it looks like we're going to lose more than a basketball game before this foolishness ends. This is Ronald Reagan. Thanks for listening."
U.S.-Cuba relations remained frigid for decades to come—from the Mariel Boat Lift and the Elian Gonzalez controversy to the longstanding trade embargo that remains in effect—and have only truly begun to thaw since President Barack Obama ordered the restoration of normal diplomatic relations in 2014. Whether that rapprochement continues under President Donald Trump remains to be seen; as a candidate, Trump was supportive of Obama's approach before changing course and promising a rollback. His administration is expected to announce its Cuba policy in the next few weeks.
Last year, Obama attended an exhibition game in Havana between Major League Baseball's Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national team. The moment was historic but not without precedent.
"I wish we'd [normalized relations] way back then," Abourezk says.
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