Ira Green, University of Louisville Athletics
VERADARO, Cuba – The Cardinals have been disconnected – mostly – from the United States and plugged into Cuba and its sights, people, and ways of life.
The University of Louisville women’s basketball team [the first NCAA women’s college basketball program to visit and play in Cuba] has experienced little internet access, a luxury in Havana that is mostly confined to the lobby of the Cardinals’ hotel the Parque Central, but the Cardinals are in the midst of enjoying a full schedule of activities in Cuba.
The Cardinals arrived in Havana early Saturday morning and, after checking through passport area and retrieving luggage, immediately were greeted by members of the sports tour company. Along with the team’s fans, who also traveled to Cuba, the Cardinals loaded onto a bus and went toward their hotel. On the way, the tour guide pointed out several historical sites and eye-catching sights – including men on the side of the road cutting grass with machetes.
Louisville’s bus stopped a little more than halfway to the hotel to observe a line of vintage cars, a monument of Jose Martin – the site of Cuban leader Fidel Castro’s epically long speech – and one building that had an outline of Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
The Cardinals then journeyed to a cigar shop, where they learned about the different types of hand-rolled products and offered by the Cuban store.
Once the team arrived at the hotel, the group enjoyed a buffet-style lunch and then retreated to their respective rooms. A couple hours later, the team was back in the lobby and on the bus to take part in its first contest against the Cuban national team. Asia Durr paced the Cardinals with 14 points en route to an 80-69 victory. Keeping consistent with last year’s theme, the Cardinals scored 22 points off 19 forced turnovers.
Louisville had the rest of the day to roam the city.
On Sunday, following breakfast, the team loaded its bus and headed to a marketplace that had storefronts, with items ranging from original artwork, wooden sculptures of people and cars, Cuban-themed magnets and coasters, cigar accessories, and apparel. The trip was a huge hit for both the student-athletes and fans, with both spending plenty of time examining the items and socializing with the friendly vendors. Professors should be happy to know the student-athletes attempted to engage using their Spanish class knowledge.
The team retreated to its hotel for lunch before returning to Fajardo Arena – an open-air venue (it has a roof, but the walls do not fully enclose the arena) – for the second of three games. In another exciting, tightly contested matchup, the Cardinals held on for a 64-61 victory after outscoring the Cuban national team 18-10 in the final quarter. Mariya Moore had a team-high 11 points, and Myisha Hines-Allen logged 10 points and 11 assists.
Following much-needed showers after the game – more sweat was exhausted than normal after factoring in the heat and humidity from the weather – the team ate dinner and had another night free of plans to walk to different areas. Though access to social media may have been lacking, phones were in hands to capture a plethora of images – a constant throughout the trip.
On the last full day in Havana, the coaching staff and student-athletes split on Monday. Led by head coach Jeff Walz, the staff conducted a two-hour clinic for one of the Cuban national teams, showing the players different drills to implement on offense and defense and also techniques. Walz then closed the session with a question-and-answer session with coaches from different national teams in attendance.
During that timeframe, the student-athletes took a walking tour of Old Havana, where they saw how the city has changed, evident by the different types of architecture throughout the city, historical city squares, and the impressive Capitolio.
Once the clinic and tour were complete, the two groups re-connected for lunch and then took for the third game against the Cuban national team. The game was in question at first due to the weather, which left certain areas of the court with puddles of water. Both Walz, members of his staff, and staff from the Cuban national team grabbed towels to soak up the water. In the meantime, the players from the two teams introduced themselves to each other and learned about one another.
Surprisingly, there wasn’t much of a delay before the game started. Though the Cardinals jumped out to a lead in the first quarter, Cuba outscored Louisville the next two periods and won 65-51. Cortnee Walton had team high of 14 points and three steals.
Louisville ended the day with another rigorous – but fun – workout with a two-hour salsa dancing class. The student-athletes and women were selected one at a time by different men in the room, while the men on staff and fans in attendance picked their dancing mates. Both groups showed rather impressive rhythm and the night ended with the Cardinals showing off their dancing skills.
The final hours in Havana came and left and Louisville has arrived in Veradaro. The Cardinals will enjoy nearly four days of the all-inclusive resort and beach before returning to the United States.