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  Basketball

 

Although basketball was first practiced in Cuba in the thresholds of the 19th century, it did not actually become a popular sport until the triumph of the revolution in 1959. Its practice was limited, fundamentally, to some clubs of Havana. With just a few exceptions, there is not reference as to the practice of this sports or the celebration of championships outside the capital city. Among the few exceptions, we should mention Bejucal, a little town (comprised today in the territory of the Havana province) renowned for its traditional feasts dating back to the 18th century. Several championships were organized in that picturesque town and locals followed them with much interest. The practice of basketball among women began after 1930, but in a very limited way. A quite inexperienced team took part in the inclusion of this sport in the third Central American and Caribbean Games San Salvador'35. The first appearance of a male team in high level competitions took place in the Olympic games of London 1948. That team arrived to London carrying more hopes than real possibilities. Among the players included in that roster we find some like José Llanusa, Fabio Ruiz, and Mario Quintero, the latter being very short, but exceptionally gifted as to his dribbling skills and defensive qualities. In the competition of the English capital, our players were overlooked. The debut of Cuban male basketball was marked by successive defeats against highly superior rivals. After a couple of decades of irrelevant performances, a turning point took place in 1970 when Cuban basketball started to achieve results that would place our teams among the best of the world for the next five years. The male team had impressive results. Its greatest expression was the bronze medal won in the Olympic Games of Munich'72. The ascension of the Cuban team had taken place exactly in the University Games of Turin'70, where they conquered the third place after a dramatic final match against the Italian selection. The denouement was as tense as it could possibly be. Tied at 65 points and almost at the end of the match, the referee marked a foul over Ruperto Herrera who failed once and marked the second free throw to seal the victory of the Caribbean team. Other relevant moments took place at the beginning of the 1970's. For example, when the male team defeated the American team in Pan-American games of Cali'71 and for the first and only time they leave them out of the continental final. It was also important having won the second place during the world festival of Peru'73 and the deserved fourth place in the basketball world championship held in Puerto Rico in 1974. The necessary renovation of the following two decades impeded a repositioning of our quintets on the top of the ranking. They started a slow recession and it has turn very difficult for them being able to fight for a medal in the competitions of the area where there are teams that have traditionally played good basket. Such are the cases of Puerto Rico, Mexico, Panama or the Dominican Republic. In the case of female basketball, the results achieved are not spectacular, but they are undergoing a process of development and display an acceptable stability. The ascension of women began with the winning of the gold medal in Central American and Caribbean Games of Panama'70. Thus they halted the hegemony of Mexican basketball in the area, which had lasted 35 years, and have never surrendered it again. Twenty years after the memorable victory of Panama, another generation of players achieved the best performance in the history of Cuban female basketball: third place in the World Championship of Malasya'90. In Pan-American games they have been victorious twice, in Puerto Rico'79 and Winnipeg'99, in both competitions after having defeated well-prepared American teams. When it comes to memorable performances we cannot overlook the victory achieved in the pre-Olympic tournament held in Havana before Sydney 2000. It was a magnificent occasion for Cuba to defeat Brazil in a decisive match. Among the outstanding Cuban female players of all times, some are worth-mentioning: Leonor Borrel, Yamilé Martínez, Margarita Skeete, Sonia de la Paz, María Luisa Serret, María Elena León, and many others that would conform an endless list. In the national arena, there are important competitions like the "Desembarco del Granma" tournament, the main female basketball competition, and the "Liga Superior" (superior league), in which four male teams engage in a long tournament extending regularly from September to December. The Cuban male dream team of all times is formed by the attacker Ruperto Herrera; the pivots Alejandro Urgellés, best scorer of the classification phase of the 1974 World Championship, and Pedro Chappe, chosen best central player of the pre-Olympic tournaments; and the defenders Rafael Cañizares and Leonardo Pérez. This five aces would have their best performances under the direction of Carmelo Ortega as manager and Ernesto Díaz as assistant. Out of the illustrious list, Urgellés and Chappé have passed away, Herrera presides the Cuban Basketball Federation while Cañizares and Pérez are still linked to sport as trainers. Carmelo retired and Díaz is working in sport related cooperation in Guatemala. Nowadays, the women are putting all her efforts to remain among the top ten of the globe, while the male commitment is much difficult because, to be fair, they have lost much ground in the international arena and the level they display today is quite different from that of tens of national teams today.


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