Cliff Ellis' resume includes 770 victories and 10 appearances in the NCAA Tournament, and the veteran coach says watching the flag go up at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961 is one of his most memorable experiences.
Ellis and Coastal Carolina were the first U.S. college team to tour the island since the U.S. and Cuba reestablished diplomatic ties. The team got a chance to view history on their final day of the tour last Friday, first content to watch the ceremony overseen by Secretary of State John Kerry from outside the gates before being invited inside.
Ellis said tears welling up in his eyes "became a trickle down my face," with three Marines who lowered the American flag in 1961 on hand to watch it go up again.
"This was a life changer," Ellis said Tuesday. "I told the team, this is bigger than anything you'll do in basketball."
Ellis was approached by a sports travel group in the winter about the possibility of touring Cuba. He was immediately interested in the idea, although he understood the anger of many Cuban Americans toward normalizing relations with the Castro regime that has ruled the island since 1959.
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"They're our neighbors and they need us," Ellis said. "I don't agree with everything that transpired, but that's the past. This is the future."
Still Ellis, who was 16 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, was nervous about what he might find in Cuba after decades of growing up with Cuba as an American enemy.
Ellis and the Chanticleers said they discovered a warm, welcoming group of people eager to show their support for their American neighbors. Ellis said he had tears in his eyes when the anthems were played before the opening game against the Cuban national team and gifts were exchanged; Coastal giving the Cubans polo shirts and hats with the school logo, plus 40 basketballs, and the Chanticleers receiving Cuban flag lapel pins.
After the games with the national team, Coastal Carolina coaches taught the game to Havana coaches and the Chants players held basketball clinics for children.
"Teaching Cuban kids the game of basketball made me feel great and hopefully they felt the same way," freshman center Josh Coleman said. "It puts a smile on my face to give to the less fortunate people, who I found to be very nice and chill, an opportunity that they will never forget."
The group even had time for salsa lessons, with Ellis' wife, Caroline, earning honors as the top female participant.
Cliff Ellis said the people of Cuba quickly erased any doubt he had about the trip. About 90 percent of the people he met cheered and smiled at the team and players, Ellis said.
"There were about 10 percent who would shout, 'Castro.'" he said. "But they're good people. The sentiment was they want America back in their country."
Ellis said that became clear following the emotional flag-raising at the embassy. While the team left the grounds for its bus to the airport, Ellis said the Cubans who attended the ceremony celebrated as if they were lifelong Americans. Ellis high-fived Cuban people laughing, shouting and smiling. "It was like a parade," he said.
Ellis was proud of how well his players acted as ambassadors for the United States.
"They got a chance to represent their country and that's not something that happens every day," he said.
The Chanticleers reached the past two NCAA Tournaments as champions of the Big South Conference and are a strong bet to make it three in a row this winter.
Guard Jaylen Shaw of Hartsville felt blessed for the opportunity to learn about a different culture and people.
"At first we were all nervous," he said. "But being around them and seeing they're just like us and just being with them and them showing us love, it was just all good."
Ellis, who has a piece of the Berlin Wall, said he would gladly return to the island whenever possible.
"This was maybe as big a moment as I've had in college basketball," he said.