HAVANA – The NBA is the first U.S. professional league to visit sports-crazy Cuba since the declaration of detente between the Cold War enemies late last year.
Stars such as former MVP Steve Nash and Hall of Fame inductee Dikembe Mutumbo will open a four-day training camp Thursday to wage athletic diplomacy and boost the profile of Cuba's arguably fourth most-popular sport, after baseball, boxing and soccer.
Cuba's men's team finished third in the 1972 Olympics and its women's teams dominate International Basketball Federation (FIBA) play in Latin America, but basketball has been one of the Cuban sports hardest-hit by players' departures for other countries. It's widely perceived to be at a historic low point on a national level.
That doesn't deter thousands of young Cubans from taking to street courts and abandoned lots to race between improvised hoops mounted on posts or even trees. The NBA and FIBA plan to renovate three courts as part of the four-day event.
The training camp will be aimed at top-level Cuban players as well as children and teenagers. It will feature Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder and Orlando Magic coach James Borrego, among others.
"It's magnificent that the NBA and FIBA are working on training youth and the development of this sport in our country in a way that will benefit the future of this sport at a national and international level," Cuban Basketball Federation Chairman Ruperto Herrera said in a statement announcing the event.
As part of his move to engage Cuba, President Barack Obama this year did away with a requirement for athletes to request U.S. government permission before heading to Cuba for a sports event. Participants in competitions and exhibitions now have blanket permission to travel to Cuba, along with 11 other categories of travelers such as academics and people participating in religious activities.