An improbable stranger in Cuba, a U.S. athlete named Larry Milliken, wandered by chance one afternoon last week into a workers" art exhibit in the busy lobby of Havana's Radio Liberación. What he saw inside was a dozen or more anti-U.S. paintings, including one, Death to Imperialism, depicting the American eagle impaled on a blood-drenched arrow. There was also a wall hung with equally harsh drawings done entirely by Cuban schoolchildren. The 23-year-old Milliken, a short-order cook from California, looked around a few minutes, then emerged into the street. "Man," he said, "there's some radical doings in there."
Happily for Milliken and the rest of the U.S. volleyball team, such reminders of the realities of U.S.-Cuban relations were few and fleeting during their 10 days in Havana. With a proper welcome decreed by none other than Fidel Castro himself, the U.S. team, one of five entries in what was billed as the North-Central American and Caribbean zonal Olympic qualification tournament, received abrazos from the Cuban people, many of them eager to tell of relatives in exile in Miami or, as one woman assured a group of players on a palm-fringed Caribbean beach, in the "California part of New York." The hospitality abruptly stopped at the volleyball court when Cuba defeated the U.S. last Sunday night before 16,500 partisan Habaneras and a national TV audience.
The victory, which qualified Cuba for one of the 12 berths at Munich, came in the aftermath of a politically charged Pan-American Games in Cali, Colombia, in which Cuba took the gold medal with a dramatic three-game sweep of the U.S.
For the visitors from North America the competition itself was only slightly more important than the publicity that the Cuban trip brought to their sport, one that has been hitherto unjustly treated as a pitty-pat girls' game practically everywhere in the U.S. except on the beaches and campuses of Southern California. The team was accompanied by a handful of U.S. journalists, and players like Paul Patterson of Los Angeles were under no illusion that the press had been attracted by anything other than the setting. "Oh, we've had publicity before," Patterson shrugged one morning in the lobby of the 25-story Habana Libre Hotel, known in another time as the Hilton. "We were on TV once in Binghamton."
August 29, 1971
It was more than just another tournament for the host Cubans, too. From the moment the U.S. players stepped off a Cubana Air Lines charter from Jamaica into the green neon gloom of Havana's José Martí Airport, they found themselves caught up in what amounted to a national sports mania.
The revolutionary posters festooning Havana streets now vied for attention with futuristic billboards announcing the world amateur beísbol championship scheduled for Havana in November. At their hotel U.S. team members shared a dining room with beefy Mongolians and Bulgarians, combatants in a "friendship wrestling tournament," whose training regimens evidently ruled out smiling. Meanwhile, 6,000 youths had descended on Havana from around the country to compete in the annual scholastic games, a kind of Cuban Junior Olympics.
Above all, there was an outpouring of pride over the genuinely impressive showing that this Marxist country of 8.5 million population had achieved in Cali. During the Pan-Am Games play-by-play accounts were carried by radio into peoples' factories and state farms and over loudspeakers on the streets of Havana, while Castro, that incorrigible sports enthusiast, interrupted meetings with foreign emissaries to bend an car to the latest tidings. The U.S. won more medals all told, but Granma, the official Communist Party newspaper, published graphs pointing out that Cuba had taken 20 times as many as the despised Americans on a per capita basis. The figures were inflated. Actually Cuba won only 11 times as many, for whatever the comparison is worth.
To honor the country's sports heroes, a crowd of 30,000 turned out 24 hours after the U.S. team's arrival for a mass meeting in a parking lot at Havana's Sports City, an athletic complex begun under Batista and completed following his overthrow in 1959. Red-shirted athletes took seats up front, while everybody else stood in a great crush, the women brandishing fans against the warm, sticky night. Stationed in the crowd were nurses with stretchers at the ready, the first substantial clue that the Bearded One might show up to deliver one of his endurance-testing speeches.
And so he did, arriving just as the victory celebration began and mounting a platform bearing a huge sign—EL DEPORTE DERECHO DEL PUEBLO (Sport is the people's right), a slogan Castro coined in the early '60s in pledging a national commitment to athletics, one of the subsequent benefits of which has been free admission to all sports events. In high spirits, Fidel led the applause as the athletes stepped forward, one proud figure after another, to recount every breathless detail of their Pan-Am triumphs. Except possibly for the stars of Cuba's major team victories over the U.S., which came in baseball and basketball as well as in volleyball, the most enthusiastic reception was reserved for 19-year-old Pedro Pérez Due√±a, world triple-jump record breaker at Cali, whose parents—his father is a gardener—had been bused in for the rally from the tobacco-growing province of Pinar del Río by INDER, the national sports institute.
The black Caribbean sky was thick with giant moths and rhetoric as Castro, looking every bit the angry prophet, began to speak. He inveighed against yanqui imperialism, invoked the memory of Che Guevara and, emphasizing the importance of sports in the socialist state, dismissed the defection of several Cuban athletes at Cali as "dishonors which history will take into account." But it all fell short of a typical Castro harangue. For one thing, he talked less than an hour, which assured the ladies with the stretchers a slow night. Then, too, he struck an unexpectedly conciliatory note when he urged his countrymen to give the visiting Americans "sportsmanlike, courteous and respectful" treatment.
"We believe we are entitled to a gold medal for hospitality," Castro said, leaning into a battery of microphones. Then he added, "We shouldn't consider those athletes as representatives of imperialism. Rather, we should look upon them as representatives of the United States."
For the U.S. players, who watched the rally on an East German-made television set at their hotel, the impact of Castro's intercession became apparent at the tournament's opening ceremonies at the Sports City Coliseum. Parading beneath a huge poster of Che that dominates the indoor arena, the Americans were treated to an ovation so enthusiastic as to be almost disorienting. Of course, it was understood by everybody that all this goodwill was subject to recall during the U.S.-Cuba game, but mustachioed Al Scates, the 32-year-old American coach, insisted on thinking positively. "Maybe we won't have a riot here after all," he said as he sauntered off for a dip in the Habana Libre pool.
The anticipation surrounding the U.S.-Cuba showdown, which would have been great in any case, was intensified by the fact that both countries had young, improving teams eager to crack the top ranks of world volleyball. The Cubans had as their coach a bull of a man named Dieter Grund from East Germany, the country that last year beat out its socialist neighbors—six of the top seven teams were from behind the Iron Curtain—to win the world championship. Grund has schooled the Cubans in a deliberate offense in which the ball is set unusually high above the net to a couple of leaping fools capable of spiking it over the outstretched fingers of all but the most accomplished blockers. It is essentially the East German style, and the Cubans got a firsthand lesson when the world champions came to Havana for several weeks of exhibition play last spring.
The U.S. team, in search of similar seasoning, played in a meet in Poland just before leaving for Cali. It won only one of four matches there but, according to Scates, who coached UCLA to two straight NCAA titles, the experience "helped round us into shape." Opening play in Havana, Scates' team defeated the Netherlands Antilles 15-2, 15-3, 15-1 in a laugher that required just 40 minutes, compared with two hours or more for an evenly contested match, and then swept successive three-game matches from Mexico and Puerto Rico.
By contrast with Cuba's high, powerful attack, the U.S. used quick, deft placements off relatively low sets, often as not to left-handed spiker Kirk Kilgour, the 6'3" star of Scates' UCLA team. But the Americans almost faltered against Mexico, particularly in the second game when they trailed 14-9, and had to rally furiously to win 17-15. The U.S. relied during the matches earlier in the week on the scrambling backcourt defense of both Patterson and 20-year-old Duncan McFarland, a cherub-faced senior at San Diego State, who repeatedly dug and dived to save shots that teammates up front were unable to block.
Otherwise well received in the early matches, the Americans drew a few jeers from the crowds when they experimented against the Antilles and Mexico with the so-called skyball, a high, arcing serve that reaches roughly the same altitude as the royal palms surrounding nearby Revolution Palace. The skyball is a familiar tactic on Southern California beaches, where wind and sun can make it tricky to field, and the team was using it, one of the Americans confided, "to give the Cubans something to think about." If the Cubans were unduly concerned, they never let on. They rolled over the same three opponents as the U.S., and Coach Grund may merely have been responding to Castro's call for courtesy when he generously said, "The U.S. has the material. If the players work, they could beat the GDR [East Germany] one day."
The mere fact that a U.S. team was in Cuba naturally invited comparison with last spring's American table-tennis trip to Red China, although the only certain parallel is that both games involve hitting a ball over a net. "This is not to be confused with Ping-Pong diplomacy," cautioned an official from behind a bare desk in the foreign ministry, his voice competing with a wheezing U.S.-made air-conditioner of considerable vintage. One of the most obvious distinctions is that U.S. citizens have been trickling into Cuba all along and not just aboard hijacked aircraft. They include young people in tune with the revolution as well as newspapermen in quest of an eight-part series on agrarian reform, and there have been previous visits, too, by a couple of sports delegations, most recently when 25 Americans came to Havana two years ago for the World Fencing Championships.
The fencers enjoyed neither the attention nor the freedom of movement of the latest U.S. visitors, although the journalists making the volleyball trip ran into some bizarre restrictions. Cuban officials seemed particularly on edge about pictures, as when an NBC cameraman began photographing Rudy Suwara, the 29-year-old U.S. team captain, talking to school kids outside Coppelia, a popular ice cream parlor across from the Habana Libre.
Ice cream is one of the few bourgeois pleasures to survive the revolution, and there is this wry joke among Cubans (humor is another surviving pleasure): whenever another of Fidel's economic projects fails, he adds an additional ice cream flavor. But when a pair of baleful characters, one identifying himself as a military policeman, ushered Suwara off for questioning he knew he wasn't in a Baskin-Robbins. "I was plenty irked," Suwara said. "After five minutes I just told them I was leaving. One of them, this little guy in horn-rimmed glasses, was nasty and arrogant."
Apart from such minor annoyances, the American players roamed the city pretty much at will, mingling with the people, most of whom were friendly in the extreme. Out for a stroll one morning, Jim Coleman, an assistant U.S. coach and chemistry professor at George Williams College in Downers Grove, Illinois, walked into a research lab at the University of Havana and was invited by some students to stay for lunch.
"They warned me that the food wouldn't be as good as at the hotel," Coleman said afterward. "It wasn't. But we had a good time. They look the same and talk the same as our students. They even tell the same jokes."
To the visiting Americans, sightseeing both by bus and on foot, Havana seemed like the set of an old movie, the print slightly faded with age. Big-finned Cadillacs and 1947 Hudsons rolled along all but deserted boulevards, and from the balconies of oceanfront hotels where U.S. tourists once sunned themselves one could hear roosters crowing. There were similar sights and sounds everywhere. At the gym where the team practiced, a facility that used to belong to an American-run Methodist school, a rusted-out Coca-Cola cooler lay overturned in the yard. The gym has been renamed after a hero of the Bay of Pigs.
One tourist attraction the players took in was Ernest Hemingway's hilltop villa near Havana, paradisiacally set among stands of bamboo and lush ferns, where The Old Man and the Sea was written. Now a state museum, it is preserved just as Hemingway left it: bullfight posters on the walls, dining room table set for three, 10-year-old magazines waiting to be read in the living room. The team went in two groups, and the one that included Scates was caught in a thunderstorm. The attendants, concerned lest the visitors track up Hemingway's bearskin rugs, permitted them only to look through the windows. As he walked the grounds, Scates allowed that "It seems like a great place to write," the judgment of one whose forthcoming book, Winning Volleyball, gives him an obvious literary affinity with Papa.
Following practice one afternoon the U.S. players were taken to a beach outside Havana, where they tossed around a Frisbee, a bourgeois contrivance unknown in Cuba, and were besieged by off-duty soldiers in fatigue-green swim trunks anxious to talk about such rock groups as Sangre, Sudor y Làgrimas, better known 90 miles to the north as Blood, Sweat and Tears. And they came upon another example of Cuban hospitality when Patterson and a teammate, Byron Shewman, paused to watch a group of men playing dominoes outside a caba√±a.
The Cubans struck up a conversation with the strangers. Soon one of them, a taut-skinned fellow wearing the green shirt of the Canecutters Brigade, handed out cold beer all around, this being one of the few items in Cuba not strictly rationed. The man, who was spending a week at the beach with his family in reward for his work in last year's sugar harvest, spoke in English. "You are visiting my country," he told the Americans. "I want you to be at home. This is beautiful."
Plentiful as such confrontations were, there still remained one more, this time with the Cuban volleyball team. The leftist demonology has always considered the U.S. the shark and her Latin-American neighbors as sardines, but the roles seemed reversed when the Cubans came from behind to chew up the North Americans. The Coliseum was SRO four hours before the match began, and among those on hand was Castro, who chatted for half an hour with the U.S. players. He wished them luck, adding, "Of course, I hope Cuba will win."
For a time Fidel had reason to worry. The Americans, getting strong blocking from McFarland and Smitty Duke, took just 19 minutes to win the opener 15-8, then edged ahead in the second game 10-8. "The key to beating the Cubans is to beat their strong block," Scates had said beforehand. But it was the Cubans who began finding openings in the U.S. defense. With 21-year-old Diego Lapera doing the spiking, Cuba scored seven straight points to win 15-10. The third game started as an uncompromising struggle, the points coming so grudgingly—only the serving team can score in volleyball—that it was only 3-3 after 17 minutes of play.
Then the U.S. began to disintegrate. As the crowd chanted "Coo-ba, Coo-ba," Lapera and high-jumping Pedro Delgado fired the home team to a 15-6 win. Cuba took the final game 15-8, and Suwara could only lament. "We just couldn't seem to get together."
As for Castro, he told foreign journalists he was impressed with the "high-quality games," then slipped off his gun belt to demonstrate his serving technique. It only confirmed what such U.S. players as Dodge Parker had suspected all along. "I think I like Castro," Parker said soon after arriving in Cuba. "He seems like a hang-loose guy."