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Harlem Globetrotters dribble their way back to Havana
CubaNews / June 2002

By Larry Luxner

Later this month, if all goes according to plan, the Harlem Globetrotters will play their first Cuban game in 46 years -- marking the first visit of a professional U.S. basketball team to Cuba since the 1959 revolution.

The five-day tour, set for Jun. 19-23, finally got Washington's approval after two years of delicate negotiations.

"This took longer than any other [application] I've heard of," said George Benson, president of Octane Marketing Inc., which is arranging the trip for the Globetrotters. "I was told that, because of the Globetrotters' high profile, this had to go higher than Treasury. It went at least to a cabinet member."

In the end, the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control gave the team a license in January which expires in November.

"They wanted to be sure this tour was balanced," he said in a phone interview from Naples, Fla. "We told them we'd be doing clinics at children's schools, and that we'd also be visiting children's hospitals. We are also in discussions with the Catholic Church to see if we can visit their orphanage in Havana."

But the real highlight of the trip will be a game between the Globetrotters and Cuba's national basketball team at Havana's Coliseo de la Ciudad Deportiva. The stadium has 12,000 seats but is expected to be packed with as many as 19,000 fans during the game, which will be free to all.

Also making the trip to Cuba will be the New York Nationals, which have been contracted to play against the Globetrotters; at least two exhibition games are in the works. "These games are geared more for the children, versus a high-profile game by invitation only for top party officials," says Benson's business partner, Steve Faytis.

Benson says the Cuban team has been decimated by defections, with three or four key players fleeing the country in recent years. As a result, it may not be much of a contest.

Yet the Jamaican-born sports promoter says "we're not there to blow out anybody. It would take the goodwill out of the whole thing. We want to play a game with meaning. So this is more of an entertainment tour, with goodwill in the background."

The Harlem Globetrotters, which last year celebrated its 75th anniversary, has thrilled millions of people worldwide with its unique style of basketball. Despite the name, the club is based in Phoenix, and there are actually three teams touring at any given time.

The Globetrotters' trip to Cuba comes three years after another famous franchise -- the Baltimore Orioles -- traveled to Havana in the first visit of a U.S. professional baseball team to Cuba since the revolution. Two months later, in May 1999, the Cuban national team visited Baltimore and defeated the Orioles 12-6 with only one defection.

According to Benson, 30 of the 62 team members will make the trip, courtesy of Air Jamaica. Other potential corporate sponsors: Archer Daniels Midland, Abbott Laboratories, Bacardi, Partagas and Reebok (which plans on giving out thousands of pairs of sneakers during the game). Such sponsors will help defray the estimated $200,000 price tag for flying the team to Havana and hosting the players for five days.

"Our only restriction is that we cannot have any advertising at the arena," Benson told CubaNews."Where we'll make money is through rebroadcasting the game."

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