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Rustlers get culture shock in Havana

Members of the Lakeland College women’s basketball team got an eye opening experience just before Christmas, as the team took a sport-educational trip to Cuba as part of the Canada Cuba exchange.

And while they did return home with their fair share of sunburns, the trip featured three hours of basketball training and five games with semi-professional Cuban teams, along with a look at the country’s history, tours of old Havana and a dramatic look at what the country has gone through with a communist ran government.

“By far the most interesting trip we have ever took,” said Rustlers head coach Chris King. “Probably the best experience I have had as a coach and I think our players would say the same. This isn’t your typical, go somewhere and practice or play, this was a little bit more because of the educational piece and the amount of games we got in. It was absolutely fantastic.”

Lakeland was provided a translator for their tour who brought them through old Havana, which in some places, feature brand new buildings right beside others that were toppling over.

Unlike in Canada, Cuba doesn’t maintain many of their buildings until they are uninhabitable. Instead, facilities are left to decay before they are finally demolished and rebuilt.

That was on full display even while the Rustlers were playing games and training, as they played at the training centre for the 1991 Pan American Games in an open aired stadium that had seen its better days.

Backboard glass had breaks, boards were broken, rims were not as secure and straight as the Rustlers are used to at Lakeland and the floor had parts of the court missing or warped, which made even dribbling a challenge.

Compared to what Lakeland has on their own court and any gym they play in, it was a stark reminder that what they have in Canada is leaps and bounds more than what other countries have.

“It was like you were playing with another defender with that floor,” said fourth year forward Shania Magnusson. “You dribble the ball and it just wouldn’t come back up to you, or you would slip on the floor and not stop. There was no grip at all. It was sad. I definitely took what we have for granted for sure. We can go to as many gyms around here and they are very similar to our own so we don’t have to adapt to that, whereas, that is all they have.”

Despite the athletes village from the 1991 games also being ran down, it was still a decent training facility, according to King, for the Cuban people.

He made the comparison to the 1988 Olympic Games facilities in Calgary when Canada hosted the Olympics. That facility has been well maintained and is still to this day, a training ground for many of Canada’s elite winter sports athletes, and those games were hosted three years before the ones in Havana.

It meant for the Rustlers, they had to adapt when playing to the heat, which could get up to 30 degrees Celsius, sun in their eyes, as well as the not so perfect floor conditions during their training and games.

They played five games against an elite women’s semi-professional team, made up of 18- to 25-year-old players, who were part of the elite six teams in Cuban. They offered a different style of basketball than the Rustlers are used to seeing back home in the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference and kept all five games close, with final scores being decided by single digit numbers.

“Very different than Canada, pressing all over, trapping, very long athletes,” said King. “We saw a lot of zone from them and they saw a lot of man from us. Then we worked together, one day I’d lead a few drills, the next day they would lead a few drills. We were able to work on different things, despite the communication barrier. To see a different style of play is always interesting and I would assume, very similar to how they would run their national team downwards, as some of their kids will get looks for the national team eventually.”

King has made three trips over the last four years with his women’s team, first heading to Halifax before going to Alabama the following year.

But the Cuba trip, despite it being a vacation hot spot for many, wasn’t just a put your feet up experience for Lakeland, as the cultural side of the exchange, including a trip to a cultural centre that treats underprivileged kids for dancing where the Rustlers joined in, as well as taught their own dance moves, was an eye opening experience for team members young and old.

“It definitely opened up my eyes,” said 19-year-old guard Taiya Paylor. “I had been there before, but this was a more culturing experience and I enjoyed that. I’m glad we got to see the buildings and downtown Havana and the experiences we took part in. Quite a few things were eye opening. We’re so lucky to have what we have in Canada, compared to what they have down there.”

And that’s exactly what King wanted out of the trip for his players.
It was as much about the culture as it was the basketball, exposing his players to something they had never experienced before.

They went to Cuba as a basketball team, worked and training three hours and day and got the competition they wanted over the holiday, but they also came away with a better understanding of a new culture and life beyond the one they live in the small rural community of Lloydminster.

“It gave them a good outlook on where they are and where they come from and the advantages of being in Canada,” said King. “It’s a trip I would love to do again. There is just so much more than just sport on a trip like this. It’s teaching them life skills, as some of the kids are realizing there is a bigger world out there than Lloydminster, Regina and Saskatoon.”

Andrew Brethauer
The Lloydminster Source

Posted:  January 6, 2017

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