Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Courting success in Cuba

Courting success in Cuba
Posted on 08/24/2010
Hour Staff Writer

It was a year ago last month. Mike Evans found himself in one of the
most isolated and financially strapped places in the world.


Communist Cuba. A place Americans can't visit unless they have a
government license -- or a darn good reason. Evans, a former standout
shooting guard with the Weston High School basketball team, didn't have
a license. Don't ask him how he got one. He just did.

But Evans did have a reason, and it wasn't that he was kidnapped and
held as a politcal captive.

Evans was there of his own free will, out on another humanitarian
crusade sponsored by his own non-profit organization, Full Court Peace.
Evans, as always, was being guided by his own moral compass.

For two weeks, Evans scouted out the capital city of Havana, looking for
the absolute worst possible place to play basketball. Evans likes to
take bad situations and make them better, using the game of basketball
as his weapon. The worse the place, the more severe the poverty level,
the better it is.

In Havana, Evans didn't have to look very far.

"It was pretty a bad-looking area. There were actually two courts and
the one right next to it was even more rundown," said the 27-year-old
Evans, who played college basketball at Hamilton University and is now a
volunteer assistant coach at Harvard University, where he's attending
graduate school. "I found these guys who play on the same court every
day. They won't play anywhere else. It's like a little community in itself."

After two weeks playing pickup basketball on those beat-up courts, after
feeling as if he had been welcomed as one of their own, Evans made a
promise to return. He made a promise to do everything in his power to
improve the outlook -- as it pertained to basketball -- of his new-found

For most, a task like this would be impossible. But Evans has worked his
magic before. He brought Catholics and Protestants together in Northern
Ireland to form one high school basketball team back in 2005-2007. He
traveled to Juarez, Mexico, one of the most violent places on earth, in
an effort to keep teenagers less involved with the drug cartels and more
involved with basketball.

Battling a Communist regime seemed like a piece of cake. Sort of.

"There's really no protection in Cuba," Evans said. "There's no embassy.
There's no consulate. You're really on your own down there."

But true to his word, Evans returned last month. Evans even brought some
friends with him, a veritable all-star basketball team comprised of five
former college players and Weston's starting shooting guard Justin Mettel.

Three of the players were from Columbia University, including John
Baumann of Westport, the all-time leading scorer in Staples history and
a four-year starter with the Lions. Wilton's Ryan Shields, who played at
Trinity Catholic and later at the University of Vermont, also made the trip.

Over a span of 10 days, Evans and his American friends succeeded in
their plan to make the lives of those less fortunate a little better.
With the help of $10,000 in private donations, Evans and his crew
totally refurbished that beat-up court, turning it into something the
people of that humble community can use for years to come.

They handed out gifts to anyone within arms length -- more than 500
jerseys donated by Columbia University, Hamilton and Weston High School;
dozens of basketballs, including 20 signed by Matt Bonner of the San
Antonio Spurs; as well as basketball nets, pumps to blow up the balls,
and brand new basketball sneakers. They even handed out hip hop CDs.

"We brought tons of stuff," Evans said. "When we got to the airport, our
bags were stuffed."

Evans and his teammates also pulled off a minor miracle, organizing two
basketball tournaments, one for kids and one for the adults of the
community, on the second-to-last day of their trip, which ended Aug. 5.

According to Evans, 150 people came out for the men's tournament, which
was comprised of 35 players -- five Cuban teams and the American team
led by Evans, which they named "Los Vecinos," which means, "The Neighbors."

Amazingly enough, they did it without the help of cell phones and
e-mail. Cubans are prohibited the use of cell phones and e-mails are
monitored by the government.

The group had its share of struggles -- getting into Cuba via Cancun,
Mexico, being the least of the problems. But the trip ended up being a
huge success, something all six will remember the rest of their days.

"This might sound cliché, but this was really a life-changing experience
for us," said Baumann, who is now enrolled in business school at Notre
Dame. "Mike prepped us pretty good before we went down there, but once
we got there, the thing that really shocks you is the poverty in Havana.
I heard a lot about how gorgeous it used to be, but now it's like South
Beach if you can imagine it 40 years ago with no improvements made since

"Sadly, that's the biggest thing that hits you is how poor the people
are down there. But the most unbelievable thing is how well received we
were. That's why I'm so grateful to have been a part of something like
this. The reception we got was amazing. They were so thankful for
everything we did, and that's really what it was all about."

Evans and his cohorts knew this was a one-time occurrence. There's no
way to get money and equipment to Cuba unless you carry it in yourself.
Most likely, when they boarded the plane back to the United States, they
left behind people who would return to the way of life they've been
cursed to live. But their hope is that for the short span of time they
were on the island, some good was accomplished.

"What we did for the 10 days we were there had a great impact on us,"
Baumann said. "But I'd like to think it had an equal impact on them as

The Americans arrived in Havana on July 27, and since they couldn't
contact anyone ahead of time by cell phone, no one knew they were
coming. So the spent the first few days promoting the event by playing
in pickup basketball games and traveling around the area.

"We had to give notice that this was real," Evans said. "The only way to
do that was to show up."

The first thing Evans did was reunite himself with the people he had met
last year, which he did pretty quickly. Evans found things basically the
way he left them last summer. The court was still in shambles, the
people still in dire straits, yearning for freedom from the oppression.

Evans has visited places experiencing hardship before, and seen worse
things than poverty and prejudice. Evans visited Juarez three times this
spring, and was a witness to the brutal violence being committed by the
drug cartels.

"That place is no joke," he said. "I've been to some bad places, but
that was by far the worst. The first time I went there I saw a dead body
just lying in the street."

What amazed him most when he returned to the court in Havana was what he
saw bouncing on the palm of one of the men playing on the court during a
pickup game. His old friends were using the same ball he left them
during his trip last summer.

"They don't have anything down there," Evans said. "The basketball
community is lacking in a lot of stuff. Last year when I was down there
I gave them a new Spaulding indoor ball. When I came back, they were
still using that ball, but it was like night and day. The wear and tear
was unbelievable. I asked the guy, 'Is that my ball?' He said, 'Yes, it
is.' I was shocked."

For the first few days, Evans and the American contingent played pickup
games in Havana, trying to drum up publicity for the tournament - which
at that point had no location.

After re-gaining the trust of the locals, Evans and his cohorts were
invited to play an indoor pickup game against some of the better Cuban

The location ended up being none other than the Estadio Panamericano,
built by Fidel Castro for the Pan Am Games back in 1991. As far as Evans
knows, the group wasn't supposed to be there.

"Somehow it was arranged," he said. "We didn't ask how they pulled it off."

That was the only thing the Cubans had to give to show how much they
appreciated what Evans was about to do for them and the community.

"We couldn't believe it," Evans said. "It was really a special occasion
for us. It was such an announcement of their generosity."

Evans and his teammates actually experienced a tense few moments on the
way to the game, the location of which was unknown. The Cubans never
said they were playing at the Pan Am Stadium, only that they were
bringing them to an indoor gym. During the walk, which weaved through
back alleys and dark streets, no one said a word.

"This was the first time any of these guys had played there, too," Evans
said. "We had no idea where they were taking us. If you drove by the
place you never would have known what it was."

A man they didn't know came to open the door and asked the Americans to
go in first.

"I was a little nervous at first. You never know what can happen down
there," Evans said. "Then we saw what it was and we were just floored."

Those five very lucky Americans spent the next 48 minutes playing
basketball in front of 15,000 empty seats on a court few feet have
touched over the past two decades.

"That was a remarkable experience," said the 6-foot-8 Baumann, who
scored 1,683 points at Staples and 1,250 during his standout career at
Columbia. "I tell people I've played at Cameron Indoor Arena and Madison
Square Garden, but to play at the Pan-Am Stadium was so special, not
just because of the venue itself, but because that's where the Cuban
National team played. For them to invite us there was a great honor."

Still, days had passed and Evans had yet to secure a location for the
tournament. His friends from the local court said they knew of another
indoor stadium they could use, but they wouldn't be allowed to have
spectators. The other option was traveling 20 minutes to another
community where the courts were in better shape.

Evans decided to choose option No. 3.

"I told them we were doing this so people can come to watch it," Evans
said. "Doing it where no one could watch or in another place 20 minutes
away was defeating the purpose. I told them we were going to fix up that
court right over there. And not the good one. The one next to it."

Evans and the Americans decided to fix up the second court, the one that
was so beaten up and overgrown with weeds, you could barely tell it was
meant for basketball. And since it was the day of the tournament, Evans
and the Americans were racing against the clock. Work began at the crack
of dawn.

"We had to drive three hours to find spray paint," Evans said. "The guy
told us if it rained, it'll wash away the lines. So we bought 40 cans of
spray paint and rushed back to the courts."

With no equipment to get the work done, the Americans had to sweep the
court off with palm leaves on a day when it was 105-degrees in the shade.

"There were no brooms," Evans said. "Someone finally brought one out,
but it had no handle and you had to hold it from the bottom."

Then something amazing happened. A totally spontaneous explosion of
human kindness. Without even knowing what was going on, within an hour,
25 local Cubans volunteered to help fix up the court.

"Kids were just coming out of nowhere," Evans said. "They brought out
strips of wood we used to paint the lines. It was unbelievable. I just
started looking around thinking, 'This is great,' because they were
doing it themselves, which was even better because it showed they cared."

After putting up two new red rims and nets, the court was ready for play.

"It took us six hours to get it done," Evans said. "At that point we
only had an hour before we had to come back for the kids tournament at a
different court with lower nets."

Things got a little tense back at the hotel that afternoon as the
Americans took some much needed time out for rest.

"No one was talking to each other. We were all sunburned and flustered
with everything that happened that day while fixing up the court. We
were kind of torn apart as a group."

That night, they were brought back together. The kids tournament drew 30
players and the Americans -- a group also comprised of former Columbia
players Brett Loscalzo and Kevin Bulger -- handed out 50 jerseys.

"The kids were so happy," Evan said. "They kept asking if they could
keep the jerseys. That was nice. We were finally seeing the fruits of a
week-long effort."

That night, the men's tournament was a bigger success than anyone could
have imagined. One team came from 20 miles away to participate, and with
Baumann forced to leave early to get to Notre Dame, the American team
was joined by a former Cuban National player.

The Americans lost their game, 20-19, and were quickly eliminated. The
local team won the tournament on their home court, winning five games in
an event that stretched until 10 o'clock that night.

After it was over, the people of the community asked Evans and his
teammates to play one more game so they could watch and cheer them on.
That game, they won. But the real victory was in what they were able to
accomplish and the impact it had on that little basketball community.

"I feel like it's almost shocking how smooth it went," Evans said. "I
can't believe we pulled it off with so many things that could have
gotten in our way. It was an amazing experience. It was never a reality
until it happened. I can't even describe how rewarding it was."

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