Coach Cliff Ellis ran his Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team through one more summer practice Wednesday with the Chanticleers set to start their journey to Cuba on Thursday, but in speaking of the upcoming exhibition tour to the isolated Caribbean nation, he reiterated it’s not just about what happens on the court.
The Chants have trumpeted this voyage as historic, on their way to becoming the first NCAA Division I college basketball team to play in Cuba, as far as anyone can tell.
“Excitement, adrenaline rush, trying to get last-minute things done, pack, get the team ready to go. It’s an exciting time,” Ellis said of his final preparations. “I’m really looking forward to this trip. It’s a wonderful thing for our basketball players and the team, but it’s great for the university. We just feel proud to represent our country going over there, and that’s going to be what we do going to compete against the Cuban national team.”
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Coastal Carolina departs Thursday for Florida before heading off to Cuba and is set to play three exhibition games in Havana on Aug. 8, 9 and 11 against the Cuban national team. The NCAA allows teams to take an exhibition trip to a foreign country once every four years, and in concert with that the Chants have had 10 summer practice sessions in preparation.
It’s a valuable opportunity for a program coming off back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances but losing its top two scorers while looking to work in some new personnel. The Chants will get a chance to see how most of those pieces work in rhythm against quality competition as all but two players on the roster will make the trip, Ellis said. Senior forward Michel Enanga and junior guard Colton Ray-StCyr did not get their passports approved or finalized, while sophomore newcomer Jaylen Shaw just got his approval this week.
“We’ve got a new team this year so I think this is really going to give us a head start compared to other teams in our conference – not even in our conference but the country – because we get to play against some high-level competition and get a chance to gel earlier than most teams,” junior guard Elijah Wilson said.
Again, though, the trip is not all business.
There will be some sightseeing and lighter moments.
“You don’t come out of Cuba without getting salsa lessons,” Ellis said.
In addition to group dance instruction, which promises to be entertaining for all involved, the team plans to visit a cigar factory, will contribute to youth basketball clinics and will see different areas of the country.
And then there’s the culturally significant aspects of the visit.
We just feel proud to represent our country going over there, and that’s going to be what we do going to compete against the Cuban national team.
CCU basketball coach Cliff Ellis
The United States is scheduled to hold an official flag-raising ceremony at the newly reopened U.S. Embassy in Havana on Aug. 14, with Secretary of State John Kerry in attendance as the two countries continue the process of restoring the diplomatic relations that had been cut off since 1961. The Chants depart Cuba that same afternoon but are hoping to witness the ceremony.
“This is a historic moment, so I think this is going to make the bond stronger. This is going to be the trip of a lifetime. This is going to be something our players remember for the rest of their life,” Ellis said.
He mentioned that Lee Frederick, the president of the Sport Tours International group that organized Coastal Carolina’s trip, spent a couple days visiting with the team and preparing the players on the history of the two countries and what to expect culturally.
“I think we’ve talked pretty much from the onset, not every day, but to understand the culture and we’ve educated them with regards to the people that run the tour,” Ellis said. “… It’s a beautiful country, but they’ve been impoverished … I think we can do a lot to educate our guys on what they’re facing and they can do a lot for our country in the way they represent themselves.”
Said senior forward Tristian Curtis: “I know from American history class about the Cold War and the [Cuban] Missile Crisis, so I know the tension between America and Cuba [and] I know how history-in-the-making this is to be the first team from America to go over there and play in Cuba. … I’m just excited to be a part of it so in 20 years I [can say], ‘I was there when the flag was raised.’ ”
Like his teammates, Curtis has never been to Cuba, but he has a little better sense for the area than most, hailing from the Bahamas. The similar feel is another aspect he said he’s looking forward to.
“The climate is sort of like the Bahamas so all the trees I used to climb when I was younger and all the fruits I used to eat off the trees, I know they all grow in Cuba so that’s what I’m most excited about,” he said.
You don’t come out of Cuba without getting salsa lessons.
For everyone else, the trip likely won’t remind them of home; instead, opening their eyes to a part of the world that most Americans haven’t ever seen.
While Coastal Carolina claims to be the first Division I college team to play in the country, there have been several other professional teams and college teams from other sports that have made the trek in recent years. But it’s certainly not a well-traveled path for Americans.
“[We’re] excited to go over as ambassadors and build relationships with Cuba and see a country that our country really hasn’t been able to see,” Ellis said. “We’re going to see things that we haven’t seen for the last 50 years. Just looking forward, really excited.”
Said Wilson: “It’s all a good experience and we’re very grateful to have it and be a part of it.”
Fans wishing to follow along with Coastal Carolina’s trip can get updates at GoCCUSports.com most evenings with a recap of the day’s events and a brief entry from one of the team’s players. Updates will also be posted on the Chants’ Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.