Tuesday, March 31, 2009

NBA heads south looking for a stimulus package

SANTIAGO de CUBA -- One of the Cold War anecdotes was that President Kennedy only signed the Cuban embargo after having press secretary Pierre Salinger procure over a thousand H. Upmann Petit Corona Cuban cigars from Washington D.C. smoke shops. The rumor is once Kennedy needed to restock his favorite brand of cigars the embargo would end.

Kennedy didn’t survive his stock of Upmanns and we will never know if the embargo would have ended before 1969. But another case of Presidential desire for a Cuban product could result in the end of the almost half-century Cuban embargo.

The product: Abril Tontos

Tontos is one of the best-kept secrets in the Western Hemisphere.

The shining star of Cuban basketball, he is virtually unknown in the United States.

I’ve had a life-long dream to travel to Cuba. Through finagling with a California Congressperson, and more than a few campaign contributions, I received the required journalist visa to travel to Cuba.

While in Santiago, I had a reunion with a Granma sports journalist who I had met many years ago while covering golf in Georgia. He was there to enjoy and cover a capitalist golf tournament. We had a great time on a rainy night in Georgia sharing Cold War stories and drinking decadent Scotch whisky.

We shared Cuba Libras and Bolivar Legendarios on this trip, and after half dozen or so cocktails my fellow journalist took me to a local gym to watch Tontos play basketball.

My friend claimed Tontos stands 7 feet 4 inches, but I’m guessing he is closer to 7 feet. What is truly freakish about him is an amazing wingspan. He looks like he was put on the rack as a niño. Pictures of him look like they have been stretched in Photoshop. While he has much longer than normal legs, he still looks like he might just be able to touch his toes with minimal bending at the waist.

Standing flat-footed below the rim, Tontos can reach up a couple feet beyond the 10-foot rim, giving him extraordinary shot-blocking ability.

But it isn’t just Tontos freakish height or wingspan that makes him such an outstanding basketball player. As fans of Manute Bol can testify, it takes more than height to succeed at basketball. Tontos is much more than height, he has been known to rack-up double-pentuples in Latin American league play.

He doesn’t just camp out at the basket. He can drive the court, and pull up and hit the three with total abandon. He dishes off assists like a modern-day Big-O, can command a court like Magic Johnson and has a nose for the hoop like Michael Jordan.

Tontos does have his kryptonite: standing still at the line.

He has tried just about every free throw technique, but never gotten beyond a 20 percent average. It’s amazing to watch a player who can hit a three from downtown but looks so clumsy from the line.

What he has done in the Latin American league play is make other players pay for fouling him. He has been known to end careers of opposing players who force him to the line too many times.

If Tontos could resolve his free throw problems and play in the NBA it would be a game changer. It’s no secret David Stern has been to Santiago de Cuba to watch Tontos play and the NBA has coveted the Latin American market since Larry O’Brian was in the commission chair.

Readers are probably wondering what this has to do with Kennedy’s cigars.

Tontos can be Barack Obama’s H. Upmann Petit Corona.

The rights to Tontos belong to the Chicago Bulls. My journalist amigo tells me numerous Bull scouts have been down to watch his team, Barbudos, play in Latin American play.

Tontos is a national figure in Cuba. A direct descendent of José Martí and a grandson of Camilo Cienfuegos, Tontos is often a dinner guest of the Castros and is treated as a VIP in Cuba.

Tontos is not going to defect. The only way the Bulls can get Tontos is if the embargo ends.

With the Bulls new No.1 fan sitting in the White House, Obama has the power to end the embargo by executive order, and guarantee the Bulls the next championship.

Obama also has better political cover than any of his predecessors since JFK. The Miami Cuban community has always been the sticky wicket of normalizing relationships with the Castros.

But the old Batistas have died off and their grandkids don’t have the anti-Castro fervor of the old guard. The modern south Florida Cuban community has more love for the Miami Heat than hatred for the Castro brothers.

The current rumor circulating around Old Havana is Tontos younger brother, Augustos Tontos also has mad hoop skills and Stern has granted his NBA rights to the Miami Heat.

Will the young Cubans in Florida continue to hold the grudge of their grandfathers when the alternative could be sure NBA finals?