A basketball team from South Dakota stood about as much chance against the Cuban national team Tuesday night as the American table-tennis squad stood against China.
But they played, anyway, and Cuba won, 91-72.
The Cubans know how to put on a classy show. The opening ceremony began with the unfurling of American and Cuban flags next to each other, players from each squad marching around the floor of Havana's 15,000-capacity sports stadium, and, finally, the playing of the two national anthems, followed by thunderous applause and cheering.
Brian McDermott, a University of South Dakota guard from Cascade, Iowa, confessed that he "felt pins and needles running through me."
But the excitement that the pregame march of athletes generated was derived more from renewed U.S.-Cuban relations than any hope of a close game.
Six and a half minutes into the contest, the combined forces of the University of South Dakota's Coyotes and South Dakota State's Jackrabbits had battled the Cubans to a 12-all tie.
Then skill, size and experience began to tell. The crowd, which politely applauded good shooting, heady defense and fancy ball-handling exploded when Cuba's 7-foot center, Felix Morales, slam-dunked his team into a lead it never lost.
The tickets for the game were distributed by Cuba's trade unions in the Havana area and, except for a few prominent members of Cuba's Communist Party central committee, the fans were sports freaks.
Wile South Dakota Sens. James Abourezk and George McGoven and Wisconsin Rep. Les Aspin and a small South Dakota contingent cheered the American team, Cubans hotly applauded the sharpshooting of Ruperto Herrera, a 6-foot-6 forward who finished as high scorer with 26 points. Herrera could play for many U.S. teams, as could ball-handler Alejandro Urgelles, who had 23 points.
The Havana sports stadium, dominated by a large mural of Che Guevara, the slain guerrilla hero, was the sight of the 1976 World Amateur Boxing Championships, and Cuba's Olympic heavyweight champ, Teofilo Stevenson, who is now an elected representative to Cuba's National Assembly was on hand to watch the game. So was Alberto Juantorena, who won the 400 meters and 800 meters in last year's Olympics.
"This is an historic moment," Juantoreana said, as his 2-year-old daughter tried to do handstands on his shoulders. "I don't mean historic in the history of basketball, but for Cuba-U.S. relations." Juantorena, who runs for three hours every day, posed for photos with Stevenson and the U.S. senators.
"I used to think I might go to Hawaii one day, but I never dreamed I'd go to Cuba," said South Dakota's Larry Nickelson, who scored 13, as did Steve Brown.
The Cuban team had played against some of America's best, including the University of San Francisco, which it beat. The Cubans lost to the University of North Carolina by only one point in an amateur tournament in Spain last year.
Although the players admitted that they were aware of the diplomatic importance of the contest, they also said they wanted to win. "I see this game," Morales orated, "as just another step in the preparation for Olympic championship."
"It's a game to me, something I try to win at," said Dakota forward Bob Sundvold.
It was the drama of the nonstop flight to Cuba from Andrews Air Force Base on a Southern Airlines DC-9 charter - with the same crew that had been hijacked five years ago - and the welcome at Havana Airport that made the game secondary. The only piece missing from the drama was Cuban President Fidel Castro, who was in Moscow and is not expected to return before the final game.
After the game, Herrera admitted politely that North Carolina "was a slightly better team than the Dakotans." "But," said McGovern, "this game is a giant step forward in diplomacy." "Yes," agreed a South Dakota businessman, "but it's certainly a setback for basketball."