The Americans and the Cubans are two of the best men's volleyball teams in the world. They don't particularly like each other, but they are in the midst of a five-match tour of the United States and the next stop is tonight at 8 at George Washington University's Smith Center.
The United States is the defending Olympic and world champion, and probably will be the favorite for the gold medal in the Summer Olympics in Seoul. The Cubans would have been contenders for the gold, but Cuban President Fidel Castro said his nation would not participate as a sign of support for North Korea. U.S. players and coaches think Castro might change his mind as the Games draw closer. The Cuban athletes would surely be disappointed, but they have not expressed it to their U.S. counterparts.
"Some of it might be a lack of communication," said Karch Kiraly, one of four U.S. holdovers from the 1984 team. "I'm sure they're a bunch of nice guys, but because they are so physically gifted, they try to intimidate opponents by yelling at you under the net. And against us, instead of letting sleeping dogs lie, they bring out the worst in us. There is very little love lost between the two teams, as opposed to the Soviets, who are great competitors and have a couple guys who speak English, so we've gotten to know them. Maybe the Cubans don't speak enough English and we don't speak enough Spanish."
The United States beat Cuba in five games Saturday in Durham, N.C., and then again in three games Sunday in Charlotte, N.C. The final two stops in the series are in Denver and San Diego.
"This is our season," said U.S. Coach Marv Dunphy, whose team has been playing almost year-round. Dunphy will draw at least the "nucleus" if not all of the 12-member Olympic team from the 17 on this squad. "We just can't show up in Seoul and say, 'Let's defend the gold medal.' We need matches, and because we're on the top of the pack, we don't want to play against the bottom teams or those in the middle of the pack."
The U.S. team is training under the assumption the Cubans will be in Seoul and are approaching this series accordingly.
"It's very possible we might meet them in the crossover round," Kiraly said of the semifinals that determine who plays for the gold medal. With a smile, he added, "It's important that we help them get used to losing to us."