When I was a sophomore in college, I was given an opportunity to visit the island of Cuba. This was before George W. Bush placed further restrictions on the embargo that’s been in place since October, 1960. The trip was amazing, doubly so because I was only 20 at the time. On the last day, I gave away the Jason Williams jersey I was wearing.
When I visited the tiny island of Cuba it was like traveling back in time. I don’t want to bore people with rambling anecdotes about the 18 days I got to spend on the island, but it’s important to provide some context for why I was in the country, and what could have possibly provoked me to give up â€” what was then â€” my most prized possession: a Jason Williams No. 55 Kings jersey.
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A group of 20 of us traveled first to Jamaica â€” because you can’t fly direct â€” and then hopped over to Cuba as part of a cultural exchange program through my college. I wrote a paper about the experience (now since lost), and got some college credit. While I can still clearly remember the crumbling buildings, taciturn officials in uniform on every block and the verdure surrounding the endless sugarcane fields, a lot of the specifics of the trip have been lost â€” as has the paper I wrote.
Everything in Cuba at the time of my trip was pre-embargo; it probably still is, but I haven’t been back (it’s hard to get into and out of Cuba). This means the automobiles, the paint on most of the buildings, the bric-a-brac on the street stands, even the books were all Cold War era or earlier. Anything contemporary was sent from friends in other countries, and anything American was like a rare gem. Small markets on the boulevards in Havana sold mysterious goods that would only be recognizable to someone from the 1950s.
For a 20-year-old in 2003, the old-timey feel to the city was a shock. But we didn’t travel to Cuba to shop, or to swim in the luxury hotels, or relax on the innumerable beaches â€” available to tourists, but not to most Cubans â€” with vistas straight from a postcard. No, we stayed in churches and hostels, on farms and in dilapidated tin roof huts. Not only did I travel to Cuba, but I visited in a way that even those people lucky enough to gain entrance to the country, rarely get to see.
And even that view of Cuba was a lie. It’s too long and murky a backstory to rehash here, especially since this is ostensibly about point guard Jason Williams, but while most of the American public swallows the rhetoric of the pissed off Cuban population in Florida (they’re rightfully pissed off), our tiny college coterie got the Cuban government’s revolution-heavy iteration. This is a good thing, since you should hear both sides to any heated antagonism, but after talking to some real Cubans at an underground bar in Manzanillo, we realized it’s not as pretty or as harsh as either side makes it out to be.
Enough of that though. Aside from a few people on our trip, most of us didn’t speak the native language, so we had a translator. Since I was a year older than most of the other people in our group (having missed the previous year’s excursion after some on-campus trouble), I spent a lot of time with our chaperones and our translator â€” whose name I haven’t been able to track down just yet.
The translator was fascinating. We talked about what language he dreamed in (Spanish), whether he had ever translated for Castro (he had), what Castro was like (he’s fluent in English, but refuses to speak it out loud, so in a lot of ways he’s a nightmare to translate for), and his childhood in Cuba (he started as a teacher before moving on to the tourist trade because it was more lucrative). He was a hysterical guy even to a self-absorbed 20-year-old that couldn’t understand why there was no Corona on the whole Island. We drank a lot of cheap rum and Bucanero Fuerte.
Our translator even introduced me to the bus driver, a surly looking fridge of a man in his sixties, who possessed the grizzled countenance of a life spent enduring some horrific events in Cuba’s history. The bus driver had actually fought in the revolution against Batista’s forces, but that was not something you talked about.
Anyway, our translator handled my curiosity well, and he was careful to steer me away from subjects â€” like specifics of the revolution â€” you just didn’t delve into while in Cuba. Remember, in 2003, Fidel was still very-much in power, even though his brother, Raul, is head of the socialist state now. Raul is not much different from his brother.
Every time we came to a new town, or bused back to Havana to meet with an artist, a priest, a teacher, or to get free medicine (Cuba has some of the best doctors and surgeons in the world) I was always amazed at the reaction my clothes got; the reaction to all of our group’s clothing. This went double for the two basketball jerseys I brought down to wear: Jason Williams’ No. 55 Kings jersey and Shawn Kemp‘s No. 40 Sonics (RIP) jersey.
On my last day, as we drove to the airport to head back, we were all saying goodbye when our translator asked me about the jersey. I told him about Jason Williams, who had just been traded to Memphis the summer before. I explained why I loved his game so much at the time. Since we had already joked about how different we both looked â€” I am very light-skinned, and our translator was very dark-skinned â€” he thought the “White Chocolate” nickname and my explanation of its origins was hysterical even though it took a lot to convince him to take it from me. He loved it. I couldn’t have been happier even though I loved that jersey and wore it almost every day during the NBA season.
The biggest thing I took away from the people of Cuba is how they were unlike anything I’d been imagining before I arrived. Cuba was really poor after the Soviet Union fell. So poor the squalor made a couple people on our trip queasy at times. But rather than let that poverty corrode them, the Cubans we met â€” like our translator â€” were all incredibly nice. We were obviously Americans and it would have been easy for the Cuban people to treat us like our country treats them with the embargo. But they were some of the gentlest, most generous people I’ve ever been around. They listened to a lot of music (I got to shake Assta Shakur‘s hand while in Cuba, and fawn over her because of Common’s song), ate a lot of crazy food, drank a lot of rum, and pieces of art were given to me, gratis, despite the average monthly income being 20 pesos, or around $1.50 in American currency. That’s average monthly income.
Our translator was honored by the gift, even after he had showered me with a lifetime of stories throughout our stay.
This isn’t really related to the point guard with the crazy handle I was in awe of when I was a teenager. But just by handing J-Will’s jersey over, there is some Cuban kid who gets to hear about White Chocolate’s game in a country that still doesn’t get exposed to a lot of NBA games. Before I gave it to the translator, I told him all about Williams’ game. What’s the jersey if it’s not tied to someone you really enjoy watching play basketball.
Happy birthday Jason Williams. I may have intentionally spread the gospel of White Chocolate’s free-flowing style of play to Cuba.
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