"We believe we are entitled to a gold medal for hospitality," Castro said, leaning into a battery of microphones. Then he added, "We shouldn't consider those athletes as representatives of imperialism. Rather, we should look upon them as representatives of the United States."
For the U.S. players, who watched the rally on an East German-made television set at their hotel, the impact of Castro's intercession became apparent at the tournament's opening ceremonies at the Sports City Coliseum. Parading beneath a huge poster of Che that dominates the indoor arena, the Americans were treated to an ovation so enthusiastic as to be almost disorienting. Of course, it was understood by everybody that all this goodwill was subject to recall during the U.S.- Cuba game, but mustachioed Al Scates, the 32-year-old American coach, insisted on thinking positively. "Maybe we won't have a riot here after all," he said as he sauntered off for a dip in the Habana Libre pool.
The anticipation surrounding the U.S.- Cuba showdown, which would have been great in any case, was intensified by the fact that both countries had young, improving teams eager to crack the top ranks of world volleyball. The Cubans had as their coach a bull of a man named Dieter Grund from East Germany, the country that last year beat out its socialist neighbors—six of the top seven teams were from behind the Iron Curtain—to win the world championship. Grund has schooled the Cubans in a deliberate offense in which the ball is set unusually high above the net to a couple of leaping fools capable of spiking it over the outstretched fingers of all but the most accomplished blockers. It is essentially the East German style, and the Cubans got a firsthand lesson when the world champions came to Havana for several weeks of exhibition play last spring.
The U.S. team, in search of similar seasoning, played in a meet in Poland just before leaving for Cali. It won only one of four matches there but, according to Scates, who coached UCLA to two straight NCAA titles, the experience "helped round us into shape." Opening play in Havana, Scates' team defeated the Netherlands Antilles 15-2, 15-3, 15-1 in a laugher that required just 40 minutes, compared with two hours or more for an evenly contested match, and then swept successive three-game matches from Mexico and Puerto Rico.
By contrast with Cuba's high, powerful attack, the U.S. used quick, deft placements off relatively low sets, often as not to left-handed spiker Kirk Kilgour, the 6'3" star of Scates' UCLA team. But the Americans almost faltered against Mexico, particularly in the second game when they trailed 14-9, and had to rally furiously to win 17-15. The U.S. relied during the matches earlier in the week on the scrambling backcourt defense of both Patterson and 20-year-old Duncan McFarland, a cherub-faced senior at San Diego State, who repeatedly dug and dived to save shots that teammates up front were unable to block.
Otherwise well received in the early matches, the Americans drew a few jeers from the crowds when they experimented against the Antilles and Mexico with the so-called skyball, a high, arcing serve that reaches roughly the same altitude as the royal palms surrounding nearby Revolution Palace. The skyball is a familiar tactic on Southern California beaches, where wind and sun can make it tricky to field, and the team was using it, one of the Americans confided, "to give the Cubans something to think about." If the Cubans were unduly concerned, they never let on. They rolled over the same three opponents as the U.S., and Coach Grund may merely have been responding to Castro's call for courtesy when he generously said, "The U.S. has the material. If the players work, they could beat the GDR [ East Germany] one day."
The mere fact that a U.S. team was in Cuba naturally invited comparison with last spring's American table-tennis trip to Red China, although the only certain parallel is that both games involve hitting a ball over a net. "This is not to be confused with Ping-Pong diplomacy," cautioned an official from behind a bare desk in the foreign ministry, his voice competing with a wheezing U.S.-made air-conditioner of considerable vintage. One of the most obvious distinctions is that U.S. citizens have been trickling into Cuba all along and not just aboard hijacked aircraft. They include young people in tune with the revolution as well as newspapermen in quest of an eight-part series on agrarian reform, and there have been previous visits, too, by a couple of sports delegations, most recently when 25 Americans came to Havana two years ago for the World Fencing Championships.
The fencers enjoyed neither the attention nor the freedom of movement of the latest U.S. visitors, although the journalists making the volleyball trip ran into some bizarre restrictions. Cuban officials seemed particularly on edge about pictures, as when an NBC cameraman began photographing Rudy Suwara, the 29-year-old U.S. team captain, talking to school kids outside Coppelia, a popular ice cream parlor across from the Habana Libre.
Ice cream is one of the few bourgeois pleasures to survive the revolution, and there is this wry joke among Cubans (humor is another surviving pleasure): whenever another of Fidel's economic projects fails, he adds an additional ice cream flavor. But when a pair of baleful characters, one identifying himself as a military policeman, ushered Suwara off for questioning he knew he wasn't in a Baskin-Robbins. "I was plenty irked," Suwara said. "After five minutes I just told them I was leaving. One of them, this little guy in horn-rimmed glasses, was nasty and arrogant."
Apart from such minor annoyances, the American players roamed the city pretty much at will, mingling with the people, most of whom were friendly in the extreme. Out for a stroll one morning, Jim Coleman, an assistant U.S. coach and chemistry professor at George Williams College in Downers Grove, Illinois, walked into a research lab at the University of Havana and was invited by some students to stay for lunch.