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The Latest In Sports: Cuban Edition


And now it's time for sports.


SIMON: Among the many changes that Fidel Castro imposed on his country after his 1959 revolution was a ban on professional sports. That ban lasted until 2013, and it made it difficult for the country's best athletes to compete professionally abroad. Many made dangerous escapes to try to do that. Howard Bryant of espn.com and ESPN The Magazine joins us.

Howard, thanks so much for being with us.

HOWARD BRYANT, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And sports is very popular in Cuba. It's an important part of the Cuban nation. I want to bring up the name Teofilo Stevenson, one of the great boxers of all time, I think - one of the great Cuban athletes, certainly. He won three consecutive Olympic gold medals for Cuba, the first in 1972. I always thought he was the one boxer of his time, until Joe Frazier, who might've defeated Muhammad Ali. But we'll never know.

BRYANT: Yes. And a lot of people did. It's the fight that never took place. And I think one of the things about the death of Fidel Castro is it is so generational. And if you are of a certain age, that little island 90 miles away from where I am right now in Key West was a gigantic figure in your life because of the raging Cold War battle.

And the Olympics made so much headway for us. They made - Olympics were everything. And Stevenson was one of the guys that you knew - if you were watching the Americans fight at the heavyweight level, that if they had to face Stevenson, they were going to lose. Nobody beat him in Olympic competition in three Olympics.

And he's another one of those athletes that you always wondered what could've been. And the tension between these two countries - it's really difficult to understand if you weren't really a child of the Cold War how big sports played in it.

SIMON: Yeah. And I have to wonder how many great Cuban baseball players never got their chance to play in the United States because jumping off the Cuban national team or trying to figure out passage to the U.S. or Mexico or the Dominican Republic or someplace where a professional athlete could simply try and play at the highest level to which he or she was entitled to play - that was a very dangerous proposition.

BRYANT: Well, no question. And also, let's not forget about the history - as you well know - the history of baseball in Cuba in general. The Brooklyn Dodgers - Jackie Robinson in 1947, 1948 - they trained in Cuba. And the relationship between that sport and that island is so powerful. We always think about, once again, the great Dominican players, the great Puerto Rican players, the Venezuelan players.

And the Cuban players are some of the ones that we remember most because of the road that they've had to take to get to the major leagues. Let's not forget Orlando Hernandez, the great El Duque, in 1998, defecting and finally succeeding in defecting...

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: ...After being a national hero in Cuba - and then was essentially banned from playing by Fidel Castro because he would not turn on some of the players who had defected. He would not rat on his friends.

SIMON: Yeah.

BRYANT: And then what happened? He was stripped of all of his glory and then finally came to the New York Yankees and was an indispensable member of that team. Luis Tiant, Boston Red Sox and Aroldis Chapman with the Cubs - there's just so many figures. Baseball, Cuba - it's - and 1997, obviously, as well, when the Orioles went over as well. It's just such an incredible, incredible history.

SIMON: Howard Bryant from ESPN, thanks very much for being with us.

BRYANT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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