Early on Sunday, June 26, Wagner Rodríguez was impatiently pacing around his home. A slight boy, aged 13, his passion is basketball, and it was difficult to control his emotions hours before meeting the great Shaquille O'Neal, one of the most successful NBA players of the past 25 years.
“I was desperate to see Shaq, I have many videos of him, but I hadn’t met him personally, and he is huge, a giant,” explained Wagner, one of the children participating in the basketball clinic offered in Havana's Vedado neighborhood by the former NBA player.
Wagner was one of the best players during the exchange which took place on the popular basketball court on Havana’s 22rd and B streets.
“Interacting with one of the best of the NBA is super positive for us. Last year we learned from Steve Nash and Dikembe Mutombo, and now we are very motivated because Shaq is sharing his knowledge and experience with us,” added the skilful young player, who dreams of being a basketball star.
With his friendly and playful character, O’Neal, a giant at 2.16 meters tall and weighing over 300 pounds, appeared as if another child on the court, during practice exercises with Kaleb Canales, assistant coach of the Dallas Mavericks, also forming part of the U.S. delegation.
“I’m very happy to be here, I could feel the love of all the Cubans, their passion for basketball. I’m thankful for the welcome, hospitality and for giving me the opportunity to offer my experience. I hope that in the future some of these guys can triumph in the NBA,” noted Shaquille, Olympic champion in Atlanta 1996 and 15-time NBA all-star.
Watched over by dozens of television networks and news agencies, Shaq appeared to enjoy making shots and serving as referee in the games with youngsters of both sexes, celebrating each time a basket was scored and offering advice on postures and timing.
For two hours, the action was non-stop, and all were grateful for the opportunity, with none missing out on the chance to take a photo or get an autograph from the basketball star. “This provides great motivation for everyone in Cuban basketball, from children to those who play in the national team,” stated Leonardo Pérez, one of the island’s top players.
“The relations between Cuba and the United States have given rise to these clinics, which have a great impact on the grassroots, the space where children begin to excel. I consider this exchange very beneficial, especially as they have come to see the youngest players, as from here the stars emerge,” Leonardo added, noting his happiness on meeting a world-class athlete.
Shaquille O’Neal's visit to the island, as a U.S. Department of State Sports Envoy, marks another step in the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States
O’Neal is not the first NBA star to visit Cuba. In April, 2015, a goodwill delegation composed of Canadian Steve Nash, two-times NBA Most Valuable Player, Congolese NBA player Dikembe Mutombo, international ambassador of the League, and Portugal’s Ticha Penicheiro, of the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA), offered clinics and exchanged with Cuban players and trainers.