A rare 1947 photograph of the professional barnstorming Harlem Globe Trotters basketball team in Cuba offers a glimpse into the past as well as an idea of what the future might hold for the newly de-embargoed country.

Harlem Globe Trotters in Cuba

The 1946-47 Harlem Globe Trotters pose for a photograph in Havana, Cuba, during some rest and relaxation, possibly after touring the city. Seated, left to right: Louis “Babe” Pressley, Boid Buie, Inman Jackson, Tom Sealy, Marcus Haynes, Sam Wheeler, Donald “Ducky” Moore, Ted Strong, an unidentified player, and Ermer Robinson. Standing, left to right: Reece “Goose” Tatum, an unidentified person, perhaps the establishment owner or a Bacardi executive, and John Scott. (The Black Fives Foundation)

In February 1947, ‘Trotters owner Abe Saperstein brought his team to Havana, capital city of Cuba, for the 1947 Cuban Invitational Tournament, also known as the Pan-American International Invitational Tournament.

They traveled with the all-black Kansas City Stars and the all-Jewish House of David All Stars, departing to Havana via airplane from Miami. The tournament began in late February and concluded in early March.

In this rare photograph, from the archive of the Black Fives Foundation, ‘Trotter players are enjoying refreshments while taking a break, maybe from a sight-seeing tour of Havana (note what appears to be Inman Jackson’s camera, hanging on a strap around his collar).

The prominence in the photograph of signage representing local rum producer Bacardi (and at least one Bacardi bottle, identified by its recognizable markings) was consistent with the distillery’s efforts to brand Cuba as the originator of the cane sugar-based liquor and itself as rum’s leading label. Bacardi had recently re-opened operations in the U.S. In fact, it’s quite possible that the Globe Trotters photograph above was taken in the Bacardi Building, an art deco landmark, still standing, that at the time was one of the largest structures in Havana. (Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons, Bacardi rum is no longer produced nor commercially available in Cuba.)

The Bacardi Building in Old Havana

The Bacardi Building in Old Havana, Cuba, built in 1930 and still standing today, is considered to be an art deco landmark. (Courtesy of Google Maps)

Then in their eighteenth year, the Globe Trotters by that point in the season had a record of 108-2, according to their own press releases. Going undefeated throughout the tournament, they beat the Kansas City Stars in the final game for the championship title.

“The Globetrotters are the nationally known razzle-dazzle artists noted for their fine play and outstanding comedy antics,” wrote the Emporia (Kansas) Gazette on March 8, 1947, a few days after the team’s return from Cuba, in promoting an upcoming game with the local McPherson Wheatshockers.

Though he was often criticized for exploiting his players and for shamelessly reinforcing African American stereotypes, Saperstein was also a marketing genius and a visionary entrepreneur who expanded the sport by creating fascination with the game and seeing its future as a far-reaching attraction.

He had already proved this in 1946 by taking his team to Hawaii, a venture that was a financial and public relations success. Saperstein followed that with the Cuba trip, and then repeated his earlier Pacific journey with another Hawaii tour in 1948. He reciprocated by bringing the Hawaii All Stars on a tour of the United States. These early overseas visits by the Globe Trotters would be the first of many by the team that not only helped popularize basketball among international audiences but also helped global fans appreciate and embrace the skill and star power of African Americans in the game.

On that note, one can imagine it won’t take long for today’s Harlem Globetrotters to stage a tour there, or for the National Basketball Association to visit Cuba with a pre-season game. There seem to be so many opportunities, from broadcasting to online to sponsorship (Bacardi?) and beyond. Basketball has been one of the most popular sports in Cuba for generations. Flipping that, couldn’t a Cuban All Star basketball team tour America in the foreseeable future?

Meanwhile, how soon before a player from Cuba is recruited by a Division I collegiate basketball program? Going further, are there any Cuban players with the talent to be drafted directly into the pros? Still further, couldn’t there eventually be an NBA franchise placed there? (Cuban’s Cubans?) Certainly, the sport could offer an avenue for diplomacy as the political, economic, social, cultural, and financial details get sorted out.

We believe that there is a rich undiscovered history of basketball among people of African descent in Cuba that is waiting to be researched; perhaps it is much like the history of the Black Fives Era in this country. Certainly, we hope that Cuba’s historical archives might shed some light on the 1947 Cuban Invitational Tournament.

Whatever happens with regard to American basketball interests in Cuba though, fans and entrepreneurs in the U.S.A. will have Abe Saperstein and the Harlem Globe Trotters to thank, for helping pave the way.

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