HAVANA — HAVANA -- The image of revolutionary martyr Che Guevara stared down from a 50-foot mural. A sign on a wall proclaimed, "El Deporte Un Derecho Del Pueblo" (Sport Is the Right of the People).
Fans filled the 12,000-seat Sport City Coliseum two hours before the scheduled tip-off. They performed the wave and shouted, "Cuba, Cuba." And a stray dog came within 75 feet of the players' benches, a backboard shattered and a dance line of barefoot Cuban women dressed in threadbare orange tights, yellow bikini briefs and yellow halter tops ground through a 10-minute routine that would have made the Laker Girls hand in their Lycra.
Toto, I don't think we're in the Atlantic Coast Conference anymore.
Twenty-four hours after landing on Cuban soil, the U.S. men's basketball team made its debut at the 11th Pan American Games yesterday. College players from such places as Duke and Maryland and Michigan State were thrown in against the Cubans and their boisterous fans and barely emerged with a 92-88 victory.
The U.S. women's team had a far easier time in defeating Canada, 87-70, its 42nd straight international victory. The United States led by 54-31 at halftime and Canada never came closer than 10 points. Bridgette Gordon led the U.S. women with 20 points.
"No question, we would have preferred to play someone else first," U.S. men's coach Gene Keady said. "I can see their strategy, though. We never practiced in this place. We just went to the opening parade and stood a long five hours. Yes, the Cubans were smart to get us first."
For the United States, facing Cuba first in a bid to reclaim the gold medal lost against Brazil in 1987, was nearly an embarrassment. But Jimmy Jackson of Ohio State led the U.S. team with 22 points, and Duke's Christian Laettner scored 17 of his 19 points in the second half.
Walt Williams of the University of Maryland, one of five ACC players on the U.S. team, started and scored eight points, making one of two three-point attempts.
The American leader in backboards shattered was Thomas Hill. The junior-to-be at Duke executed a reverse dunk during the pre-game warm-ups, shimmied in mid-air, then fell to the cherry-colored court with the rim in his hands and glass in his hair.
"Just my luck," Hill said.
The worst part for Hill was that he had to face Keady. The coach is tightly wound even in the best of circumstances when he is on his home campus at Purdue -- let alone in an arena in Havana. Keady's face turned crimson as he shouted at Hill and his teammates.
"I told them that these weren't breakaway rims," Keady said. "They're like your children at home -- you tell them one thing and they do another. I should have shut up and not said anything."
It got weirder.
The start of the game was delayed 35 minutes as 15 officials watched three workers install one new backboard.
It got even weirder.
Laettner was called for two fouls in 47 seconds. Starting point guard Anthony Bennett of Wisconsin-Green Bay committed turnover after turnover. Beefy center Mike Peplowski of Michigan State heard whistles from the balcony after he derisively waved off a foul call, then tried to smile and clap his way into the crowd's heart. And Cuban forwards Lazaro Borrell and Luciano Rivero dominated the backboards to give their team a 50-47 halftime lead.
Sitting in a balcony seat above an American flag, U.S. Olympic Committee vice president George Steinbrenner looked like a man who wanted to fire someone. He muttered something about "we have to play our best athletes."
Laettner returned, Jackson got hot and the Americans clogged the lanes. With 7:01 left they were up, 82-68.
"After the first 10 minutes of the second half, we can say there was only one team on the court, the U.S.," Cuba coach Juan Carmelo Ortega said.
Cuba made one last run, cutting the deficit to 90-88 with 10 seconds left. Andres Gilbert (24 points), Leonardo Perez (21) and Rivero (20) put in long shots on offense and tackled players on defense, while the crowd screamed and swayed and the referees' whistles remained silent.
But the show ended with Terry Dehere (Seton Hall) dribbling away eight of the last 10 seconds before making two free throws.
And, of course, the game was nearly meaningless since every team advances into the seeded second round.
No matter. Hill made history by being the first American man to shatter a basketball backboard in Havana.
"On a scale of 1 to 10, I'd give it about a 4 1/2 ," Laettner said.
Hill heard the rating and smiled. "I don't dunk that often," he said. "I'd give myself a 10."
4( Oh, to be back home on Tobacco Road.