Greg Cote

Greg Cote: NBA blindsides, angers Miami Heat with new Cuba initiative

Miami Heat general manager Pat Riley, left, and owner Micky Arison watch the team practice Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
Miami Heat general manager Pat Riley, left, and owner Micky Arison watch the team practice Wednesday, June 8, 2011 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas. Miami Herald Staff

The NBA developing a relationship with Cuba is not especially big news in 29 of the league’s 30 cities. For all but one franchise and its fans, a goodwill tour to the island later this month is closer to who cares than controversial — largely overlooked as the regular season winds down to the looming playoffs.

Miami is different.

And the Heat is not happy.

The NBA on Tuesday announced it would hold a four-day developmental camp for Cuban basketball players on April 23-26, the first visit by an American professional league since President Obama in December announced plans to improve diplomatic relations between the countries.

Heat officials learned of the story via news reports, and were dumbfounded that the league would not have first spoken, at least as a courtesy, to the one franchise actually affected by any NBA/Cuba relationship.

Heat owner Micky Arison and club president Pat Riley declined a Miami Herald interview request Wednesday, but another team executive told us, “The NBA never consulted with us. This was undertaken unilaterally. The minute we found out we registered our vehement objection to the league office. Neither the Heat nor any personnel will be participating.”

The Heat now finds itself in a strange situation on two fronts.

The basketball team, after four consecutive seasons in the NBA Finals with two championships, is fighting and struggling just to make the playoffs in the injury-marred first season since LeBron James left. Dwyane Wade and Co. stood ninth in the jockeying for eight Eastern Conference playoff spots entering Wednesday night’s games.

And now the franchise deals with an NBA/Cuba situation a different Heat source said “seems political.”

Longtime former NBA commissioner David Stern was extremely active in Democratic politics and a major financial contributor throughout his years in office. New commissioner Adam Silver also was an ardent early supporter of Obama and has donated to the party — the political leanings at the highest level of the NBA perhaps suggesting a climate that would lead to a goodwill tour as a show of support for Obama’s new policy of thawing relations with Cuba.

The four-day event could be a precursor to further league involvement with Cuba, such as exhibition games scheduled there.

All of this is controversial primarily in Miami, of course, because of the region’s huge Cuban population, including older exiles who mostly want nothing to do with a Castro-led Cuba and therefore opposed Obama’s decision to improve relations.

Many will recall the firestorm that embroiled then-Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen in 2012 when he was quoted in a magazine article as complimenting and admiring Fidel Castro. A similar outcry likely would meet anything perceived as a Heat olive branch to the island.

Obama is likely to interact with Cuban leader Raul Castro at this week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama. For many it will be seen as a sign of progress. For many in Miami it will be painful to watch.

An MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist College poll finds 59 percent of Americans — including 56 percent of Latinos — approve of Obama’s new Cuba policy.

Still, for only one of 30 NBA teams, this feels like a can’t-win situation.

There is logic to the NBA thinking Cuba is just another signpost in the growing of its global brand. There even is logic to the Heat, under different circumstances, perhaps desiring to grow its brand to the south — much as the Marlins and more recently the Dolphins have made efforts to expand their fan bases into the Caribbean and South America. It makes sense, if only geographically.

But is it worth it for the Heat to pursue business-side gains in Cuba if a sub-set of its fans – perhaps small, but likely vehement – would strongly object to the relationship?

One more complication:

Arison, the billionaire owner, when not cheering courtside for his basketball team, happens to own and run Miami-based Carnival Corporation, the world’s largest cruise-ship operator.

Cruise stock prices spiked upward when Obama announced his thawing policy toward Cuba. People like Arison immediately imagined their majestic ships flowing lucratively in and out of Cuban ports, ferrying monied tourists eager to explore the exotic island so near yet so off-limits for so long.

That could be another delicate spot for Arison, the idea that increasingly normalized relations with Cuba could be very good for Carnival and his already enormous bank account – but could also lead many Heat fans to angrily consider those profits to be Castro-dirty.

The Heat and Arison, unlike other teams and owners, must balance support for the United States and league policy with respect for the animus toward the Cuban government that so many in Miami still passionately feel.

The simplest path was always to simply stay out of the politics of it.

Unilaterally this week, the NBA made that impossible for the Heat.

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