Ismael Romero: the dream of a Cuban homecoming
It was about time. That is the definition of Ismael Romero’s arrival at Franca to play in Group E of the Liga de las Américas Semi-Finals. While the rest of Mexico City’s Capitanes had already touched ground, the Cuban arrived the same Friday his bracket was set to begin. When Romero went to the airport to travel along his teammates, he forgot the backpack — where his passport was — in the bus that transported them. When he recovered his belongings, it was already late. The next day, he was spotted arriving at Ribeirão Prieto in a low-cost flight where he could barely fit his 6’08” stature in his seat. He then took a car to Franca. And precisely regarding his official documents, the center explains why on social media he changes the first letter of his name: “In my documentation my name appears with I, but I use the Y because my father's name is officially with Y and I've always wanted to be like him. I hope to be like him, so I use more the way of writing his name than the way mine is written.”
Ismael’s father was essential in the sports beginnings of the current player of the Mexican capital's team. “I started to play because everyone on my father’s side were basketball players (and are now coaches) and they took me to a sports complex so that I learned the game. I became interested, started to play in municipal tournaments, and I climbed up until I got a scholarship in one of the prestigious sports academies of my country. Héctor Ruiz Pérez School in the province of Santa Clara is a huge school of more than 3,000 students that specializes in athletic work throughout the year. We had regular classes in the morning and sports in the afternoon. Each Cuban that's in the highest sports level went through a school like this,” explains Romero. And there Ismael started to compete: “Youth tournaments take place through these schools, since each one of the 14 Cuban provinces have one. They prepare the whole year for such an important championship. Then began the adult stage: “In senior leagues I played in the (Mexican) National League with Lobos de Villa Clara, a team that were champions in the most recent edition,” says Ismael.
Thanks to his progress, the moment has arrived to be summoned for the national team. For Romero, this has meant finally reaching something he has dreamed of since he was a child. But just like he arrived, he left.
The evening of June 19, 2012, Ismael Romero and four teammates from the Cuban national team decided to abandon the Verdanza Hotel in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico. A day before that, Cuba had lost 80-68 against the Bahamas in the beginning of that Centrobasket edition. This decision changed the lives of each of the five basketball players, who began their different paths to reach their personal goals. Romero's relationship with the Cuban national team had begun two years before. “In 2010 I was in the shortlist for the first time. I was given the opportunity when I was 18 years old. I was fighting for the dream of being part of the Cuban national team in order to compete internationally. I couldn't make the team that year or next year, but I trained hard, and finally in 2012 I was able to be a part and represent my country in the Centrobasket hosted by Puerto Rico. It was a great experience, a new beginning,” says Ismael. But his career lasted only one game. In that loss against the Bahamas, the center registered 6 points, 5 rebounds and 2 assists in 20 minutes of play. When he deserted, his midsummer night’s dream ended. “When I reached that level, I realized that I needed to be a professional player and I made that decision. I wanted to be known worldwide, which was another one of my goals. I'm very grateful for the opportunity I was given of playing in the national Cuban team, but to reach my goal of playing professionally I had to leave the team,” says Romero.
Although a total of five players deserted, Romero assures that his was a personal decision: “It was a determination I made by myself. I left the hotel and from there I was helped by people that know the history of the Cubans that take these decisions. I was quickly presented to universities and sports programs in Puerto Rico and I started to take the path I wanted to take.” After an initial complicated week in which he shared a room with his teammates —Yudniel Pérez, Leonel Batista, Enrique Ramos and Juan Pablo Piñeiro— the situation started to improve little by little. However, the dream of being a professional player had to wait, because to play as a native in Puerto Rico, he had to live for at least three years in the island. “These were three years of waiting, and during which I studied and got ready. I had a great experience at the college level, where I won a championship with Universidad del Turabo and with which I became known in Puerto Rico. Then, after spending some time in the G-League, I received the chance to sign with Atléticos de San Germán.”
Cuban laws state that someone who travels to represent their country with all expenses paid by the State, and then abandons their delegation, is sanctioned with an 8-year prohibition of returning to the country. Romero, who was perfectly aware of this situation, decided to sacrifice his presence in his daughter’s first years of life. “Dania Daniela is 8 years old. I constantly communicate with her because she’s always paying attention to her dad's results. She’s a very tall girl, she likes volleyball and dancing. She’s very joyful and charming. I stopped seeing her personally when she was a year and a half and was just starting to walk. It was a very difficult moment in my life because I had to leave someone I loved so much. Throughout the years I explained the reasons for which I'm far away and what I do professionally. I try to help her not only economically, but with advice and love from a distance. I feel proud for being able to keep contact and to be united during this whole time. My family members have been very important so that I can maintain this relationship.” The prohibition of returning to Cuba expires in June 16, 2020 for Ismael Romero. The center has already marked it in his calendar and has a detailed plan for it: “The first thing I'm doing that day is to buy a plane ticket and return to Cuba. That's something that’s very clear to me.”
In 2015, three years after Romero’s and his four teammates’ desertion, some legal situations changed in Cuba. Basketball players were able to go overseas to play professionally with a corresponding permit and contributing a part of their salary to the Cuban state. The cases of Javier Justiz, today in Spain's Zaragoza; and Jasiel Rivero, in Argentina’s Boca Juniors, are the most well-known. They both continue to play in the Cuban national team, and they are its most important figures. Romero reflects upon this circumstance: “If the current regulations had existed at the time, the situation would've been completely different. This is something that’s perceivable to the naked eye. But what happened, happened and I must be grateful for everything that has gone well.” While he waits for his expected homecoming, Romero focuses on his career: “Before I'm able to return to Cuba I must continue to grow in my game and enjoying this stage, in order to continue to be the pride of my daughter and my whole family.”
Romero, who achieved many of the goals he set for his life, has another dream that seems very difficult. As a deserter of the national team, despite being able to return to his country, he cannot return to Cuba. “I would like to have the possibility of playing again for the Cuban national team. Representing my country again is another one of my goals, it would be extremely beautiful. In fact, when I lived in Puerto Rico, I could've played for them, but I never wanted to get into that process. Puerto Rico is my second home, I'm very loved there, but I always thought that if Cuba changes, I would like to use my country's jersey once again. I'm Cuban, that's my blood. I wouldn’t doubt for a second to play again,” Romero hopefully says. If the law doesn’t change, Romero's desire will be just that. “I love Cuba. I have no qualms against my country, or my government, or the system. I lived 20 years there. Although those weren't my best financial years, I was happy, I had my family and I lived in a harmonious environment that I couldn't find in other places.” When remembering his life in Cuba, Ismael’s eyes light up and a smile appears on his face: “I miss that liberty, spending time with my friends and people from the neighborhood, going around without wearing a shirt, and sitting in the street corner to talk about life. I also missed the beaches, walking in Havana’s Malecón. Us Cubans feel happy to stroll around there.”
Capitanes de México traveled to Franca with the intention of achieving the Final Four qualification, but certain that they would face a very complicated task. After losing against Paulistano, they defeated the locals in a key duel and sealed the ticket to define the continental tournament. Romero seemed happy for this achievement and for being able to dispute a tournament that he used to watch in TV: “I had always watched Liga de las Américas and I wanted to play in it. I had idols that played in that tournament, and now that I'm playing there, I could portray myself and showcase how I play.”
Romero dreams of the day he may return to Cuba. And as for today, with being a Liga de las Américas champion.