Shared love of basketball unites local players with Cuba

Through basketball and the Full Court Peace program, two Wilton High School students recently traveled to Havana, Cuba, to renovate courts and share their love of the game with local players.

Matt Kronenberg and Lucas Reznikoff, both rising seniors at WHS, took part in the FCP basketball ambassador program from July 23-30 — using basketball to bridge the vast cultural and socio-economic divide between Fairfield County and rural Cuba.

“What else could be better than playing basketball and helping others,” said Kronenberg, a second-team all-FCIAC player last winter for the WHS boys basketball, who is a captain of the 2016-17 team. “It was an incredible experience — just seeing the contrast between the two countries and seeing how the development of their country is so far behind. It really opened my eyes.”

Full Court Peace is the brainchild of Mike Evans, head basketball coach at New Canaan High, whose aim is to help young people bridge gaps, connect and learn about each other through basketball.

Locally, the program features camps where area players, from all towns and backgrounds, can learn about each other and make friendships that hopefully will last beyond the week-long camp.

Breaking down barriers had been the goal of FCP since Evan founded it in 2007 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he was trying to continue his career as a player. He formed a youth team of Protestants and Catholics, who formed a bond by playing games around the city.

Since then, Full Court Peace has put down roots in Fairfield County as well as in Mexico and Cuba.

It was Reznikoff who got the FCP Wilton chapter off the ground in the past year. His older brother Charlie had played for Evans’s AAU basketball team, and through that a close bond was formed between Evans and the Reznikoff family.

Charlie, a rising sophomore at Lesley University, where he plays Division III basketball, got involved in the program and Lucas soon followed, working at a FCP camp in Weston two years ago.

Last summer, Evans asked Lucas if he would help launch a chapter at Wilton High.

“I was happy to take on the task,” he said. “It was a lot of work to finally get it going.”

Also instrumental in getting the Wilton chapter formed was rising junior Liam Gany. The Wilton group was finally able to hold some meetings towards the end of the 2015-16 school year, with about seven to eight students showing up regularly. Nine meetings were held, with turnout reaching as high of 20.

Both Reznikoff and Kronenberg believe the group will only grow over time once it’s more established, and expect to hold their first fund-raising efforts this fall, with proceeds going to refurbish a court in either Norwalk or Danbury.

“I think we’ll have a pretty good turnover for next fall,” Kronenberg said. “I think a lot of kids will start going.”

Like most FCP volunteers, Kronenberg comes from a strong basketball background. Last season, he was Wilton’s second-leading scorer (16 points per game) and rebounder (5.8 rpg), and led the team in assists (3.5 apg), as the Warriors finished 14-9 and reached the FCIAC semifinals.

He has first learned of FCP when a former WHS teammate, Miles Elmasry, traveled to Cuba with the program a few years ago. When he learned that his friend Reznikoff was organizing a Wilton High School chapter, he joined up.

The annual trips to Cuba help players build relationships with Cuban players. In addition to fixing up dilapidated basketball courts, FCP volunteers also get to play with, and against, Cuba players in the FCP-sponsored tournaments and leagues.

Kronenberg also brought down nearly 70 pairs of used and new sneakers to donate to the FCP players in Cuba, that he collected in a sneaker drive in the months before his trip.

The volunteers stayed in two villages, both about a half hour from Havana, and in total refurbished five basketball courts.

“Some of them were in better shape than others. Some just needed to be repainted. Some of them we had to basically start from scratch,” said Kronenberg. “We weren’t able to put up the rims and backboards, but we supplied them.”

Local players helped out with the work, and installed the backboards and rims themselves after the volunteers left.

“The people were very friendly. They wanted to help,” he said. “They are welcoming people.”

The group of 19 volunteers from Fairfield County worked on the courts about four hours a day, and spent many hours playing. They also had several days to tour Havana.

Kronenberg was impressed with the level of play, and the passion for the game, that he saw in the Cubans he played against — which even included Fidel Castro’s bodyguard.

“It was pretty competitive and physical, and it was fun,” he said of the FCP Cuban league. “They really care about the game, and it’s basically all they really have going for themselves. They don’t care about the condition of the court or their shoes. They just want to play.”

“I didn’t think they had such a big fan base. That surprised me,” said Reznikoff. “It was just awesome to see how much they care about the league.”