"In Cuba, everyone was encouraged to participate in sports," Azan starts. He was an only child, smart and precocious — but certainly with no concept of a life for himself in America. His was a good life, simple and rural; among his many "pets" throughout his youth were a goat and a crow. He mentions this casually, although he is aware of how unusual this might seem in a metropolis like Miami.
He was heavily involved in extra-curricular activities, "Society favored the active," he notes — even before Fidel Castro's dictatorship turned amateur athletics into a finely-tuned governmental function.
"I played everything...baseball, swimming, basketball...but my favorite was handball," he continues. Like a lot of older Cubans, Azan had an affinity for competition, not necessarily sports. It was more about having the chance to represent a group or even a neighborhood. "Pride drove us in everything we did. When we faced other schools," he says with a wry smile, "we really wanted to beat those guys."
Of course, that was before the revolution. Before Fidel. Before everything changed forever.
The year was 1962 and Azan was not yet 13. Like many families, his had the choice of facing the wrath of Castro's government or, alternately, sending him to the United States in the hope that his mother and father might someday see their son again in less trying times. They chose the latter and after a heart-wrenching farewell at the Havana airport, he was sent northwest to the great American unknown, part of a diaspora of some 14,000 young Cubans, uncertain to see their families or homeland again.
Azan lived briefly in South Florida, having made arrangements to stay with very distant family members — distant meaning that they shared Cuban heritage. Back then, Miami was not as welcoming to the Latin community as it is today. He was mostly alone, struggling to feed himself despite the abundant food supply all around him. Desperate, he petitioned the patron organization of so many Cuban refugees, Operation Pedro Pan, a group committed to finding homes for those recently-arrived children. The organization treated Azan the same way it treats kids of all ages — many unfamiliar with the English language — shipping them all over the country. It was frightening, chaotic and, for Azan, possibly life-saving.
He would spend the next three years of his life in the care of a friendly family — the Johnsons, about as American as you can get — nearby Springfield, Massachusetts. Springfield, of course, is the birthplace of basketball, the home of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and just a few miles away from Easthampton High.