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Obama Administration Names Shaq First Ever ‘Sports Envoy to Cuba’

Call it the return of basketball diplomacy.

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 09:  Former NBA player Shaquille O' Neal at the Reebok Classic Breakout Classic Rap Roundtable at Philadelphia University on July 9, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Reebok)
PHILADELPHIA, PA - JULY 09: Former NBA player Shaquille O' Neal at the Reebok Classic Breakout Classic Rap Roundtable at Philadelphia University on July 9, 2014 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Lisa Lake/Getty Images for Reebok)

Call it the return of basketball diplomacy.

The State Department on Friday named hoops legend Shaquille O’Neal the first ever “Sports Envoy to Cuba” and said he’d visit Havana on Saturday to hold basketball clinics for the island nation’s youth.

The trip is a part of the Obama administration’s broader effort to increase cultural exchanges between Washington and Cuba after the two nations restored diplomatic ties last year for the first time in five decades.

“O’Neal will draw on his personal basketball and business background to highlight the importance of social inclusion and respect for diversity,” Foggy Bottom said in a press release. “During his time in the country, O’Neal will visit historically significant cultural sites in Havana to encourage positive ties between the U.S. and Cuban people.”

O’Neal, a retired 7’1 center with four NBA championship rings and a Hall of Fame-caliber career, is currently a sports analyst on TNT. He’s also dabbled in acting, though his big screen debut, 1994’s Blue Chips, didn’t do well at the box office or with critics.

Ideally, his efforts will bear more fruit than the last trip by an NBA all-star to a Communist state — the widely-derided 2014 voyage by Dennis Rodman to North Korea, which seemed to boost strongman Kim Jong Un’s profile without any tangible diplomatic benefit. That trip, U.S. officials quickly noted at the time, was not sanctioned by the U.S. government.

During his visit, O’Neal will be joined by Dallas Mavericks Assistant Coach Kaleb Canales, according to the release. The two men will “demonstrate how sports can serve as a means of developing academic, leadership, and teamwork skills.”

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