Blessed by Basketball
Life is full of pivotal moments that not only shape your character, but also your destiny.
The first such moment in Alfonso Cueto’s life came in October 1960 when he and his family fled their homeland of Cuba to escape the turmoil created by the rise of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary regime.
“My family came over with $20 in our pockets,” Cueto remembers. “We left everything behind.”
While they were low on cash, the Cueto family was prepared to work hard to pursue the American dream. For Cueto himself, an inroad to that dream lay in sports, and in particular, in basketball.
By the time he graduated Coral Gables High School, Cueto was 6-foot-7-inches tall. He had been the valuable center on his high school basketball team, but because he weighed just 140 pounds, he was perceived as too frail for college ball and received only two scholarship offers—from Miami-Dade Junior College and from Northeastern A&M in Miami, Oklahoma.
There was, however, another option. Friends had told Cueto about a private junior college in Shawnee, Oklahoma that welcomed Cuban refugees with open arms.
“St. Gregory’s offered room and board, tuition and books for $500 a semester,” Cueto said. “Back then, right after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs, the U.S. government had what they called the ‘Cuban Student Loan’ that offered all these Cuban kids $500 a semester to go to the school of their choice.”
Drawing on his dream to play college ball, Cueto decided to take the idea of St. Gregory’s one step further.
“I sent a letter to Coach [Don] Sumner that I had this dual scholarship offer, one from Miami-Dade and one from Northeastern A&M,” Cueto said, “and he sent me some paperwork. In the meantime, that summer, I gained 60 pounds and went from 150 to 210 pounds, so he sent me a scholarship.”
Big Man on Campus
According to Cueto, choosing to attend St. Gregory’s was a defining moment in his life and the best thing he ever did for himself.
“St. Gregory’s was and is a big influence on our lives,” he said. “St. Gregory’s was good to me in a lot of ways. I became a good basketball player. I became a better man spiritually and a much better person. I grew up as a man at St. Gregory’s.”
Cueto credits the tight-knit university community, as well as the monks, for helping him develop in a variety of ways.
“There were 300 students there then,” he said, “and you became like a family. The campus was isolated compared to the University of Miami in downtown Coral Gables, where there was so much to do, so you bonded with all your classmates and schoolmates, to the nuns, to the monks, to the coaches. It gave you the opportunity to deal with 300 unique individuals who came from all over the country.
“It developed a sense of exchanging views and exchanging ideas in the early ‘60s when all hell was breaking loose—from the Vietnam War, to the Cuban crisis to integration. You just became like a big, happy family with the same goals and desire to move ahead in life. We became a happy colony of good friends.”
The closeness of the monks and faculty to the students made an immediate impression on Cueto, who admits that he wasn’t a very good student in high school. He began to study for the first time in his life at St. Gregory’s and took the lessons he learned both in class and on the basketball court to heart.
“To be able to talk to the monks who had Ph.D.s as a freshman,” he said, “and they not only were your teachers, they were your mentors. You had an opportunity to be with them and talk to them and communicate with these fantastic human beings who were super intelligent when you were a dumb kid.”
Cueto also excelled as a center for St. Gregory’s, leading the team to two highly successful seasons.
“My second year, we had a great team, and the school bonded behind us,” he said. “We were ranked as high as #2 in the country at one point. We lost in the Regionals in double overtime to the #2 team in the country.”
SGU Athletic Director Emeritus Don Sumner has stayed in touch with Cueto and still sings his praises.
“We just had a real good relationship,” Sumner said. “He’ll tell you, he cried when he came to campus, and he cried when he left, meaning he didn’t want to be here when he came, and he didn’t want to leave when he left because he fell in love with St. Gregory’s.”
The American Dream
After earning his associates degree in Industrial Engineering from St. Gregory’s, Cueto followed Sumner’s advice and signed to play basketball with Tulsa University, where he again excelled, both on the court and off. He graduated in 1969 with a bachelor’s degree in Business Management—and was drafted by both the NBA’s Seattle SuperSonics and the ABA’s Denver Nuggets. He was then traded from Denver to his hometown Miami Floridians before the start of his rookie year and played a second season with the Memphis Pros in 1970-71 before retiring.
Cueto eventually landed at Proctor and Gamble in the industrial sales division where his degree in Industrial Management allowed him to flourish.
“I went to work as a manager of national accounts for Bacardi Imports,” Cueto said, “and I became a Miller Brewing Co. wholesaler and distributor for Miami and Key West.”
At the age of 50, Cueto retired, but his adventures were far from over. He next embarked on what was to be the greatest professional challenge of his life when he was elected President of the Orange Bowl Committee in 2001.
A member of the committee since the 1980s, Cueto redefined the Presidency during his tenure, evolving it from figurehead status to a more business-oriented title.
“We were ahead of our time,” he said. “We developed great relationships with the heads of all the conferences.”
Cueto served one year as President and was then named Head of Strategic Relations for the Orange Bowl Committee. He played that role for a decade before retiring last year to take on a new challenge—bringing Mahou, one of the oldest and most popular beers in Spain, to the U.S. market.
“I would say that 60 percent of everything that I do in business and in life I learned through basketball,” Cueto said. “The real world is like a basketball game. You have to learn and apply your knowledge and work hard at it to be successful. When you want to quit, you can’t quit. When you’re working with other people toward a common goal, you have to develop cooperative relationships, a plan of action. You have to communicate that plan of action. You have to anticipate. You can’t wait until things happen. You have to position yourself to take advantage when things you’ve anticipated begin to happen.
“Nobody is going to give you anything. Luck is when opportunity meets preparation, and I can guarantee you, at one time in your life, the opportunity will come, and you’d better be prepared. If you’re prepared, then you’ll reach the next level.”