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The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine
Friday, February 28 2020 @ 02:15 PM EST
The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine
Friday, February 28 2020 @ 02:15 PM EST
The Paramus Post - Greater Paramus News and Lifestyle Webzine

North Korean leader harbors penchant for all things NBA

The image most Westerners probably have of Kim Jong Il, the reclusive North Korean leader who recently tested a nuclear device, is that of a diminutive, diabolical dictator with big glasses and even bigger hair, sitting in one of his lavish palaces with a tray of Beluga caviar and Hennessy XO cognac, one finger firmly on the button.

Which probably isn't too far from the truth - the button being on a television remote control.Click.

It's Shaq and the Miami Heat against the Chicago Bulls.


There's Kobe and the Los Angeles Lakers hosting the Phoenix Suns.

By most accounts, Kim is a totalitarian despot who is hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons to gain diplomatic leverage against the rest of the planet and who may or may not sell that technology to raise cash for his impoverished nation. But he also is an avid basketball fan, experts on North Korea say, so much so that he is said to have regulation courts at most of his palaces plus a video library of practically every game Michael Jordan ever played for the Bulls.

While the rest of the world frets over what Kim might do with his nukes, Kim is sitting in his den, watching pirated satellite television signals from the United States and wondering if Shaquille O'Neal's new shooting technique will improve his woeful free-throw percentage, or if Phil Jackson can get it going again with the Lakers.

Kim, 64, is famously nocturnal, often working through the night to run his country, wedged between South Korea and China. Perfect. In North Korea, which is on the other side of the international date line, the games come on in the late morning.

"Kim doesn't want to die," Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said a few years ago after one of Kim's missile tests sent waves of fear across the globe. "He wants to watch NBA basketball."

Adds Tony Ronzone, director of basketball operations for the NBA's Detroit Pistons, who has made three trips to North Korea to conduct coaching clinics: "He's a huge fan. He's addicted to it." Gene Schmiel was the deputy director of Korean affairs for the State Department in the early 1990s when he met with some top North Korean officials making a rare visit to the United States. They met during the day, had dinner together and then continued their discussions in a hotel suite, hoping to find common ground with a staunchly communist country - the so-called Hermit Kingdom - that does not allow its 23 million citizens access to cell phones, the Internet, international TV or free press.

Things seemed to be progressing methodically when the most senior North Korean diplomat looked at his watch and, Schmiel said, blurted out: "Stop. No more. Michael and Bulls are on TNT, and I've got to see if Scottie (Pippen) has gotten over his latest injury."

Wrote Schmiel in an article posted on an American diplomatic Web site: "He then moved to the TV, turned it on, and stared transfixed at the opening jump ball between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since I'm from Cleveland, we spent the rest of our time together debating not high policy but high-quality shooting and such arcana as whether the NBA should permit the use of zone defense.

"It was clear from our discussions that he had watched the NBA for many years."

Schmiel says the North Korean official, who still is one of the country's chief negotiators with the West, knew nicknames of players, history, statistics, NBA minutiae.

"He's obviously one of the favored few," Schmiel said. "And he got to watch games with the boss."

The boss being Kim. Or, as he prefers, Dear Leader.

At the time, the White House did not embrace a strategy of engagement with North Korea, which was split from South Korea after World War II and further isolated after the Korean War ended in a cease-fire in 1953. President Clinton's administration began thawing relations in the late 1990s, and in October 2000, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright became the first senior-level U.S. government official to visit Kim in North Korea.

Their talks lasted two days, and before leaving, Albright presented the 5-foot-3 Kim a gift - an authentic NBA basketball autographed by Michael Jordan.

Accompanying Albright on the trip was Bob Carlin, who recently retired after three decades as the chief North Korea analyst for the CIA and State Department.

"We were looking for something that was a little more meaningful than a bottle of scotch or a miniature Statue of Liberty or a Buffalo Bill book - something with more importance to him," said Carlin, now a visiting scholar at Stanford University. "He may have been initially surprised by it, but you could tell he was pleased. I don't think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense.

"It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn't just an ordinary ball."

It now sits in a glass case in the Museum of International Understanding, a hulking complex nestled in Mount Myohyangsan north of the capital, Pyongyang. There are two separate buildings, one each for the Dear Leader (Kim Jong Il) and the Great Leader (his father, Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994), with 200 rooms containing an estimated 50,000 official gifts from about 170 nations.

Visitors are not allowed to bring cameras inside and must wear shoe covers so as not to scuff the meticulously polished marble floors. There is a mother-of-pearl box from the Palestinian Authority's Yasser Arafat, a crocodile handbag from Cuba's Fidel Castro, a stuffed warthog from Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe, a hunting rifle from Russian President Vladimir Putin ... and a Michael Jordan basketball.

The following year, Jordan's management team was approached about the athlete making a goodwill trip to Pyongyang to meet Kim. The North Korean government, according to documents obtained by Copley News Service, sent a letter authorizing the request, and Samsung, a South Korean electronics company interested in promoting reunification of the Koreas, had offered to underwrite the venture.

Jordan respectfully declined.

In recent weeks, politicians have debated the merits of engaging Kim and North Korea in "basketball diplomacy," a phrase modified from the "pingpong diplomacy" that helped thaw U.S. relations with China in the 1970s. Carlin, for one, is all for sending a delegation of basketball coaches or players to Pyongyang.

"I think that would be a very useful, positive step," Carlin said. "If someone wanted to make a serious opening gesture, that would probably not be a bad idea. These things carry only so much diplomatic freight, but they are the little things that begin to open relations."

You know what they say about a nuclear warhead: It's roughly the size of a basketball. The first time Tony Ronzone tried to go to North Korea, he never made it.

It was 1998, and Ronzone had been invited to conduct a coaching clinic on behalf of FIBA, basketball's world governing body. The plan was for a North Korean delegation to meet him in China, but no one was there when he arrived, and Chinese authorities detained him for eight hours in the airport before sending him out of the country.

A few months later, Ronzone tried again. This time he got in.

Each morning for a week, he was driven from his deserted tourist hotel in Pyongyang to a 12,000-seat basketball arena for the clinic. There were several hundred coaches bused in from all corners of the country, all wearing suits and ties, all wearing a button with the Dear Leader's likeness on their lapel. In the stands were an additional 10,000 or so people, watching intently.

"I never knew for sure, but I was told that Kim Jong Il was there himself in the audience one day," Ronzone said. "He supposedly liked my clinic so much he asked the people in the sports ministry to invite me back. I ended up going back two more times."

Ronzone officially worked for FIBA at the time, but he also was a scout for the Dallas Mavericks. His ulterior motive was to catch a glimpse of Ri Myung Hun, a North Korean center with impeccable fundamentals and a feathery jump shot who, rumor had it, was also 2.35 meters tall.

The rumors were right. Ri was indeed 2.35 meters tall, or 7 feet 8 1/2 inches. Some say he was closer to 7-foot-9.

Kim had kept Ri, then in his late 20s, under close wraps but finally granted his blessing for him to become the first Asian in the NBA. Ri flew to Canada with a coach, a diplomat and a security guard, and about half the NBA teams sent scouts to see him. He decided to Anglicize his name to Michael Ri, in honor of his - and the Dear Leader's - favorite player, Jordan.

"Michael would have been able to play in the NBA," said Michael Coyne, the Cleveland attorney who served as his U.S. liaison. "I think the North Koreans wanted to use the NBA marketing machine to show that North Koreans are normal people, and it would have worked because Michael was the perfect guy to show that. He had a great attitude, he was a hard worker and he had great charisma."

There was one roadblock. The State Department ruled that signing Ri would constitute a breach of its Trading With the Enemy Act.

"We did not handle it as wisely as we could have," said Carlin, the retired State Department expert on North Korea. "This was a time when they were really trying to improve relations with the United States. I think they wanted to show the American people that this enmity and hostility was thawing because one of their Koreans was playing amongst the Americans."

The State Department reconsidered in 2000 and gave Ri permission to play. By then, Kim apparently was insulted by the previous rebuff and retracted his 7-foot-8 1/2-inch olive branch.

So Ri went home.

"It's my honor to play games in the bosom of the general," he once told South Korean journalists. "Then why do I need to go somewhere else to play?"

Ri remains one of the oddities of the sport in North Korea, where basketball, with little contact with the outside world, has evolved like the tortoises in the Galapagos Islands. Chinese media have reported that the country even developed its own scoring system, with three points for a dunk, four points for a three-pointer that does not touch the rim and eight points for a basket scored in the final three seconds. Miss a free throw, and it's minus one.

The government has been said to promote basketball as part of a "grow taller" campaign, citing statistics that children who play basketball grow more than those who do not. Kim was quoted in North Korean media as saying, "We should make our youths and workers play a lot of basketball."

At least two of Kim's sons reportedly are avid basketball players, so much that he had NBA-regulation courts built at all his palaces. His second son, Kim Jong Chul, attended an international school in Switzerland under an assumed name. A Chinese documentary team interviewed his Swiss classmates, who said he played basketball on the school team and dreamed of making the NBA. The documentary shows him wearing - what else? - a Chicago Bulls jersey.

While the average citizen does not have access to Kim's satellite dish or the pristine palace courts, the love for basketball has been passed down in a country devoid of the American staples of democracy and capitalism.

"Seeing people on their (work) break playing a pickup game, that speaks volumes to me," said Carlin, who has made more than 20 trips to North Korea. "They a) like the sport and b) know how to play it. And they know it's American in a sense, and they still play it. If the word came down that they shouldn't do something so American, people would probably play soccer.

"But the word never comes down to stop playing."

To prepare for his clinics, Ronzone brought along binders full of basketball information: motion offenses, defensive philosophies, team concepts, inbounds plays, practice plans, shooting drills, even motivational speeches.

"When I was leaving, they told me the sports minister wanted copies of all my literature that I had brought with me so they could have it as a reference," Ronzone said. "Later my interpreter quietly told me that it really was for Kim Jong Il. He wanted to read through it all."

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