Last Friday’s Vice on HBO episode was the much talked about visit by Dennis Rodman and three members of the Harlem Globetrotters to North Korea for an exhibition game of basketball in front of 10,000 fans and the country’s leader, Kim Jong-un.
North Korea as a country has been, well, hard to choose just one word for it, but polarizing works. Secretive is another, or just really strange and detached from the rest of the world. This is especially true for those in the United States or the Western world as a whole. If your entire knowledge as it relates to this strange place is from hearsay only, you could educate yourself pretty quickly by checking out The VICE guide to North Korea released several years ago. I also recommend the documentary “Friends of Kim.” They’re both great primers that help you understand this really weird place that actually exists in the world.
Now, the first question for those that are uninitiated might be just why basketball was so important that the leader of North Korea was willing to extend his diplomacy for VICE, along with Rodman and the Globetrotters, to visit his country. It turns out the late Kim Jong-il was a huge fan of the ’90s Bulls, and that love for the game and that particular era was passed down to his son, who once upon a time played ball in a Rodman jersey.
The 30-minute episode captures the feel of the country very well, and perhaps VICE correspondent Ryan Duffy put it best when he said that it felt like they were part of a real-life “Truman Show.” When Kim Jong-un enters the arena, the people in the stadium cheer (some even cry at his presence) and chant, “Live 10,000 years,” which I assume is something North Korea is exploring, provided that not all their resources are directed to their nuclear program.
The exhibition game itself ended in a 110-110 tie. The episode didn’t provide the play-by-play details in the fourth quarter, so as viewers, we’re left to our imagination as to how the final score came to be. But one can imagine — in a country where everything seems staged and set up only to give any visitors the impression that everything is actually okay — that this score was probably fixed in some ways. I could be just really skeptical about the final result, but perhaps I have my reasons, especially since it was recently revealed that North Korea has its own strange way of scoring basketball games. Among the rules: Baskets scored in the final three seconds of the game are worth eight points.
But the most interesting subplot that wasn’t explored in the episode as a face in the crowd for this exhibition game, a 7’8″ North Korean center named Ri Myung Hun (also known as Michael Ri). He was once the tallest man in the world and a fascination for many. He also held aspirations of playing in the NBA.
In 1998, Tony Ronzone was invited to North Korea to conduct basketball clinics on behalf of FIBA. At the same time, he was a scout for the Dallas Mavericks and had heard about Ri. With Kim Jong-il’s blessing, Ri flew to Canada and was scouted by half of the teams in the league.
Despite the growing interest, and even with permission from the NBA and the U.S. Commerce Department, Ri was banned by the State Department from playing in the league because of the “trading with the enemy” laws that prevents U.S. companies from doing business with North Korea. In this case, Ri was a product that could not be sold.
In a 1999 interview with CNN, Ri expressed his frustrations:
“I thought if I could play in the NBA, it would contribute to friendly relations between my country and the U.S. But my efforts have had the opposite effect. I’m a big man. I want to test my ability. I am not interested in money or politics. As a sportsman, I just want to try.”
In a final twist, the State Department actually changed its decision in 2000 and granted permission for Ri to join the NBA, if North Korea agreed to not repatriate any portion of his basketball salary. Kim Jong-il rejected the offer, as many believed he was still bitter about the whole process that had initially played out in the years prior.
And so, Ri never got his chance to see if he could’ve made an impact in a league full of the world’s best players. And there he was on the sidelines, watching the sideshow that is the Globetrotters, the horror show that is North Korea, having to ponder for the rest of his life about a what-if that happened because two countries couldn’t get along.
Even in sports, there’s collateral damage to whatever’s happening in North Korea.