North Korea’s exclusion from world politics doesn’t preclude it from becoming a power -- in basketball.
The nation’s interest in the sport drew worldwide attention last week when a team of former National Basketball Association players led by retired All-Star Dennis Rodman staged an exhibition game for leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang. It was Rodman’s fourth visit to the country.
While little is known about Kim, who took power in late 2011 after his father died and is believed to be about 30 years old, he has shown an appreciation of basketball. North Korea won six medals at the London Games in 2012 in sports ranging from judo to weightlifting, though it has never fielded an Olympic basketball squad. With support from Kim, it wouldn’t be an impossible task to build a competitive national program, perhaps by the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games.
“I’m certain it’s going to lead to more and more people playing basketball,” said James Person, director of the North Korea International Documentation Project at the Wilson Center in Washington. “I have very little doubt that you’ll see basketball courts popping up around the country and kids learning to play.”
Whatever the impact inside North Korea, Rodman’s antics, including an alcohol-fueled rant in a TV interview, may not have helped the nation’s push for world recognition of its basketball aspirations. The NBA disowned his trip to the country, made in the face of international economic sanctions on dealings with North Korea.
The country is a member of the International Basketball Federation, known by its French acronym FIBA, though it has no ranking points and hasn’t competed in any events recently or ever in the FIBA World Cup, the organization’s biggest event.
“North Korea is indeed an integral part of FIBA Asia and are very crucial for further development of basketball in the region,” Hagop Khajirian, the secretary general of FIBA Asia, said in an e-mailed statement.
FIBA has three approved referees in North Korea. The country had planned to participate in the Asian Championships for Women, which began in October, until pulling out just before its start without giving a reason.
“Let’s say they were trying to qualify for Tokyo, they have four or five years ahead of them,” said Harvey Schiller, the former president of the International Baseball Federation. “Can you take people who have no knowledge of basketball and turn them into basketball players in four or five years? It’s not like bobsled, where you just need to push and jump in the sled, but I think it’s possible.”
Rick Burton, the former commissioner of the Sydney-based National Basketball League, said Kim’s display of affection for the sport means that many parents and children will be told: “Basketball is good for you. If you get good at basketball the dictator for life is going to think highly of you.”
“If that’s accurate, you should have a groundswell and that groundswell is going to be looking for outlets,” said Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University in New York.
North Korean interest in the sport isn’t new, said Person.
Displayed inside a North Korean museum showing foreign leaders’ gifts is a Michael Jordan-signed basketball that former U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright gave former leader Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father, while trying to arrange a visit by then-U.S. President Bill Clinton, Person said. Kim Jong Il was a “huge fan of the Bulls,” the NBA team that Rodman played for with Jordan from 1995-98, he said.
Person, 38, said he was given a drive-by tour of a Pyongyang street in 2012 where they were finishing construction of new sports facilities. It included ice skating and gymnastics centers as well as what he thinks was a basketball facility.
“It was this very long street with these massive structures that were being built to train North Korean athletes,” Person said. “The North Koreans take their sports very, very seriously.”
If it has designs on growing its basketball program, it would need to identify talented youths and find coaches with knowledge of the game, said Schiller, who is currently president of USA Team Handball.
“If you go back a ways you can look at the old Soviet Union, they basically imported U.S. coaches to teach them the game,” Schiller, chief executive officer of GlobalOptions Group Inc., said in a telephone interview. “They don’t have to bring coaches in from the United States. If they have a good relationship with coaches from China, they can bring coaches from there.”
While North Korea has no diplomatic relations with the U.S., it is a United Nations member and it has a diplomatic mission in New York. A person who answered the phone at the mission declined to comment about whether North Korea has Olympic basketball aspirations.
North Korea conducted its third nuclear test last February and then threatened nuclear missile attacks against U.S. troops, of which there are 28,500 in South Korea. During his New Year’s Day speech, Kim said any war would involve nuclear arms.
Kim had his uncle and second-in-command Jang Song Thaek executed in December. He said in his speech to open the year that the unity of his nation had strengthened “a hundredfold” since Jang was killed.
North Korea’s per capita gross domestic product of $1,800 as of 2011 ranks 195th among 229 countries listed on the Central Intelligence Agency’s website. A CIA overview of its economy says it “faces chronic economic problems” and that its “industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment, shortages of spare parts, and poor maintenance.”
While creating a strong basketball program is especially challenging in North Korea, it could build a program capable of international competitiveness in five to 10 years, according to Bobby Sharma, the senior vice president of global basketball and strategic initiatives for sports agency IMG Worldwide Inc.
“Money is important to effectuate a plan, but even more important is the plan itself -- the right strategy and development systems, and people to manage it effectively,” Sharma, who’s had no interaction with North Korea, said in an e-mail. “Then there needs to be a deep and wide penetration for grassroots development to grow world-class players over time. That would obviously prove challenging in a poor and isolated country that’s as far from egalitarian as they come.”
In a statement on Jan. 6, NBA Commissioner David Stern said the organization wasn’t “involved with Mr. Rodman’s North Korea trip and would not participate or support such a venture without the approval of the U.S. State Department.
‘‘Although sports in many instances can be helpful in bridging cultural divides, this is not one of them,’’ Stern said.
Rodman, sitting with several other former NBA players the day before the game at Pyongyang Indoor Stadium, slurred his way through a CNN interview, defending North Korea’s imprisonment of American missionary Kenneth Bae. The 52-year-old later said he had been drinking and apologized.
He also sang ‘‘Happy Birthday’’ to Kim before the start of the exhibition, in which North Korea topped the U.S. squad 47-39 before the teams were mixed.
“It had been a very stressful day,” Rodman said in a statement e-mailed by his spokesman, Jules Feiler. “Some of my teammates were leaving because of pressure from their families and business associates. My dreams of basketball diplomacy was quickly falling apart. I had been drinking. It’s not an excuse but by the time the interview happened I was upset. I was overwhelmed. It’s not an excuse, it’s just the truth.”
Many countries, including the U.S., Soviet Union, China and East Germans, have used sports to make statements about the quality of life in their country, Burton said. Unlikely to send players elsewhere to train, North Korea would need to develop a strong internal pipeline to determine who its best players are and a “cherry-picking protocol” to find athletic youths, said Burton.
The team also might benefit from lax international participation rules that allow players with family ties to the country to become citizens, Schiller said.
“Can they import players from other places who are willing to change their citizenship?” Schiller said. “If I was in a country that had zero talent I would try to augment my players by importing them.”
Person said that Kim’s main motivation in publicizing Rodman’s most recent visit was as propaganda to show that great Americans, such as NBA stars like Rodman, are wiser than the U.S. leadership, though basketball will flourish as a result.
Another side effect is that North Korea’s people will be further introduced to another American institution -- capitalism, Burton said.
“Capitalism is based on winning and communism is based on everybody being equal, and when you push sport you ultimately create winners,” Burton said. “The very use of sport is going to introduce a whole lot of capitalism.”
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