North Korea’s exclusion from world politics does not 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 North Korean 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, although it has never fielded an Olympic basketball squad. With support from Kim, it would not 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 has not 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,” FIBA Asia secretary-general Hagop Khajirian 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 last year, 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,” former International Baseball Federation president Harvey Schiller said. “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 is not new, Person said.
Displayed inside a North Korean museum showing foreign leaders’ gifts is a Michael Jordan-signed basketball that former US secretary of state Madeline Albright gave former North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un’s father, while trying to arrange a visit by then-US president Bill Clinton, Person said.