Mark Zeigler of the San Diego Union-Tribune had a very interesting article today about North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il's incredible passion for the NBA:
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. The NBA season, after all, opens Tuesday night in Miami and Los Angeles.
Interestingly enough, Tony Ronzone, the Pistons director of basketball operations who's also one of the league's most connected international scouts, has traveled to North Korea several times to put on coaching clinics:
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."
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."
Ronzone was also working as a scout for the Dallas Mavericks at the time, and part of the motivation for his travels was to catch a glimpse of a talented 7-foot-8 prospect named Ri Myung Hun. Kim eventually allowed Ri to work out for NBA scouts, but he was ultimately denied a chance to sign with an NBA team due to political posturing between the U.S. and North Korea.
With any luck, the NBA might not have to miss out on the next great prospect that develops north of the 39th parallel:
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. [Bob Carlin, former chief North Korea analyst for the CIA and State Department], 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."
The oddest fan [San Diego Union-Tribune]