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Long before Dennis Rodman traveled to North Korea, Ri Myong-hun was the dribbling diplomat.
Those having difficulty understanding how Dennis Rodman arrived in North Korea to meet with the Hermit Kingdom's dictator should know one thing: Kim Jong-un is obsessed with basketball.
He inherited that trait from his father, Kim Jong-il, who built basketball courts at his mansions and watched NBA games at all hours while ruling over the impoverished, reclusive nation.
In fact, long before Yao Ming starred in Super Bowl commercials with Yogi Berra—and way before “Linsanity”—a 7-foot-9 phenomenon named Ri Myong-hun was poised to become the first Asian-born player in the NBA.
“Basketball has played a very real role in the often bizarre, you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up backroom antics of US-Pyongyang diplomatic negotiations for 25 years,” North Korea observer and blogger, Nate Thayer, writes at NKNews.org.
Ri, who adopted the name Michael Ri in honor of Michael Jordan, was seen as a peace envoy/conquering hero around the time Rodman was winning NBA titles in the 1990s.
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Kim Jong-il was so convinced that Michael Ri could help thaw diplomatic relations while also proving to the world North Korea’s prowess that he sent the player to Canada in 1997 for special training.
The American government prevented any dealings with North Korea through its Trading with the Enemy Act. It meant Michael Ri couldn’t train in the United States or play in the NBA and draw a salary.
To skirt the rules and give Ri access to NBA scouts, the North Koreans created a sports agency, Thayer writes. Pyongyang hired legendary Canadian coach Jack Donohue (who mentored Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in high school) to tutor Ri in the Canadian capital of Ottawa, Ontario.
NBA teams showed great interest in Ri, who had enough talent to justify his earning a tryout.
It reached such a point that when the US and North Korea met to talk about nuclear weapons, basketball and Ri’s future in the NBA were part of the bargaining process.
The deal, however, fell through due to diplomatic wrangling and Ri’s was resigned to serving Dear Leader back at home.
So whatever happened to Michael Ri? Upon Kim Jong-il’s death in late 2011, the now 45-year-old Ri was spotted among rows of North Korean soldiers lining the parade route as the coffin slowly rolled past them.
Ri was easy to spot; he was the one towering over his comrades.
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