Basketball (Non-)Diplomacy



It’s an hour until tip off on Final Four weekend, and I’ve got basketball on the brain, so instead of posts on the size of the North Korean army and the possibly rising costs of unification let’s think about a case of could-have-been, the little known case of Ri Myong-hun, aka Michael Rhee.

At 7’9”Ri/Rhee was “one tall dude” as a fellow basketball junkie once put it. In 1997 he got as far as Canada, working out for potential NBA suitors, but his bid for the big time was a casualty of politics: the State Department demanded that, as a condition for approving the necessary visa, none of his salary be repatriated to North Korea (which would have been a violation of the Trading With the Enemy Act). The North Korean government refused to accept the condition.

Whether he would have made it if given the chance is another story. Yao Ming he was not. Although he had the requisite size, his basketball skills were reportedly questionable, not in the league of his reputed namesake Michael Jordan. Nevertheless, there is a long and honorable history of NBA “projects,” the late Manute Bol and Gheorghe Muresan spring to mind, and perhaps Ri/Rhee could have joined the line.

Oddly enough, at times in their professional careers, both Bol and Muresan played for the Washington Wizards nee Bullets. (And even more oddly I happened to meet each of them in non-basketball contexts.  Both seemed like nice enough guys.  Manute tried to do a lot for south Sudan before his untimely death.)  Ping-pong diplomacy? We missed a shot at basketball diplomacy.

Go Butler. Go VCU.

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