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The North Korean basketball game they don’t want you to see

Posted May 31, 2013, at 7:59 a.m.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gestures during a ceremony marking the 81st anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Army (KPA) at the plaza of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang April 25, 2013.
KCNA | Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un gestures during a ceremony marking the 81st anniversary of the founding of the Korean People's Army (KPA) at the plaza of the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun in Pyongyang April 25, 2013. Buy Photo

It’s a surreal scene: three Harlem Globetrotters, in red, white, and blue jerseys, performing ball-handling tricks to their signature cheerful whistling song — in front of a stadium full of North Koreans dressed mainly in gray.

As the demonstration starts, the applause from those in the stadium sounds distinctly apathetic. But by the end, the North Korean spectators seem to have been genuinely won over — particularly after a Globetrotter pulls a young woman out of the audience and places a spinning basketball on her extended finger.

Footage of the now-famous basketball exhibition game — all 1 hour 32 minutes of it — that brought Dennis Rodman to the Hermit Kingdom back in February (and won him a friend, in Kim Jong Un, for life) was briefly posted on YouTube this week for what appears to be the first time by Uri Tours, the U.S.-based tour group that helped arrange Rodman’s visit. Uri Tours says the footage is from North Korea’s news agency KCNA — obtained, according to Chief Operations Officer John Dantzler-Wolfe, through the tour group’s connections with the news agency.

But alas, the debut was short-lived. The video was taken down this week at the request of Vice media company, Dantzler-Wolfe said. He added that Uri Tours and Vice will be discussing use of the footage soon, after which the video could potentially be made public again.

Vice, which helped arrange Rodman’s trip to North Korea, will be airing a show about the bizarre experiment in basketball diplomacy on HBO on June 14.

In the meantime, FP managed to catch a sneak peek of the video before it was set to private.

In introducing the Globetrotters, the announcer explains in English that “the team was formed by blacks in Chicago in 1926.” (I don’t know Korean, so I can’t speak to what was said outside of the commentary delivered in English.)

The first point of the game is scored by a North Korean: he swishes it from outside the three-point-line, which gives him three points (this might seem obvious, but it clears up the mystery about whether the game was played by U.S. or North Korean rules.)

No one appears to play any defense.

Vice correspondent Ryan Duffy, who participated in the game, doesn’t exactly come across as the second coming of Michael Jordan. In the one moment I caught in which he had the ball, he chucked it into a Globetrotter’s knees while trying to execute a pass. But he did make at least one shot that made it into the halftime highlight reel.

The red team has a sizeable lead the whole game — often in the 20-point range — but the game still somehow ends in a 110-110 tie.

The footage includes a short speech by Dennis Rodman in front of the packed stadium, during which he delivers his famous “friend for life” line. At the end of the speech, the crowd erupts. The Globetrotters look pleased, and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un is given a Globetrotters jersey.

We’re hoping that the full game gets put back up. But in the meantime, you can get your North Korean basketball fix with a video — also from Uri Tours — of mixed scrimmaging in an empty stadium that includes both Globetrotters and North Korean players.

You can also catch some of the Globetrotters’ pre-game demonstration. Alas, the video cuts off before the game itself gets started.

 Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer is a writer for Foreign Policy.

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