No. 23 and basketball in northern Korea
North Korean basketball’s Michael Jordan
In the world of basketball, the No. 23 is legendary. Even in North Korea.
The most famous North Korean basketball player, the 7’ 8.5” (2.35 m) Ri Myung Hun (리명훈), goes by the English name ‘Michael’. And at the International Friendship Exhibition at Mount Myohyang, there is a basketball singed by Michael Jordan, presented to leader Kim Jong Il by US Secretary of State Madeline Albright.
And sixty years before the Chicago Bull’s first NBA championship season in 1991, a No. 23 was part of the ‘Freedom Team’ from Sungshil Technical School that won the Second All-Pyongyang Basketball League Tournament (전평양롱구련맹전 | 全平壤籃球聯盟戰）of 1931. The team was made up of fifth-year students and went undefeated (8-0) in the tournament against other teams from the same school and across the city, including the YMCA and resident foreigners (양인 | 洋人) of Pyongyang .
The Donga Ilbo published a photo of the ‘Freedom’ team and the championship cup on 15 December 1931. Their tallest player (at right) wears the No. 23 jersey.
Today basketball is still popular among North Korean youth, the army, and even agricultural workers. Perhaps it is just a matter of time before we see the next North Korean Michael Jordan.
Koryo Tours has helped to arrange basketball exchanges between the DPRK and USA with Coaches Team International a sports-oriented non-profit.
Photo from the Donga Ilbo via Naver News Library.