Flashbacks to the All-Pyongyang Basketball League
Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team — no one more important than the other. — Coach Norman Dale, ‘Hoosiers’
Like Indiana, Pyongyang is located on flat ground — ‘Pyongyang’ literally means ‘flat land’ — and like Indiana, Pyongyang has long been a regional centre of basketball. Long before our man Dennis Rodman visited North Korea, there was the All-Pyongyang Basketball League.
In the winter of 1930, Soongshil Technical School and the Pyongyang branch of the Donga Ilbo newspaper sponsored the first All-Pyongyang Basketball League Competition to be held over the following three months on seven Saturdays as an eight-team round robin tournament.
The results of the first day of competition on Saturday 29 November 1930 were as follows:
The Clovers 20 — 15 Soongshil Technical
Pyongyang Foreigners’ School 23 — 2 The Geese
Soongshil High A Team 57 — 16 YMCA
Soongshil High B Team 18 — 16 Hwasong Team
A week later on Saturday 6 December 1930, the teams faced off again for the second round of games:
Soongshil High B Team 29 — 9 Pyongyang Foreigners’ School
The Clovers 14 — 11 Hwasong Team
YMCA 22 — 11 Soongshil Technical
Soongshil High A Team 49 — 12 The Geese
The dominance of the Soongshil A and B squads would become a hallmark of the tournament. The two teams faced off on 17 January 1931 with the A team defeating the B team 32 to 19. The other results for the day were:
YMCA 14 — 13 The Clovers
Hwasong Team 34 — 5 The Geese
Soongshil Technical 21 — 12 Pyongyang Foreigners’ School
The 6th day of tournament held on January 24th proved to be an exciting one, despite the early and expected triumph of Soongshil A over Soongshil Technical in a ‘brotherly match’.
The Geese, one of the weakest teams in the tournament, unexpectedly made a strong showing holding a lead over the Clovers until the final four minutes. The Donga Ilbo described the performance of the Clovers as ‘dull’ despite their eventual victory.
In the next game of the evening, fans of the Pyongyang Foreigners’ School and the Hwasong Team turned out en force to support their respective sides in this ‘international match’. The foreigners started strong in the first half outscoring their opponents 12-1, but ultimately succumbed to a spirited counterattack in the second half. (The introduction of a future North Korean novel — The Basketball Coach — would describe the difficulty of Korean teams in defeating foreigners — the authors were obviously not up to speed on their Pyongyang basketball history.)
For the final game of the evening, the Soongshil B squad narrowly defeated the YMCA 12-11.
The results of the final day of the tournament were as follows:
The Covers 17 — 12 Pyongyang Foreigners’ School
Soongshil B 20 — 12 Soongshil Technical
YMCA 15 — The Geese 12
Sungshil A 34 — 7 Hwasong
It seems the Clovers were able to rebound from their near lost the week prior, while Hwasong was not able to duplicate their strong showing against the strength of the Soongshil A squad, which went undefeated throughout the tournament. The final standings were as follows:
Soongshil A 7 W, 0 L (1.000)
Soongshil B 6 W, 1 L (0.857)
Hwasong 4 W, 3 L (0.572)
The Clovers 4 W, 3 L (0.572)
YMCA 3 W, 4 L (0.429)
The Pyongyang Foreigner’s 2 W, 5 L (0.286)
Soongshil Technical 1 W, 6 L (0.143)
The Geese 1 W, 6 L (0.143)
The top scorers for the tournament were: Kim Song Bong (Soongshil A) with 76 points, Park Yong Ryong (Soongshil A) with 68 points, Ui Hye Dok (Soongshil B) with 61 points, and Ra Sun Gwan (Soongshil A) with 58 points.
Today, basketball remains a popular sport in North Korea and Pyongyang. The American basketball film Hoosiers — set in 1953 during the last year of the Korean War —is even used as an English-learning material at some universities.