History in the Making: Basketball in North Korea

Luke Elie and his basketball team in North Korea.

Honestly, I’m not a huge sports fan. I don’t have a team that I follow nor is there a sport that I play regularly, although I did play varsity volleyball in high school but that was already six years ago. I’m just like any other average Korean when it comes to sports. Every two years I gear up to cheer for the Korean team competing in either the World Cup or the Olympics. And then when it’s over I go back to being pretty much oblivious to sports. The 2012 London Olympic Games are scheduled to begin on July 27th, but until then I thought I’d share an interesting sports story about a man named Luke Elie.

I first met Luke and the rest of the Elies when I moved to Dongducheon, South Korea and started fourth grade at International Christian School (ICS). Luke was a student five years older than myself and his father, Pastor Elie, was the principal of the school. (ICS teaches K-12) ICS Dongducheon eventually ended up merging with ICS Uijeongbu, a city just south of Dongducheon, and it was there that I also got to take classes under Luke’s sister, Sue. So I pretty much go way back with the Elie family. I even have yearbooks that the Elies have signed (I dug them out to reminisce of the younger years a little bit). I haven’t been able to keep in contact with them personally but through the wonders of Facebook, I have been able to occasionally get updated on their lives. So it was through a Facebook status update that I learned not too long ago that Luke was planning on visiting North Korea. As a basketball player. I was immediately intrigued.

I never got the chance to really get to know Luke because he was five years older but I do remember that he played basketball in high school. And as he still holds the school’s record as all-time top scorer, I don’t think many would disagree to say that he was good. He’s carried on his passion for basketball as a coach at different international schools in Korea for the past eight years. But this time he’s taken his passion further. All the way to North Korea.

Luke became interested in North Korea when he took a basketball team to China to play a series of games and soon he was contemplating a similar trip to North Korea. And that’s what he did. He brought together a team of players and moved to China a year ago to pursue those plans. Luke describes the trip as such: “Lining up a trip like this is not easy and it’s constantly changing. North Korea and the United States have never done anything like this before … and it’s not like North Korea is a popular vacation spot for Americans. That’s why we call this Project uNKown. We really have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Some of you may know that Kim Jong Il was a basketball fanatic. He was said to have recordings of every single one of Michael Jordan’s games. Previous Secretary of State Madeline Albright even gave him a basketball autographed by Michael Jordan, which Kim Jong Il apparently kept in the same room with all of his tapes of Jordan. And Kim Jong Un is not much different from his father when it comes to basketball. Classmates of KJU’s from his time in Switzerland say that KJU idolized Michael Jordan and that he even had a poster of Kobe Bryant in his room. I would say that this probably worked in Luke’s favor in actually making this trip happen.

Luke and his team began their five day trip to North Korea on Saturday, June 16th. It’ll be the first time in history that an American basketball team will visit North Korea. They don’t know who they will be playing, if they’ll have a crowd watching their game, or if Kim Jong Un will stop by to watch them play. What he does know is that “[sports] has the power to change the world in a positive way and you can’t put a price tag on that kind of opportunity. That’s what [this] trip is about.”

Stay tuned for an interview with Luke!

Photo Credit


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