World's tallest player
Ri stands out, packs stadium in Seoul
Posted: Thursday December 23, 1999 04:02 PM
At 7-9, Ri Myung Hoon would be the tallest player in NBA history -- if he ever arrives in America. AP
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- North Korean basketball star Ri Myung
Hoon hardly ever hung in the air. And he didn't get very many
But the 30-year-old player mesmerized the 13,000 fans packed in
Seoul's Chamsil Gymnasium with his shy smiles.
At least during the game, a half century of political tensions
in the divided Korean Peninsula seemed forgotten.
Standing seven-nine (2.35 meters), Ri is the world's tallest
basketball player. He is two inches (5 centimeters) taller than
Manute Bol, the tallest player ever in the NBA.
The crowd gasped and chuckled as the northern giant ran -- or
either strolled -- in striding steps and dunked the ball, his feet
hardly leaving the floor.
"He is too tall. It looks as if he came from another world,"
said an awestruck 10-year-old Noh Yon-hee.
Ri was the definite standout in the so-called "unification
basketball matches," an intensely ballyhooed event in which
basketball teams from North and South Korea mixed their players for
two goodwill matches in Seoul.
It marked the first time in nine years that communist North
Korean athletes played in the capitalist South. The South Korean
players in the goodwill games are from Hyundai, a conglomerate
trying to expand business in North Korea.
South Korea has been trying to engage the isolated communist
state through economic, sports and other exchanges. North Korea is
slowly opening after years of famine, bad weather and economic
mismanagement forced it to seek outside food aid.
Officials hope the matches will ease animosities between the
countries that divided in 1945 and are still technically at war
after the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a shaky truce.
In South Korea, where the average adult is five-foot-seven (1.70
meters), more attention has been paid to Ri's stature than to the
political significance of the game.
Ri literally towered over the rest of his team. People burst
into laughter when Ri held up the ball and other players jumped and
tried in vain to intercept the ball.
Despite the sinister stereotypes about the Stalinist reclusive
state as secretly developing nuclear weapons, Ri came off as an
endearing athlete. He is already a superstar in North Korea and has
drawn interest from the NBA.
In the first women's match, a team dubbed "danhap," or
"uniy," beat "dankyol," or "solidarity," 133-125.
In the following men's game, unity routed solidarity 141-138.
Ri, who played 21 minutes, led solidarity with 26 points, while
fellow North Korean Park Chun Jong scored 30 points for unity.
The Koreas play for real competition Friday -- without mixing
Still, spectators cared little about the scores.
"It's really good to see the North Koreans playing in Seoul,"
said Kim Young-hee, 44, a Seoul housewife. "If we meet more often,
we will better understand each other."
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