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World - Asia/Pacific

North Korean's hoop dreams a tall order

World's tallest man aims for NBA

Michael Ri
Ri is listed as the world's tallest man  
September 25, 1998
Web posted at: 2:14 p.m. EDT (1814 GMT)

In this story:

From Correspondent Mike Chinoy

PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN) -- Ri Myong-hun is a standout in more ways than one, but as he dreams of playing professional basketball in the United States, he faces an obstacle even bigger than he is.

Standing 7 feet, 8 1/2 inches (2.34 meters) tall, Ri towers above his fellow North Koreans and is the pillar of the communist country's national basketball team. He's also listed by the Guinness Book of World Records as the world's tallest man.

All of this would seem to make Ri, 29, a slam-dunk to join the National Basketball Association, home of the sport's best -- and highest paid -- athletes.

But his hoop dreams are fading, a casualty of a Cold War-style standoff between North Korea and the United States.

"I thought if I could play in the NBA, it would contribute to friendly relations between my country and the U.S.," Ri told CNN. "But my efforts have had the opposite effect."

Bid to play in NBA blocked by U.S.

Ri's shot at signing an NBA contract was blocked last year by the U.S. State Department.

Ri with teammates
Ri with his teammates  

A half dozen pro teams were interested. But Washington said such a step would violate the "trading with the enemy" law that bans U.S. companies from doing business with North Korea and its citizens.

"The NBA agreed for me to play, so did the U.S. Commerce Department," says Ri. "But the State Department waited for six months, and then said no. They wanted to use me for political purposes. So I just gave up."

According to U.S. officials, the central issue was money. Washington insisted none of Ri's salary could be repatriated to North Korea. The Pyongyang government refused to accept the American demand.

But Ri, who adopted the name Michael in honor of his hero, NBA superstar Michael Jordan, says money was never an issue for him. "I'm a big man. I want to test my ability. I am not interested in money or politics. As a sportsman, I just want to try."

Ri and Chinoy
Ri towers over CNN Correspondent Mike Chinoy  

A national hero in North Korea

For now, though, Ri is living in the capital city of Pyongyang, where he's a member of the North Korean army and a national hero.

His exploits are celebrated on North Korean TV. Even his wife and young son have become minor celebrities and his plight is said to have attracted the personal attention of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il.

"General Kim Jong Il wants to see me play in the U.S., but thanks to him, I also have a good life here, even without an NBA contract," says Ri. "Still, I am a top class athlete. I want to play in the NBA."

These days, however, meeting an American reporter is about as much contact as Ri has with the United States. While still in top shape, Ri knows that without change in the diplomatic arena, his ambition may never be fulfilled.

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