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Along with soccer, basketball is enormously popular in North Korea, where it’s not uncommon to see basketball hoops set up in hotel parking lots or in schoolyards. It’s a game that doesn’t require much equipment or upkeep.
The U.S. remains Enemy No. 1 in North Korea, and North Koreans have limited exposure to American pop culture. But they know Michael Jordan, a former teammate of Rodman’s when they both played for the Chicago Bulls in the 1990s.
During a historic visit to North Korea in 2000, then-U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright presented Kim Jong Il, famously an NBA fan, with a basketball signed by Jordan that later went on display in the huge cave at Mount Myohyang that holds gifts to the leaders.
North Korea even had its own Jordan wannabe: Ri Myong Hun, a 7-foot-9 star player who is said to have renamed himself "Michael" after his favorite player and moved to Canada for a few years in the 1990s in hopes of making it into the NBA.
Even today, Jordan remains well-loved here. At the Mansudae Art Studio, which produces the country’s top art, a portrait of Jordan spotted last week, complete with a replica of his signature and "NBA" painted in one corner, seemed an odd inclusion among the propaganda posters and celadon vases on display.
An informal poll of North Koreans revealed that "The Worm" isn’t quite as much a household name in Pyongyang.
But Kim Jong Un was a basketball-crazy adolescent when Rodman was with the Bulls, and when the Harlem Globetrotters kept up a frenetic travel schedule worldwide.
In a memoir about his decade serving as Kim Jong Il’s personal sushi chef, a man who goes by the pen name Kenji Fujimoto recalled that basketball was the young Kim Jong Un’s biggest passion, and that the Chicago Bulls were his favorite.
Associated Press writer Matthew Pennington in Washington contributed to this report. Follow Lee, AP’s bureau chief for Pyongyang and Seoul, at twitter.com/newsjean.
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