Huber Heights native leading basketball team to North Korea

While most of the world — at least when comes to basketball — will be focused on AmericanAirlines Arena tonight as the Miami Heat take on the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 3 of the NBA finals, a more intriguing and much more historical basketball encounter — one involving a guy who calls Dayton his second home — will be taking place on the other side of the globe in virtual obscurity.

Luke Elie — the son of Darylene and Pastor Dr. Ronald Elie, who live in Huber Heights — is doing something that is thought to be a first. This weekend he’s scheduled to lead a team of Americans into North Korea to play a series of basketball games there.

Although U.S. State Department press officer Laura Seal said she could not confirm that this was the first American team ever to travel to North Korea since the Korean Peninsula was divided so contentiously following World War II, Elie believes his team is the first to make such a journey and The Korean Times has reported the group will be the first American hoops team to visit North Korea.

According to CNN, since 1953 fewer than 2,500 Americans have entered North Korea. It’s the most isolated nation in the world and has never been that hospitable to outsiders — especially Americans.

On its website the U.S. State Department has a stern warning when it comes to North Korea: “Even with proper documentation visitors are subject to arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.”

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Running afoul with authorities can come quite easily, the State Department added: “Security personnel may also view any unauthorized attempt you make to talk to a North Korean as espionage.”

And an April rocket launch by North Korea further heightened tensions with South Korea and the United States. North Korea claimed it was an attempt to put a satellite in orbit, but Washington, D.C., and Seoul condemned it as a ruse meant to test the banned technology of its long-range missile system.

At that time Peter Beck from the Asia Foundation in Seoul told The Korean Times that he thought it might be best for Elie’s trip to be put on hold: “I am afraid that it is not the right time for such an event even though I recognize the importance of sports and cultural exchange. As tensions escalate around the Korean Peninsula it might create inappropriate implications to the North and the international community.”

Both the 30-year-old Elie, who organized the trip and is one of the players, and Greg Hayes, the former UCLA assistant and noted international basketball instructor who will coach the team, disagreed. Although they acknowledged the situation was delicate they stressed that “sports exchange is separate from the political situation.”

And more than most people, Elie understands the situation in Korea.

He knows the language, the political landscape and he especially knows — “and loves,” his parents say — the people.

For three years his father was a school administrator and pastored an English-speaking church in Tonguchon just south of the DMZ. Luke graduated from nearby International Christian School in Uijongbu, where he remains the school’s all-time leading scorer in basketball.

After attending college in the U.S., he returned to South Korea, where he taught and coached for eight years until he moved this past year to Beijing to run basketball camps and recruit players and navigate the red tape for a basketball tour of North Korea.

With permission granted and visas in hand, Elie and the other players — most of them young coaches in Asia who have played college basketball — went through a two-day training camp in Beijing. Although the situation with North Korea has remained fluid and Elie said plans could always be changed on them at the last second, the American players were to begin their 5-day trip Saturday with a flight from Beijing for Pyongyang.

There is no public Internet access in North Korea and cellphone communication is severely restricted.

During services last Sunday at his church — Faith Community Church in Grove City — Pastor Elie said he called his son in China and put him on the speaker phone so the entire congregation could hear and talk to him:

“We prayed for him and sang to him — we had a great time. I figured that would be the last we’d hear from him until the trip was over.”

A couple of days later I did manage to reach Luke by email and he told me a little about his venture.

“Lining up a trip like this is not easy and it’s constantly changing,” he wrote. “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 uKNown. We really have no idea what’s going to happen.”

Around the world

One thing his dad knows won’t happen today.

“For maybe the first time ever I won’t be getting a Father’s Day call from him,” Pastor Elie said.

Darylene said it would have to be a secluded place like North Korea for one of the four Elie kids not to contact them on a day like this.

“I remember one Mother’s Day I had four calls from four different countries,” she chuckled. “The world is pretty small to us.”

As a young woman, Darylene volunteered in Haiti and over the years her husband has done evangelical work in Haiti, Jamaica and Mexico and has preached in China.

The couple’s children have equally embraced the world.

Sue, who with husband Paul adopted two children from Siberia and now lives in Darke County, once taught in Korea and then worked in Mongolia. Bethany, who has worked in Afghanistan and still lives in Korea, is visiting Huber Heights this weekend with husband Paul and their new baby. The youngest daughter Faith has studied abroad in Lithuania.

As for Luke he’s a much beloved teacher and coach in Korea, a grassroots preacher and an all-out basketball junkie who is said to flash some of the same type of on-court showmanship that Meadowlark Lemon once did.

“Since he was a little boy — when I made him play the violin — he’s been a showman,” Darylene said with a laugh. “He was a little stinker. When he was little, we’d dress him up in a cowboy outfit and he’d play ‘I’m A Christian Cowboy’ in church.”

Darylene, the girls and Luke also performed on Uncle Charlie’s Bible Hour which, her husband said, aired “on every Christian station around the world.”

By the time Luke was 13, though, “basketball won out,” Darylene said.

He played collegiately at Great Lakes Christian College in Lansing, Mich., transferred to Spring Arbor University, from which he graduated, and then headed straight back to South Korea. Five years ago he took a basketball team to China to play a series of games and soon he was contemplating a similar trip to North Korea.

“His secretary in Korea married a North Korean who escaped and he told him how he’d been taught his whole life to hate Americans,” Darylene said. “Luke’s goal is to try to help change those perceptions and show we are not hateful and mean people. He wants his team to be kind and respectful and show good sportsmanship and maybe it will begin an embrace of people from North Korea and America.

“Wasn’t it Nixon who took the ping pong group to China and got things started?”

That Ping Pong diplomacy, as it was called, began in April of 1971 when table tennis teams from the U.S., Canada, England and Colombia visited Peking for 15 days of friendly competition. Ten months later Richard Nixon became the first U.S. president ever to set foot on Chinese soil and the thaw between the two nations began.

Basketball junkies

North Korea is plagued by a lot of problems these days.

In an attempt to derail its unsupervised nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, the U.N. Security Council imposed sanctions against the country after its first nuclear test in 2006 and even more so after a second test three years later.

A little over three weeks ago Amnesty International reported that 30 North Korean officials involved in talks with South Korea were either executed or died in staged auto accidents last year. Another 200 people were rounded up in January and placed in political prisons, which are said to house over 200,000 people.

Then just a couple days ago, the United Nations announced that over one million North Korean children “are not getting the food, medicine or health care they need to develop physically or mentally, leaving an entire generation stunted or malnourished.”

All this is especially sensitive to the North Korean government which wants to portray stability as Kim Jong-un settles in as president following the December death of his father Kim Jong-il.

Not much is known about the new 28-year-old president except that he’s said to have the same over-the-top passion for basketball that his father had.

To say the 5-foot-2 Kim Jong-il was hoops mad is an understatement. He was a huge Michael Jordan fan, so much so that during a visit to Pyongyang in October of 2000, then U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright gave him a basketball autographed by Jordan, which he’s said to have added to a video library of nearly every game Jordan ever played.

Kim Jong-il — as reported in Pyongyang’s official Chongnyonjunwie newspaper — even instituted a new scoring system for basketball. Three-pointers that swished nothing but net were worth four points. Dunks were worth three, missed free throws subtracted a point and baskets made in the last two seconds of a game were worth eight points.

In response to previous malnourished reports, North Korea also claimed that children who played basketball were 1 to 2 inches taller than kids who didn’t play the sport because the game “activates hundreds of millions of brain cells per second” when players make on-court decisions.

As for Kim Jong-un, he attended a prep school in Switzerland under an assumed name and students who knew him there have said he too idolized Jordan. He also had a Kobe Bryant poster on his wall, constantly played NBA basketball on his PlayStation and had photos of himself with Bryant and the Chicago Bulls’ Tony Kukoc from games that the pair played in Europe.

Elie doesn’t know if Kim Jong-un will catch some of their games or be fixated on the Heat and Thunder. He said he really has no idea what to expect or even who his teams will play.

“They’re not even sure if they’ll play in front of any audiences or not,” Darylene said.

Her husband said “they were told they couldn’t shake hands with spectators. Whether that extends to the North Korean players, too, they’re not sure. But regardless of that — just the way they conduct themselves in the games — they can show respect and friendship.”

His son was of a similar mind-set the other day:

“I love the NBA ... and the other morning we even skipped our morning training to eat an American breakfast in an American restaurant in Beijing — but only because they had a big screen TV and we could watch Game One of the Finals live,” he wrote. “Go Thunder!”

But he also knows there’s far more to the sport than just NBA glory.

“Basketball has the power to change the world in a positive way and you cannot put a price tag on that kind of opportunity,” he said. “That’s what our trip is about.”

And to that you can only say:

“Go Luke!”

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