Korea’s got game

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Korea’s got game


Nam Jeong-ho

As a teenager, basketball was his faith, his dream and his life. It helped him make friends and was a source of comfort after he moved from Indonesia to Hawaii in the fifth grade. His first ball was a gift from his Kenya-born father whom he did not know and never saw again after a brief Christmastime visit.

Teammates on the Punahou School basketball team in Hawaii remember him as practically living at the gym, practicing his spins and shots. In the yearbook of an older high school classmate who wanted to be a lawyer, he wrote: “Good luck in everything you do, and get that law degree. Someday when I am all-pro basketball player and I want to sue my team for money, I’ll call on you. Barry.”

However, the adolescent known as Barry decided to try to make it to the White House instead of the NBA. He dropped Barry for Barack and went off to Occidental College, Columbia University and finally to Harvard Law School.

Yet he never stopped playing the game.

Coincidentally, Michelle Robinson’s brother, Craig, was a star forward at Princeton University when she was dating Barack Obama, a colleague at the law firm where she worked. She asked her brother to play some basketball with him and advise her if he thought he was serious-relationship material. Craig, who went on to coach at Brown and Oregon State University, gave him a thumbs-up: “He was quietly confident ... and certainly a team player. He passed when he was supposed to pass. That speaks to a lack of selfishness.”

If Obama had hogged the ball, Michelle likely never would have been first lady.

Obama’s love affair with basketball continued after he entered politics and even the White House. During his election campaigns, he maintained his routine of playing in a basketball on primary or general election days.

The last time he skipped a game was during the New Hampshire primary in 2009, which he lost to Hillary Clinton. Since then, election day hoops is a must, and he will gather up friends and staff, even the janitor, to make it happen.

Who’s on the court with the president often makes news. The media takes note who plays basketball with Obama as an indication of their closeness to the president. Regular roster names are Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a Harvard graduate who had played on an Australian professional team, and Obama’s secretary Reggie Love, who played for Duke University.

Mark Lippert, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s chief of staff and nominee to become the new U.S. ambassador to Korea, is a well-known basketball buddy of the president. Lippert has been a foreign policy adviser to Obama since he was a senator from Illinois and stayed on the campaign and transition team.

When Obama moved to the White House, he kept Lippert close to him on and off the court as a key staff member on the National Security Council.

South Korea has had some high-profile ambassadors from Washington during the Obama administration. Kathleen Stephens who served from 2008 to 2011, was the first American ambassador to Korea who spoke Korean (even had a Korean name). She taught English in South Chungcheong in the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer.

If he is confirmed, Lippert would replace Sung Kim, a Korean-born American, who will return to the Unitesd States before his term ends in August to become deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs.

The new ambassador will arrive with high expectations because of his direct access to both the president and the secretary of defense.

Lippert is said to be among the few who can call and meet with the president at any time of the day or night. He accompanied Obama on every overseas trip until he left the White House in 2009 to return to active duty in the U.S. Navy.

Frank Januzzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA who recently visited Korea, said Lippert is like a little brother to Obama.

In political significance, the appointment in Seoul carries more weight than the ambassadorship to Japan, where Caroline Kennedy, daughter of the late President John F. Kennedy has been serving since last year, he said.

What kind of ambassador will Lippert be in Korea? Januzzi said his career as an intelligence officer could play a big part. “He could seek to change North Korea by leaking information on the outside world to the North,” he said.

That’s would be perfect timing with the October release of “The Interview,” a comedy movie on the CIA’s scheme to assassinate Kim Jong-un.

Lippert, 41, is young, which actually raised concerns when he was nominated as assistant secretary of defense in 2011 at the age of 38. That also raises some concern for his older counterparts in South Korea, which is primarily a seniority-based society.

Diplomatic experts say the Korean Peninsula is being forgotten in the Obama administration due to crises in the Middle East. And yet, an ambassador who is like a brother to Obama is coming to Korea.

For the Obama administration, it could prove to be a good opportunity to reeneragize interest in its ally in Northeast Asia.

JoongAng Ilbo, July 11, Page 28

*The author is a senior reporter of international news at the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Nam Jeong-ho

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