Joint team takes basketball silverIt may not have seemed like such a good fit at first. Could nine South Koreans compete in women’s basketball alongside three North Koreans at the Asian Games after only a couple of weeks together? South Korea was trying to win its second straight gold in Jakarta, but would these North Korean players get in the way?
By exceeding expectations to win the silver medal here, the unified team proved that bringing the players together was well worth the gamble.
Talks on assembling unified teams at the Asian Games picked up pace in late April following the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. In their joint declaration, they said they agreed to demonstrate their collective wisdom, talents and solidarity by jointly participating in international sports events, such as the 2018 Asian Games.
Basketball seemed to be a logical choice, as Kim is a well-known fan of the game. The discrepancy in talent between the two Koreas was considered smaller on the women’s side than on the men’s.
And unlike the joint hockey team at the PyeongChang Olympics in February, the basketball squad here received important contributions from its North Korean members.
Center Ro Suk-yong was the team’s most complete offensive player - and one of the very best in the entire tournament. When the two Korean teams met for friendly games in Pyongyang in early June, South Korean head coach Lee Moon-kyu was so enamored with Ro’s game that he immediately knew he’d pick her as one of three North Koreans.
Lee put Ro into the starting lineup for all seven games. Despite being undersized at 182cm (6 feet), Ro more than made up for it with her smarts, agility and perimeter shooting.
Ro is so versatile that when she grabs a defensive rebound, she can dribble the length of the court and finish her own fast break with a layup - all the while looking perfectly athletic and fluid.
Throughout the tournament, Ro fooled taller centers with her quick steps and made mid-range jumpers over them. She was also a deadly passer from the top of the key and often showed great vision, cutting to the basket through a slim opening and setting herself up for easy layups.
One other North Korean player, Jang Mi-gyong, was a backup point guard. She proved to be an old-school type of floor general, with a pass-first, defend-second, shoot-later mindset.
The feisty on-ball defender was fearless when driving to the basket as she emerged as a key member of coach Lee’s second unit.
On-court chemistry was hardly an issue for the team. Ro and Kim Han-byul, the half-Korean forward born in the U.S., often stretched and warmed up side by side before games and played well off each other during play as a low-post combo. Captain Lim Yung-hui, from South Korea, provided a steady veteran presence when Korea was in danger of blowing leads or was trying to rally from deficits.
Lim’s savvy blended in nicely with the youthful energy of players like Park Ji-hyun, an 18-year-old point guard who showed the play-making skills of a seasoned veteran. Shooters like Kang Lee-seul and Park Hye-jin also enjoyed fine tournaments.
China proved to be too much for Korea in the gold medal game, but the loss did little to diminish the effort the dozen Korean players had put in over the past two weeks.