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An American team in North Korea

Three Valencia High basketball members were part of a trip to spread friendship through hoops to the

Posted: July 15, 2012 1:55 a.m.
Updated: July 15, 2012 1:55 a.m.

An American basketball team, featuring Valencia High coach Greg Hayes and former Valencia players Stevie Sansone and James Glass pose at various locations in North Korea,

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The moment the group of American basketball players and coaches stepped off the plane and began walking through the terminal at Sunan International Airport in Pyongyang, North Korea, they could feel the eyes of military guards upon them.


Valencia High assistant basketball coach Greg Hayes, who was the head coach for this trip, described it as “the look.”


“Tight lips. The narrowing of eyes. That look on your face like, ‘I hate you and I’m trained to kill you and I can do it right now,’” Hayes says.


That was the exception, though.


Hayes and a group of 13 others — including Valencia High graduates and former basketball players James Glass and Stevie Sansone — represented what was called the “Coaches Team.”


The team traveled to North Korea and stayed in the country for five days with hopes that basketball would tear down political barriers.


The original plan, which Hayes spoke to The Signal about in April, was to play college, club and professional teams.


Back then, the trip was called “Project uNKnown” (the N and K capitalized for North Korea), because no one in the group knew what exactly would happened.


By the end of the five-day trip, the team played only two games against young teams, including one against some of the most talented high school players in the nation, Hayes said.


The crowds weren’t large — less than 100 people at each game.


The North Koreans wished to mix the teams, so American players were playing alongside their North Korean counterparts.


Yet Hayes described the games as joyous.


“In retrospect, it was a great idea,” Hayes says of mixing the teams. “I can’t communicate well to them verbally, but you can communicate well to basketball players.”


He believed his team introduced the high-five to the North Koreans.


Before and after games, the Americans were led by a tour guide around Pyongyang.


Hayes says he heard repeated messages as to how the U.S. has been detrimental to the advancement of the North Koreans.


“They blame Americans for everything,” Hayes says. “But they distinguish between Americans and the American government. They seem to like the American people, but blame the American government.”


Hayes says when he communicated with people, he began to see a hardened exterior soften.


They’re not used to Americans.


The longtime Santa Clarita Valley coach, who was the head man at Canyon High from 1982 to 1996 and has been an assistant or co-head coach at Valencia since 2001, says he was told that only about 2,500 Americans have visited North Korea since 1953.


With tensions at a regular standstill between North Korea and the United States, the U.S. warns visitors to the country that there are strict entrance rules into North Korea and safety is not ensured.


But the group felt safe.


“There was no time at all where we feared for our safety,” Hayes says. “We were aware we were probably being watched, but the best part of the entire trip is the group of guys. It was a perfect group to represent the U.S. on this trip. We were close, intelligent, articulate, honoring and considerate. All those caused the North Koreans to embrace us.”


The coach was chosen by a man named Luke Elie, who organized the trip that cost nearly $50,000.


Elie is an American who plays professionally in South Korea.


Through a mutual contact, he knew of Hayes and asked him if we would coach the team.


Hayes brought Glass and Sansone to play with a group of players who had experience playing professionally in Asia.


But Sansone at first had to convince his parents — and himself.


“I was scared when coach Hayes first said (North Korea),” Sansone says. “I didn’t think it was possible for Americans to go there, especially with how high tensions have been with us and them. I asked him, ‘Are you sure you don’t mean South Korea?’


“My parents were freaked out when I told them. First I said we were going to China, and they said, ‘Great.’ Then I said, ‘Oh yeah, and North Korea.’ (They said), What? Let’s talk.’”


The 2010 Valencia High graduate, who played one varsity year at guard, says his parents were eased by the fact that Hayes would look after their son.


There was no such trepidation from Glass or his family.


He was born in Paris and now lives in Geneva.


The 2012 Valencia High graduate and two-year varsity center, has visited 25 different counties in his life.


Glass joined the group in China, where the team played some games and conducted clinics.


As exotic as that sounds, nothing compared to North Korea.


Glass says the one thing that stood out about the country was the propaganda.


There were pictures from street corner to street corner of North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un, who have ruled the country since its establishment in 1948 and are major reasons for its separatist ways.


Political and language barriers certainly divide Americans from North Koreans, yet Glass, Sansone and Hayes all say that they were treated warmly by the North Koreans.


They were seen as exotic, especially when they visited an amusement park in the country.


It was at that amusement park where Glass says he noticed the human side of the people that hasn’t normally been portrayed.


“It was interesting to see North Koreans in a playing mode,” Glass says. “I pictured North Koreans as sad people, but that’s not accurate. It was more packed than I’d ever seen an amusement park before.”


It was joy.


A scene also duplicated on the basketball court.


It has been reported that Kim Jong-il was a basketball fan who admired Michael Jordan.


His son, Kim Jong-un is also said to be a fan of the sport.


Hayes thought this was a way in — a way to, even if it was in a small way, make a show of peace and friendship.


The Valencia High coach says he sees a desire in the people to make peace.


“They have tremendous potential as people and as a country,” Hayes says. “You see it when you see the people.

Obviously communism hasn’t been effective elsewhere. They have good reasons in their mind why they turned to communism. The question is, is it good for them now? They feel a responsibility to build up their economy. To do that, they know they have to reach out for friendship. They openly talk of desire for friendship and peace.”


There were no words to describe this on the basketball court.


The players communicated through head nods and smiles.


And it worked.


Sports were a common bond that showed both groups that as much as they were different, they were also alike in many ways.


Scores didn’t matter, yet the stat freak that is Hayes noted how Sansone and Glass were scoring in bunches — 31 for Glass in one game and 26 for Sansone.


There was a lasting scene that symbolized to Glass just how effective the trip was.


After the last game, the Americans and North Koreans said their goodbyes.


The Americans emptied out their backpacks, which were full of candy bars, and handed them to the North Korean players and young children who were watching the game.


Glass was the last player out of the gymnasium.


While his teammates were aboard the bus, he trailed behind.


He looked back and saw the children standing on distant stairs.


They all waved goodbye to him.


“That was a strong emotional moment,” he says. “I felt like, ‘I shouldn’t leave you right now.’”


A month later, relations between the U.S. and North Korea haven’t changed.


Did anyone in the group think they would?


No.


But Hayes hoped they would.


He carries a lot of pride for what his team was able to do.


He didn’t want them to win games.


He wanted them to win hearts.


At the very least, the Americans and North Koreans could see eye to eye on one thing — basketball.


And that’s a start.

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