South Korean basketball is cutting foreign players down to size

Image source, David Simon
Image caption,
Former Korean Basketball League player David Simon had to head back to the US

After South Korea's basketball league kicked out a foreign player for being too tall, news reports have since emerged of athletes desperately trying to shrink themselves.

A new height limit imposed on the sport has drawn both controversy and ridicule for its attempt to cut foreigners down to size.

What exactly happened?

The Korean Basketball League (KBL) recently angered fans when it announced a significant change in the rules.

Each team in South Korea can have only two foreign players. Starting with the 2018-19 season, one of these players must not be taller than 200cm (6ft 6in), while the other one cannot be taller than 186cm.

This meant that one of the country's most popular foreign players - an American called David Simon - had to leave. At 202.1cm, he had missed the cut-off by just millimetres.

"Just to be that close and not be able to make it, kind of stinks. Doesn't look like I'll be going back there to play unless they change the rule again."

Simon, who had topped the KBL in the previous basketball season, had to head home to the US, much to fans' chagrin. A petition was filed to the South Korean presidential office to abolish the KBL's height rules, and bring back Simon, reported Yonhap news.

Fans then took to social media to bid farewell to departing players.

Why has South Korea done this?

It's not the first time this has happened. In fact, Korea has had a height limit for foreign players since 1997, but this is the shortest that has ever imposed.

The KBL has maintained that it has to protect local players who, on average, cannot match the heights of foreign players, mostly Americans.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Athletes like Charles Rhodes have made the cut in South Korea, but not others

The league has also said the height limit will lead to better games with higher scores and a faster pace.

"We believe this new height restriction will revive the popularity of pro basketball in the country," KBL Secretary General Lee Sung-han told Yonhap.

Is South Korea alone in this?

The lack of extremely tall local players appears to be particularly acute in Asia, where for every Yao Ming (229cm) there are many more players of average height.

It's one reason why the basketball league in the Philippines has had for decades a 200cm height limit for foreign players, as "permitting American 7-footers to play would wreak havoc", reported Slate magazine.

The debate has long overshadowed the sport. Way back in 1957, Sports Illustrated magazine ran a discussion with both proponents and opponents arguing that either way, a height limit was discriminatory.

Image source, AFP
Image caption,
Chinese player Yao Ming is 229cm and a star in the US

"There are advantages and disadvantages both to being taller and shorter," Donyell Marshall, the men's head coach of basketball at Central Connecticut State University's Blue Devil Athletics, told the BBC.

"If you're taller you can score around the rim better, you can block shots and you can rebound. But smaller players can usually shoot better. They are faster and better dribblers."

So how do you shrink a basketball player?

It's a shadowy science. Yonhap reported that the South Korean teams tried lifting weights and jogging before measurement, hoping that dehydration could knock off a few centimetres.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when bouffant hairstyles were popular, Philippine teams would shave their foreign players' heads to battle height restrictions, reported Slate. Other methods employed over the years include doing shoulder presses and squats, with the idea that this could compress their bones.

If all else failed, some resorted to cheating - slouching, bending their knees ever so slightly, or leaning against the wall during measurement. But officials soon cottoned on - and simply measured the athletes while they lay flat on the ground.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The KBL has claimed the height limit will lead to better games with higher scores and a faster pace

Doctors say it's almost impossible to shrink your body.

First of all, there hasn't been much of a market for shrinkage, so there's hardly been any medical innovations.

"It's actually very rare... usually people want to grow taller and the technology has been there for that," says Dr Tan Chyn Hong, an orthopaedic surgeon and a former Singapore national athlete.

"If you want to lose a lot, there is no reasonable way to do that - short of chopping your bones."

But not all hope is lost.

"Non-surgically, there are things you can do to a very small degree," says Dr Tan.

"The discs in your spine are composed of water amongst other things, so for example, if you dehydrate yourself, you could perhaps lose a bit of height from the shrinking of the accumulated discs.

"I would say from doing that, and maybe also slouching a bit, it's possible to lose 1cm - but any more than that is very tough."

Reporting by the BBC's Andreas Illmer and Yvette Tan.