Away Games, Or A Dispatch From The Korean Basketball League

Baseball is king in Korea, but basketball is basketball, anywhere on earth. That's enough to make anyplace feel like home.
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Photos by Eric Stinton

I’m not from a place where cold things happen without consent, but I live in one now. I am lucky, for that reason and others, to know Jay—that’s the Englishified version of Jong Il (yes, like Kim Jong Il)—and that Jay is sympathetic to the plight of a warm-weather waygook (foreigner) living in a blustery Asian city. I’m luckier still that he’s a basketball fan, and that he was willing to scoop me up from work to watch the showdown between Anyang KGC and the SK Knights in the Korean Basketball League. I hadn’t seen a live basketball game of any sort since college, but it is winter and Seoul is cold.

Inside the arena, starting small forward Yang Hee Jong stared at me from a phalanx of shiny pillars that greeted us, the faces and names of Anyang KGC players plastered across them in a Mercator distortion. I stared back at him, feeling a strange and sudden urge to bow. I was less sure how to engage with the pillar of foreign import Mario Little; the reflection of the bright lights in the room made it look like he was dribbling between his legs somewhere across the cosmos. For all I knew, that’s what it feels like for a former Kansas Jayhawk playing halfway across the world.

Up an escalator and outside the snack stand and gift shop, beside the gymnasium doors, was the pillar of Lee Jung Hyun. “He’s the ace,” Jay told me as we stopped to admire. Unlike the rest of the team, Lee Jung Hyun’s picture was all upper body, and his hand was propped up under his chin like a model. I bought myself a Lee jersey, because why wouldn’t you, and some fried chicken, because that always seems like the right thing to do. We went inside and found our seats. The game was about to begin.

***

The smell of chicken mu, a fermented Korean pickle meant to squelch the burn of spicy food, wafted through the aisles. The walls of the gym had English words and phrases like “speedy” and “go beyond the bounds!” written on them. The latter struck me as bad advice, but my mind didn’t linger on it too long; weird English catchphrases are a quotidian reality in Korea, and when courtside seats are just $20 USD, it’s unlikely that going beyond the bounds would involve spilling a drink on anyone too important.

Anyang got first possession, and the crowd broke out into a pleasant, polite applause. They passed the ball around the perimeter. Seoul SK settled back into a 2-3 zone, which seemed to stifle Anyang’s offense. Lee Jung Hyun, the ace, cut to the baseline and popped back up at the elbow, forcing the defense to bend in the middle. Another player took this as an opportunity to penetrate the lane, promptly dribbling the ball off his foot. Perhaps he was a bit too “speedy” for his own good, a touch too inspired to “Go beyond the bounds!” Basketball is hard on either side of the international dateline.

The game continued along like this for most of the first quarter. Slow halfcourt sets, zone defenses, guards inexplicably picking up their dribble, sloppy reach-in fouls, lots of picked-off lobs into the post, and enough cringeworthy missed layups to make high school coaches want to snap their clipboards. “They are just warming up,” Jay assured me, slightly embarrassed.

I wasn’t concerned. If the overall quality of play was somewhere around high-level Division II, with a few freebooting foreigners mixed in—teams are allowed two per roster, which is how Mario Little found himself involved—the crowd was far beyond that. A dedicated cheerleading squad was captained by a man dressed in what looked like Colonel Sanders’ evening wear, and he deftly switched between signs for “offense” and “defense” and “free throw.” His tireless screams, from the back of his throat and somewhere near the back of the stands, goaded and guilted the crowd into a steady wave of cheering. The response was better, or at least more unified, when female cheerleaders did their best one-minute K-Pop concert impersonation at the quarter break, while neon lights beamed every which way.

***

On the first possession of the second quarter, Anyang KGC sent the ball to their imported post player, the well-traveled—as in: Latvia, Korea, Spain, Turkey, back to Korea—Mississippi State product Charles Rhodes. At 6’8, Rhodes was the tallest person on the court by several inches, and pressed his advantage over Seoul SK’s 6’5 center Kim Woo Kyum. The crowd erupted in cheers when Rhodes palmed the rock, and stayed loud as his hook shot clanged off the front rim. It was then that I first noticed the computerized laser PEW! sound that accompanied every Anyang shot. It sounded like how the 2000s sounded in a 1980’s arcade, like a neon purple lightning bolt. It made sense, and it didn’t.

The game went on like this, unorganized and chippy and messed up in all the right ways. An older woman scooted through the bleachers passing out laminated sheets that you could fold into a fan. It looked like a handheld corrugated roof, and when you smacked it against your knee, it rang out in the same clapping noise that a heavy raindrop makes when it drops onto sheet metal. Before I knew it, it was monsoon season in the gym every time Seoul SK had the ball. It didn’t help the home team much. At halftime, Anyang KGC was trailing 51-41, and Lee Jung Hyun was not living up to my friend’s description as “the ace.”

The players were ushered off the court and the lights dimmed; the big screen keyed in on two people in the stands. It was a halftime show, but a little less familiar than what I expected. Half of the chosen pair was given a large bucket to hold on top of his head. The other, presumably his girlfriend, had one minute to fling shoes crosscourt into the bucket with her feet.

I cannot tell you where all the shoes came from, since the woman only wore two herself and neither of them were utilized. I can tell you that she tuckered out her partner with an impressive progression of less and less accurate shoe flings. The minute sounded. The man turned the bucket upside down to reveal exactly zero shoes inside, then promptly put the bucket over his head. The audience roared. The fairer half of the pair got some flowers; the bucket-wearing dude got some light cardio. And then we were back to basketball.

***

Lee Jung Hyun, ace that he is, was the first one out the locker room. You know what that means. He demanded the ball out the gate and launched a three. He missed, but the whistle blew. Everyone was up off their seats. A song echoed in the gym—a beat, really, lasting about seven seconds. The beat ended with a BOOM BOOM BOOM kick, which the crowd chanted LEE JUNG HYUN over top of. He banked the first free throw, and everybody cheered. I joined in, interlarding claps with “hey, we’ll take it!” kind of cheering. Supporting someone who banks a free throw makes me reflexively half-embarrassed for them; it couldn’t have been deliberate. The second attempt hit the backboard and went off the rim. He banked in the third. Root, root, root for the home team.

Whatever. Momentum was building, and I was getting wrapped up in it. I had no reason to support or oppose either team, at least not beyond my crisp new Lee Jung Hyun jersey. Shortly after, Mario Little went to the line. The crowd chanted WHOOMP MA-RI-O to the Tag Team beat. I was oddly relieved when he didn’t bank his free throws. Anyang KGC briefly took the lead in the third quarter, but Seoul SK ended the frame with a short run that put them ahead going into the fourth. This doesn’t matter, but it somehow did at that moment. The cheerleaders did a follow-along choreography before the fourth quarter, with the same thwacking laminated fans we had. It was trancelike, and our mimicry of rudimentary semaphore effectively whipped the crowd into a frenzy.

By the final frame of regulation, the goofy mistakes and terrible turnovers that had come to define the game were no longer a subject of concern. Lee Jung Hyun got fouled on two more three-pointers, and I found myself screaming LEE JUNG HYUN to his personalized beat. He banked all six of his free throws and I high-fived my fellow fans around me after each one. I was all-in, beholden to the adrenaline and in-the-moment imagination that makes the game what it is—ephemeral and essential, mythopoetic and mundane, an escape and a return. Anyang KGC tied it up at 87 apiece, and they had the final possession.

The shot-clock was off. Official ace Lee Jung Hyun had the ball. The crowd stood, hands on top of our heads, wanting to cover our eyes but knowing better. Laminated sheet-fans were gripped tightly, clenched like bite sticks in our fists. In a brief coming-up-for-air moment, I hoped only for a legitimate opportunity to arise. Please, I thought, don’t dribble off your knee or lob a pass over the backboard.

Lee passed through the full-court press and got the ball back a foot off the three-point line. He stutter-stepped and drove to the elbow, pulling up for a mid-range fadeaway. It was a beautiful move, straight out of Kobe’s playbook. The shot hit the backboard and the right side of the rim, falling into Seoul SK hands at the buzzer. We’d get another few minutes of meaningless and totally free-of-charge basketball.

If you’re keeping score, Anyang KGC went on to lose, 96-93. It was a decidedly uninteresting overtime, if I’m being honest, yet not at all a letdown.  The magic of the moment was only briefly felt and faded fast; I was already back in Regular Life—a stranger in a strange land, where the weather sucked. I moved with the herd outside, into the newly familiar winter cold in a Lee Jung Hyun jersey. It was different, and strange, but it was all right. If this was the new normal, it felt more than tolerable. It felt good. It was a basketball game, and so it was home.


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