Having a Ball

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Having a Ball

The two men are sitting in front of a couple of Samsung TVs on which an NBA basketball game between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Minnesota Timberwolves is being shown. Han Myung-jae and Choi Jun-han say a lot about each play, lean forward when the action gets intense and cry out when there's a slam dunk.

A guy's night out? No, there's no beer, there's no chips. Han works for the iMBC broadcasting network as one of Korea's two play-by-play sportscasters who do NBA games, while Choi provides the color. The other play-by-play man is Kim Dong-hyun, on iTV. "My motto," Han says, "is have fun with your best friend commentators."

On Wednesdays and Fridays at 10 a.m. or 11 a.m., iMBC does live broadcasts of pro basketball games off live feeds from the ESPN cable network in the United States. On Wednesdays, Han is flanked by Choi, who provides the color commentary. On Fridays, Lew Shin-mo assists. Han and his colormen work in a studio in the iMBC building, backed by a six-person production team installed one floor up. The sportscasters are usually in business attire, but occasionally Han gets permission from the producer to wear a sweatshirt. It sounds like a dream job, but don't tell that to Han. "It's the most difficult work," he says.

Han starts on Wednesdays and Fridays at 7 in the morning with a brush-up on the two teams who will pair off in the game he'll be calling. He tries to absorb as many statistics, facts and tidbits as he can about the squads, from their stars to their benchwarmers and their coach. At about 9:30 he goes in for makeup, clutching a worn-out copy of "The Official NBA Register" and marked-up printouts from from www.nba.com and www.cnnsi.com.

"Because I'm not sitting courtside, I have to be prepared for anything," Han explains. "We don't know firsthand what's going on." Indeed, he has to be alert, for he and his production team have no control of the shots; that's all up to ESPN. Sometimes the camera pans the audience before zooming in on a celebrity.

"I'm a big movie fan, but once they showed Tom Cruise wearing a ball cap and I didn't recognize him," he says. Another time there was a problem with the reception and the screen got all scrambled. Han had to ad-lib for a while, oblivious to the cause of the problem.

Han used to call the shots for Korean Basketball League games. Naturally, he finds that a lot easier because he can figure out who is who quicker. "When I'm doing play-by-play for the NBA, all I have is my monitor," he explains. "When I see a crowd of guys in the key it's not so unusual that I get a name or two wrong. Then viewers send me e-mails complaining that I mixed up the names again."

In the studio, as the 10 a.m. tip-off time approaches, Han puts in an earpiece and clips a mike to the front of his shirt. He turns to Choi. "I was in Memphis once to visit Graceland," he says. "It reminded me of Yeouido, with the Mississippi and the bridge spanning it." The television to their right shows ESPN. The television to their left shows them before a computer-generated background. "I suddenly missed Korea."

A big clock by the door counts down the minutes, and seconds to 10. Han and Choi practice their intros. "Good morning! This is the first time for our Korean audience to see a game broadcast from Memphis."

In the editing room upstairs, music booms as the starting lineup takes the court for warm-ups. The staff, featuring a whiz kid graphic designer whipping up visuals, watch a dozen screens. The producer leans in to his mike and tells Han to get ready. "Welcome to the NBA," Han says in his low voice.

"I always wanted to be on TV, but as a talk show host," Han, 29, says during a commercial break. "I never thought I'd be a sportscaster."

Han grew up in Daejeon. He became enamored with basketball while an undergraduate exchange student at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina, which he attended from 1994 to 1995. Back then, the Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen-led Bulls were rattling off a string of championship seasons. That helped make Han a big Jordan fan. When Han returned to Korea, he began broadcasting U.S. Major League Baseball in the summer of 1997. Spring of 1998, he started doing basketball, beginning with high school games, then graduating to college games, then to the KBL. Towards the end of the year, his boss told him he was ready for the NBA.

"When Jordan retired, I thought, there goes my chance to do his games," Han says. Nevertheless, he had mixed feelings this year when Jordan announced his second comeback try, with the Washington Wizards. "I wondered if he was making a mistake. Can he play at the same level?

Basketball has gained popularity on the peninsula, but it's still eclipsed by soccer, as a look at any sports newspaper confirms. "Basketball and soccer have nothing to do with each other," says the colorman Choi. "Most basketball fans are not soccer fans."

Han agrees. "Soccer? It's 90 minutes and you see one or two goals. In basketball, each team scores 100 points. It's more fun and energetic."


Who's who in hoops, Han-style


Michael Jordan

He's the whole reason I became a basketball fan. At 38 he is still a dominant player. He missed a game against San Antonio, the first game he has missed since 1993, due to a sore knee. But when he returned to play against the Houston Rockets, he led his Wizards to an 85-82 victory. He's unbelievable.

Los Angeles Lakers

They have the dynamic duo: Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. Kobe is averaging 26.5 points, and Shaq is averaging 25.9 points and 11 rebounds. The Lakers started the season with seven straight wins. Their first loss was to the Phoenix Suns, but they started another winning streak after that, and now they're 16-2, which is one of the greatest starts in NBA history.

Phil Jackson

The Laker coach and Zen master coached the Bulls through most of the '90s. He has been at the helm of 8 of the last 11 NBA champions. Before taking the Laker post, he took a year off. He didn't promise big things with the Lakers, but that's when the Lakers started to win big games. His team will be going for its third straight NBA title this year.

Kim Seung-hyeon

This KBL rookie is very talented, and plays like Jason Williams of the Memphis Grizzlies. When he joined the Tongyang Orions, the team was at the bottom of the standings. Now they're at the top.



Patrick Ewing

Ewing was once a great player, but he has slowed down a lot. While Michael Jordan is able to come back at his age, for Ewing at 39 it's questionable. If you look at his statistics, you see he is nowhere near where he used to be.

Chicago Bulls

They used to be my dream team. But the stars have all left. Tony Kukoc is with Atlanta now, and Steve Kerr and Scottie Pippen are with Portland. Tim Floyd is coaching and he has had three horrible seasons. The Bulls beat the Miami Heat recently, but they're still lousy.

Doug Collins

Collins used to be a good coach; he coached Jordan with the Bulls for three years. After he was fired he became a color commentator for NBC. Then he decided this year to return to coaching, with the opportunity to lead Jordan and the Wizards. Washington has some young talented players, but only one proven player: Jordan. Collins made the wrong decision to come back.

Shin Sun-woo

I cannot believe that Shin Sun-woo, coach of Jeonju KCC, dumped Johnny McDowell, one of KCC's two foreign players. McDowell, from the United States, was one of their best players. He's now with Incheon SK Bigs.

With McDowell, KCC won three of the last four league titles. But without him they've dropped to the bottom of the standings. Shin made a big mistake.

by Joe Yong-hee

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