Meet the foreign star of Korean basketball

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Meet the foreign star of Korean basketball

Johnny McDowell steals the ball at mid-court and takes off for the the basket. Two opposing players give chase, but to no avail; McDowell is simply too quick and powerful. He punctuates the play with a rattling, emphatic one-handed slam dunk, bringing the crowd to its feet. As he trots back on defense, the song "Heart of the City" by the American rapper Jay-Z blasts from the speakers at Bucheon Gymnasium, west of Seoul. The home crowd enthusiastically bangs together long, orange cheering balloons. McDowell jiggles his shoulders to the music.

Nobody would mistake a Korean Basketball League game for North America's National Basketball Association. Still, McDowell, a 194-centimeter (6 foot 4 inch) swingman from Alabama playing for the Incheon-based SK Bigs, is a KBL star. In fact, he is the league's most famous foreign player. He is so popular that "Heart of the City," his signature song, blares whenever he makes a spectacular play.

The fame puzzles McDowell. "As soon as I walk out a door, people rush toward me for autographs," he says while seated on his couch in the Bucheon apartment he shares with his team's other American, Earl Ike.

People want McDowell's autograph because he has become a fixture in the Korean basketball world. While other foreign players come and go like tourists, McDowell, 31, is in his fifth season with the KBL. He arrived on the peninsula after being drafted by the Hyundai Gullivers in 1997, the league's inaugural season.

"I was playing in Cyprus when I heard about Korea," McDowell explains. "An American friend, who was just starting out as an agent, told me about this KBL tryout that was set up in Philadelphia that summer. I decided to go for it."

After the tryout, Hyundai made him the19th of 20 foreigners picked in the new league's draft. He's been here ever since.

The KBL consists of 10 teams: the SK Bigs, Samsung Thunders, SK Knights, SBS Stars, Tongyang Orions, Mobis Automons, Sambo Exers, LG Sakers, KCC Egis and Korea Tender Purumi. Two of the teams play in Seoul, and the rest in other cities across the peninsula. The Bigs are technically based in Incheon, but play their home games in Bucheon, which is between Seoul and Incheon. Each team plays a 54-game regular season from November to mid-March. Playoffs follow until the season ends in mid-April.

Fan interest in the league is lukewarm; the average game attendance in the 1998-99 season was 3,217. The figure edged up to 3,432 in 1999-2000 and 3,529 last year. Though the attendance numbers are modest, more than 80 percent of the games are televised.

Each KBL team team is allotted two foreign players - this year, all 20 are American - selected from a draft held after the annual summer tryout camp in the United States. All of the foreign players drafted sign a six-month $60,000 contract that keeps them in Korea from September to at least March.

Since its inception, the KBL has hosted American players just out of college who can't quite make the grade in the NBA's minor league, or journeymen who have put in their time in European leagues or in South America.

McDowell is a journeyman, and well-traveled. He played his college ball at the University of Texas at Arlington. After he graduated in 1993, he spent time with the Miami Tropics of the United States Basketball League, a summer alliance for players hoping to catch the eye of an NBA scout. McDowell failed to get noticed, but an American agent got him signed on with a Spanish team. From 1994 to 1996 he played for Gijon, a city in northern Spain, and in his second season he helped the team take the Spanish league title. But Gijon dropped him afterward. He was bitter, but in time realized that it was purely a business decision on the part of the Spanish team. Now he says he has only fond memories of playing in Spain.

Off the court, McDowell, quiet by nature, likes to just stay indoors and relax. Once in a while he'll catch a movie or go eat out with his roommate, Earl Ike. In the off-season, McDowell lives in Atlanta with his wife Kristy. The couple are expecting their first child next month.

So what does McDowell like about Korea? Local food, for one: "My favorite is seasoned galbi (beef ribs). I love it." His eyes widen, and he decides on the spot to go to his favorite restaurant, located two blocks from his Bucheon apartment. When he enters the galbi joint, called Yihagmyunok, a waitress recognizes him right away and gives a hearty greeting. As McDowell takes a seat, the busy lunchtime crowd commences murmuring. A celebrity! McDowell speaks a little Korean, but all he needs to say here is "galbi."

A young boy at the next table shyly comes over and asks for an autograph. When McDowell obliges, the boy smiles. So does The Tank.

For information on Korean Basketball League games, call 02-420-4221.

Versatility keeps 'The Tank' rolling

After playing in Spain, McDowell hooked up with a team in Cyprus, where he played thee months. He followed that with a three-month stint in Portugal. Then he landed in Korea.

McDowell led Hyundai to the championship finals in his first two seasons, with the team winning the series both years. He averaged 27 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists his first year, 24 points, 13 rebounds and 4 assists the next.

"The feeling of winning the last game of the year and going home with the trophy, that's really great," he says.

"In the first championship year, we won 12 consecutive games, setting a KBL record for the longest winning streak. For three years, we were the team to beat. Every team was gunning for us."

But in a repeat of the snub in Spain, Hyundai, now KCC Egis, dropped McDowell from its roster last year. The team wanted a different foreigner. Bitterness followed, but McDowell decided to attend the KBL tryout camp last July. He was the sixth foreigner picked in the draft. He now makes $66,000, as much as any other foreigner does, though less than some Korean players earn.

This season McDowell passed two milestones: He became the first player to score 5,000 points in the KBL and the first to make 1,000 free throws. "I don't think about individual goals that much," he says. "I'd like to win a championship with this team."

Versatility is the key to his game, and the reason why he is still a hot commodity in the KBL - McDowell is strong both close to the hoop and out on the perimeter. He can even play point.

"McDowell is a diligent person who keeps to a strict schedule," says Han Sung-soon, who interprets for the Bigs' foreign players. "He gives his all in every situation."

Because of his intense play and a bulky, 109 kilogram (240 pounds) physique, Korean fans call him "The Tank." McDowell likes the nickname.

The assistant coach for the SK Bigs, Im Geun-bae, says, "McDowell knows that he can overpower the smaller Korean players, whereas he might have a harder time against other foreign players in other leagues; he knows that he is an impact player here who can affect the outcome of every game. I only try to get him to cut down his turnovers."

by Yim Young-bin

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