TALL STORY

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TALL STORY

SUWON, Gyeonggi province

Nearly 20 high school basketball players wearing light-blue uniforms are running around an old, sub-freezing gym here. The young athletes, their breath filling the gym like steam engines, are all slender of build and about the same height. All but one. Rising like a sequoia in a forest of saplings is the star of this basketball team. His name is Ha Seung-jin, and he is the biggest kid on the court. In fact, he is the biggest kid -- and may soon be the biggest thing -- in Korea.

At 220 centimeters (7 feet, 3 inches) and 140 kilograms (308 pounds) Ha Seung-jin plays center -- did you think point guard? -- for Suwon's Samil Commercial High School.

At 18 years of age, he may still have some growing to do.

While most of his peers admire his height, Ha is quick to point out the disadvantages. "In practice, I can't fool around and when I make a mistake, coach knows."

The coach, Lee Yoon-han, is watching from the sidelines and wondering, as he likely often does, how in the world he came to be so lucky and get this gift from God on his basketball team.

Despite the growing hype that surrounds his son, Ha's father, Ha Dong-gi, 47, is careful not to become overwhelmed by it all. Also standing courtside in the ancient gym, he says, "My son is tall enough and he is doing O.K. for a high school kid, but I think what he needs is more power."

The senior Ha knows of what he speaks. A former member of Korea's national team that won a silver medal at the 1978 Asian Games in Bangkok, Ha Dong-gi played the same position as his son. Standing 2 meters (6 feet, 5 inches), he knows all about the stares of strangers who ask such things as, "How's the weather up there?"

Emphasizing the need for power, the senior Ha has become his son's personal trainer. Three times a week he shuttles the younger Ha to the training facility of the Seoul Samsung Thunders, a professional basketball team, where he directs his son in a weight-training program

A Shaq, after all, wasn't built in a day.

Ha Seung-jin first played organized basketball when he entered middle school in 1997. Soon after he broke a thigh bone in practice and the injury prevented him from playing again for two years. It was only at Samil when he picked up the game once more.

Ha Seung-jin has only five years of playing experience, and that's one of the reasons people think he has the potential to improve for the better, provided there is a long-term plan. Kang Eul-yong, a former center and current basketball coach at Myongji University, is one of the more optimistic people but is also cautious. "The kid has baby muscles. If you send him off in the next one or University, is one of the more optimistic people but is also cautious. "The kid has baby muscles. If you send him off in the next one or two years, there is a good chance he'll end up a bust. But with a five-year plan to build him up, I think he'll have a fair shot."

With his 350-millimeter sneakers (about a size 17 shoe by Western standards) firmly planted under the basket, Ha has become a force to reckon in Korea's high school basketball scene. Already earmarked as the runner-up to win some of the country's major competitions, such as the annual presidential championship or the national crown, Samil's basketball team has made its name in the last couple of years since their center suited up two years ago.

Lee Yoon-han, his coach, is careful about not overstating the team's success, but he can't hide the enthusiasm that he has for the upcoming season that starts in March. "Before we got him, we weren't that bad. In my 13 years as a coach we placed second seven times, but we never won a championship. Who remembers second place when the season is over?"

Studying his gargantuan post player, Lee smiles and continues, "After he came we won our first championship. He was the missing piece."

Three years ago, Lee thought seriously of quitting because he could not bring home a trophy. Just as he was about to leave he decided to give the job one last shot. He figured all he needed was a center. After searching for the tallest middle school kid in the province, he found out that Ha Seung-jin just had just moved to the Suwon area and was about to enter high school. The Has were no strangers to the city, though. The senior Ha had gone to Samil himself. Calls were placed and a prompt visit to the Ha's residence landed Ha Seung-jin on the team.

As soon as Ha laced up his Nike gunboats, the team began to mow down the opposition. Last year, Samil won all four major high school championships. Samil has a 22-game winning streak going that is unlikely to be broken as long as the team has a center who averages 20 to 25 points per game and 15 rebounds.

According to coach Lee, the game plan for high school basketball teams, or at least his team, isn't that complicated. "In high school games, 40 percent comes from the shooting and the rest of the game is decided by who gets the most rebounds." A pause, and then matter-of-factly this: "We get the most."

Sky-high Koreans are as rare as snow in July. Ha says he does not like it when people want to take pictures that emphasize his stature. "Being tall for me was never a problem. It never bothered me. If I am to grow even taller that's fine also."

Even if he were of average height, Ha says he would play basketball. "I know that I am blessed. Being close to the rim helps a lot, but it's the game that I love the most. There are tall people who don't even like watching basketball."

"As tall as he is, he is also very accurate from the perimeter," says Ha's coach. "The way he plays now I wouldn't be surprised if he one day makes it big." Lee thinks college is a good idea for the big kid. "There's a lot of room to improve and by going to college he'll have time to work on his game and also become a mature person." Like his teammates at Samil, Ha lives in a dormitory on the school grounds and goes home only on weekends. And like teens everywhere, he is deeply in love with computer games.

Some people think that this high schooler has the potential to become the next Yao Ming, the Chinese giant (7 feet, 5 inches and 296 pounds) who now plays for the NBA's Houston Rockets. Last month, Ha met with SFX Sports Group, a U.S. firm that represents such players as Kobe Bryant. According to Ha's father, a contract with an agent is not so far off.

A professional career without going to college? Ha scratches his head at the question and says, "Honestly, I don't know. I only started to think about it recently. But my Dad should know the answer. It really depends on how things work out."

"Right now," says Ha senior, "everything is open. I am concentrating on making his body stronger and I think after one more year he is about 70 to 80 percent ready to have a shot in the NBA."

Ha's favorite team and player? "Definitely the Los Angeles Lakers. Shaquille O'Neal Ε feet, 2 inches and 338 pounds] just rocks. He is awesome. That's who I want to be."

As basketball models go, that's not a bad one to emulate. But it'll likely take some time. Remember, Shaq wasn't built in a day.


by Brian Lee
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