Egis guard nets latest basketball milestoneImmediately after the buzzer sounded ending the Nov. 8 Korean Basketball League game between KCC Egis and ETLand Black Slammer, members of the media circled Egis starting point guard, Lee Sang-min ― in part to ask his take on his team’s 107-87 rout of the Slammers, but mostly to hear more from the man himself about his latest milestone in a career full of many.
“Congratulations,” said one reporter, referring to Lee becoming the first player in the KBL to record 2,500 career assists.
“On what?” Lee responded curiously, apparently unaware of his accomplishment.
When another reporter reminded him of the record, the 33-year-old Lee shrugged and flashed the “aw-shucks” smile that has been one of the endearing traits of a modest man still in the middle of a remarkable career.
“Records are made to be broken, and this one will be, too,” he said. “Okay, so I am the first one to do it, but so what? I don’t care about the numbers anymore.”
Dictated by the nature of the sport, point guards in basketball are asked to remain in the shadows, to try to aid their teammates before they think about seeking glory for themselves. Also, those who best fit the pass-first mold have proven successful both in the National Basketball Association ― think former Utah Jazz guard John Stockton ― and here in the KBL.
Surely, there will be other players to reach the 2,500-assist plateau and, when all is said and done, the 183-centimeter (6-foot) tall Lee may not even end up the all-time leader in career assists. Tongyang Orions’ Kim Seung-hyun, with a career average of 8.2 per game in just his fifth season, is closely following in his footsteps.
Since his outstanding 2001-02 rookie season, Kim has been anointed the successor to Lee’s throne as the nation’s best point guard. With rookie of the year and most valuable player awards, plus a championship title already under his belt, Kim is definitely a worthy choice.
So who was the top point man before Lee? Mobis Phoebus head coach Yoo Jae-hak in his heyday in the 1980s comes to mind, but while his play-making skills were undeniable, Yoo was never the scorer that Lee is.
Kang Dong-hee, now assistant coach with Dongbu Promy, may be the closest.
However, Lee feels Kang was never a pure point guard, but a versatile swingman who could play multiple positions when the situation called for it.
The only player that had similar sets of skills to Lee, ironically, is his current head coach. Hur Jae, a Korean basketball legend dubbed “The President of Basketball” in his prime, is in his first head coaching season with the Egis. In addition to unparalleled scoring prowess, Hur, who played shooting guard, possessed excellent on-court vision and an uncanny ability to rise to the occasion in clutch situations, two characteristics that have also defined Lee’s career.
Despite their battles on the floor, the two remained close through playing together on the national team. Lee said Hur is like a brother, but added Hur’s job as head coach has made him careful not to overstep the invisible boundary.
“Now that he is my coach, I don’t feel I can get really close to him on a personal level,” Lee said of Hur, only his second head coach in his career after former boss Shin Sun-woo signed with the LG Sakers this season. “I can’t just walk up to him now and say, ‘Hey, big brother.’ It’s too bad, but what can I do?”
Still, the two have forged a strong professional relationship. After he studies videotapes of games and pores over books on strategy, Hur never forgets to ask Lee, the elder statesman on the team, for a second opinion.
Lee said although Hur may have been a hot-tempered player, vulnerable to snaps of anger in his playing days, he has mellowed as a coach.
“He can be too careful at times,” Lee said. “So I tell him, do whatever you feel like and establish your own style.”
Lee himself is not so sure that he wants to begin a coaching career once his playing days are done ― not after having seen Hur up close and personal being constantly stressed out.
“After the end of next season, if I feel l can still lead my team to the championship, I will keep playing,” he said. “If not, I will be gone.”
With a few more milestones in the record books, no doubt.
by Hur Jin-seok