Expats put volleyball back in the limelightWho says white men can’t jump? Well, they haven’t seen Sean Rooney, the 6-foot-9, 209-pound left-hitter with the Hyundai Skywalkers, who routinely jumps for vicious kills.
“I can reach 365 centimeters (11.9 ft),” he says. A native of Illinois, Rooney is among the four expatriates players who recently joined Korea’s first professional volleyball league, which is capping its second season with finals that begin tomorrow.
The new foreign players have sparked excitement on the court and attracted a fair number of fans to the young league.
Playing on a foreign team for the first time here in Korea, Rooney accomplished a triple crown (three back row attacks, three serve aces and three blockings in a single game) in February, becoming just the fourth player and the first expatriate player to do so in the men’s professional volleyball league.
When the season kicked off in December 2005, the Hyundai Skywalkers jumped to an early lead over the other teams and haven’t looked back since, with Rooney hammering spikes and drilling well-placed jump serves along the way.
Hyundai never once let go of their lead, and when the regular season ended on March 12, they comfortably defended their regular-season title from last year.
A recent graduate of Pepperdine University, Rooney, 23, was twice named Player of the Year in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), and received offers from the Italian league before he joined Hyundai.
“I was looking around and thought it would be a different experience. It’s very ball-control oriented here, and I thought I would learn a lot,” he said.
Rooney has certainly been the main force behind Hyundai’s regular season success, finishing with 31 wins, 4 losses. Hyundai was closely trailed by Samsung, which finished with 30 wins, 5 losses.
The Samsung Blue Fangs hope to avenge their second place finish by winning the championship in the post-season. Signing American William Reid Priddy in the second half of the season was part of their playoff preparation.
Priddy, who started playing both indoor and beach volleyball in high school upon his P.E. teacher’s recommendation, is a five-time member of the U.S. National Team. He considered two factors in coming to Korea.
“On a professional level, the contracts are good for foreigners. It’s important to have that aspect. I have to leave my family and friends and wife behind. On a volleyball level, the team brings a real sense of unity and team spirit. I think the commitment is good.”
He joined Samsung in January 2006 but has quickly adjusted to become one of their key offensive players. “I’m here to win. Our goal is to win the whole thing. Anything less would be a failure.”
The third spot in the regular season was won by LG Insurance, which beat Korean Air in a tough battle.
Both teams featured seasoned Brazilian veterans, “Kid” Gilmar Teixeira of LG Insurance and Alex Lenz Stragliotto with Korean Air. Teixeira is a renowned attacker and a two-time MVP of Brazil’s Super League and a veteran of six international leagues. Stragliotto is formerly of the Brazillian National Team.
“I chose to come over to Korea because the conditions were good. It’s just really fun to be able to play with the younger players despite being 37,” said Teixiera.
Regarding the post-season, he was cautious about his team’s chances as LG Insurance had a tough time securing the third spot. “I’ll worry about the playoffs after the regular season. But of course, we do aim to win the championship.”
When the expatriates step onto the court, they stand out immediately ― and the fans love it. Kim Ji-young, a high school groupie, has been to most of Hyundai’s games, and doesn’t mind waiting 40 mintues after a game to catch a glimpse of a player who has created so much buzz for Korea’s volleyball scene.
“I want to see Rooney in person!” she cried. Lee Eun-a, another high school student, says, “I’m a huge fan of Samsung. My favorite players are Korean, but I think it’s great to have foreign players because it makes the game exciting.”
“I am humbled by these supporters,” says Rooney. “Indoor volleyball is much more popular here than in the U.S. It’s good to see fans show commitment.”
Priddy observed that volleyball players are treated like pop stars here, and receive lots of unexpected gifts from fans. “My teammates joke that I need to tell more people I like Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks. It’s different whenever I’m in a culture that appreciates volleyball because America doesn’t really care.”
But such attention is a relatively new phenomenon in Korea. Baseball and basketball turned pro years ago, but volleyball has languished in the background. The sport used to be one of Korea’s most popular, but it faded from public attention in the 1990s when no team could overcome Samsung, which swept all the titles that decade. Only since the professional league was formed two years ago has volleyball returned to the limelight.
“It is still struggling to break free from stagnation, but I see a bright future ahead,” said Hyundai Skywalkers coach Kim Ho-cheol. “The most important thing would be to expand the Hyundai-Samsung rivalry [so it] includes all four pro teams...and we need more teams in the league.”
He also noted that foreign players strike a productive balance with the Korean players. “Foreign players have better power and physical features, but Korean players have better fundamentals, so they could both learn from each other,” he commented. Not all teams have the experience or information to successfully deal with foreign players, and so the contribution made by the expatriates differs according to the individual, he said.
The foreign players may come from different backgrounds, play for different teams and face a daunting language barrier, but they all agree that “You don’t need words to play volleyball,” says Teixeira.
The league entered its second post-season last week after 175 games in the regular season. Different formats have been used in the past, but all produced the same result ― Samsung has been crowned champion for the past nine years.
The 2005-2006 KT&G V-League consists of four professional teams and two amateur invitational teams ― KEPCO (Korea Electric Power Corporation) and Sangmu (Korea Armed Forces Athletic Corps), neither of which hired foreign players because of budget constraints.
This year, the top team of the regular season entered the finals automatically, while the teams that finished second and third battled it out in a best-of-3 game for the other final berth.
The playoffs began last weekend with Samsung beating LG Insurance twice, while Hyundai rested, waiting to play the winner.
A best-of-five series between Hyundai and Samsung begins this Saturday in South Chungcheong province. Samsung is determined to claim their 10th consecutive championship, but they will face tough competition.
The IHT-JoongAng Daily caught up with Sean Rooney of the Hyundai Skywalkers just after his number one ranked team beat the Korean Air Jumbos in Incheon last month.
Q. How did you get into volleyball?
A. I’ve been playing for 6 years. I grew up in Chicago with two older sisters, playing every sport following them. I started playing volleyball in high school. I played basketball up to my sophomore year, and I was tired of it. I hadn’t hit my big growth spurt yet; therefore I was stuck in between positions. Volleyball was just something new. My high school had a very good team. We won the State Championship my senior year. I moved to the West Coast for college. And then it was a fast four years. That’s when it really took off.
How did you come to play in Korea? Don’t most players go to Europe?
I was looking around after college and thought it would be a different experience. There’s a high level of play in Korea. It’s very ball-control oriented here, and I thought I would learn a lot. It would have been a completely different experience in Europe. We have a family atmosphere. I think I did a lot better here in my first year than I would have in Italy.
What is the greatest aspect about playing volleyball in Korea?
The fans! They have been extremely supportive, including giving me snacks and presents after matches. I am humbled by these supporters, they are awesome! Indoor volleyball is much more popular here than in the U.S. I had fans even before I played my first match here. I was surprised to have people waiting for me even before I played a single point. It’s good to see fans show commitment. They’re very passionate about volleyball.
How do you communicate on the court? Have you experienced any cultural differences?
Volleyball is sort of universal. Everyone understands the same phrases and pointers. When I first got here I think they were a little bit surprised. I show a lot of emotion and spirit on the court and I think it was a little bit unordinary. I think the team has changed. I’ve brightened the mood and sparked excitement. On the seniority issue, it’s hard enough not to understand the language. They let me off the hook. I just joke around a lot.
Who do you consider a rival?
I have a fun rivalry with Priddy [of Samsung Blue Fangs]. I’ve known him for five years. We’ve battled in beach volleyball in the U.S. and now here in Korea.
You seem to have huge feet. Where do you get your shoes?
You know what, I wear different shoes from the other guys because they stop one size before mine. I’m a size 15 (US). I wear basketball shoes because they don’t give you blisters and protect your ankles. They’re also comfortable to jump in.
What is your best memory from playing volleyball?
Easy question. Not long after this past summer, I was approached by Karch Kiraly. He has been voted the best volleyball player of all time (indoors and outdoors) by the FIVB. He asked me to train with him on the beach and discuss my career. It was a great honor. (Karch won the gold in Seoul Olympics in 1988).
Do you play beach volleyball as well? Is it a hobby?
I went to school right on the ocean in Pepperdine University in California. It was hard to pass up. It’s not just a hobby; I’ve played in the league and I will again this season. Right now, my plans are playing beach volleyball until the end of September. They have a full time league in the U.S. called the AVP which starts in April. I’ll probably miss the first part, but I will be playing there (after the Korean season ends).
What was the toughest obstacle you’ve had to face in getting where you are today?
I guess decision making is the biggest obstacle. I put a lot of pressure on myself in this area. I had to decide whether to pursue beach volleyball full time, join the USA National team full time, play in Italy, play in Korea, or possibly do both beach and indoors.
2005-06 Championship Finals
Date Time Matchup Venue Live Broadcast TV
2006-03-25 14:00 Hyundai vs. Samsung Yu Gwan Sun Gymnasium, Cheonan KBSSKY
2006-03-26 14:00 Hyundai vs. Samsung Yu Gwan Sun Gymnasium, Cheonan KBS1
2006-03-29 17:00 Samsung vs. Hyundai Chungmu Gymnasium, Daejeon KBS2
2006-04-01 14:15 Samsung vs. Hyundai Chungmu Gymnasium, Daejeon KBS1
2006-04-02 14:00 Hyundai vs. Samsung Yu Gwan Sun Gymnasium, Cheonan KBS1
by Lee Soo-jin