Americans find a niche in Korean basketballOn the night of their second wedding anniversary, Mandisa Watkins asked her husband what he wanted for dinner. “A Whopper,” he called out, as she zipped out of Jamsil Gymnasium in Seoul to go to Burger King. “And a fish sandwich.”
Her husband, 6-foot-10, 260-pound (209 cm, 118 kg) Jameel Watkins, promised to catch up with her later at the sauna as he bid farewell to the rest of his basketball team, the Wonju, Korea-based Dongbu Promy. They’d just polished off the Samsung Thunders in a Korean Basketball League preseason game.
“My whole day was like this,” Mandisa Watkins said. “We took the bus to Wonju for practice. We had a team meal. We got on the bus, and came here.”
It may not have been the ideal anniversary but it’s a good life for Jameel Watkins and his wife. Twenty foreigners a year, two on each of the 10 teams, get hired for KBL organizations with names that sound strange to English speakers, such as the Hyundai Mobis Pheobus and the ET Land Black Slamers. They get a six-figure salary, somebody to take care of their housing and bills and a translator to work with during the 54-game season. They also face rules that can work against them: only one foreigner can play in the second and third quarters and their combined height can’t be more then 4.0 meters. Many play for just one year.
In the long-term, the foreign players will have even more limited playing time, said Lee Hon-sang, a marketing manager with the KBL. The average foreign player is 198 centimeters, and weighs 111 kilograms, while the average Korean player is 189 centimeters and 88 kilograms. “With that advantage, the foreigners dominate too much,” he said.
He said the fans want the emphasis on the Korean players.
For the past several years, the number of fans has held steady. The attendance figure for the approximately 280 games has stayed at about 1.1 million fans per season. That translates to about 3,900 per game.
Lee said the the league’s main income does not come from the fans, however. It comes from sponsorships and television rights, though he declined to say how much money comes from these sources.
Adam Parada, 25, of Newport Beach, California, said he came to the league for the money he could make and some job security after being one of the Los Angeles Lakers’ last cuts in 2005.
“You work hard, then get cut on the last day,” said the 7-footer (223 cm), referring to the National Basketball Association training camps. “Then you have no job for two or three months.”
The top Korean players, Seo Jang-hoon of the Thunders and Kim Joo-sung of the Promy, make 470 million Korean won ($492,000) per year. Each team has a salary cap for their Korean players, of about 1.4 billion won. The foreign players, meanwhile, share a salary cap per team of 280 million won for two players. Still, their salaries exceed the 119 million won that average players in the Korean Basketball League make. And, it’s all for seven months of work.
The league began play in 1997. Each year, a Korean MVP and a foreign-player MVP is chosen. Most of the foreigners are American, like Brandon Brown, 25, who said that he gets challenged by the foreign players that he plays against in each game. He said he needs that, because the Korean players aren’t as good. He has played in Italy, Poland and Greece, but said he’s looking forward to the challenge of the KBL.
“I enjoy myself,” he said. “Here, you can just focus on basketball.”
At the preseason game in Jamsil Gymnasium, cheerleaders climbed into the stands to pass out lollipops. Signs overhead, in English, read “Forever Thunders!” and “Never-ending Legend!” Play resumed, and Mandisa Watkins watched the thump, thump of the basketball. The crowd cheered as her husband dunked the ball.
Watkins, 29, who has also played in Spain, Italy, China and the Philippines, is starting his third year in the KBL. He said if he does one more year after this one, he’ll have the longest tenure among the foreigners. “Other than for the NBA, I wouldn’t leave Korea,” said Watkins, a former center for Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. who signed with the Houston Rockets of the NBA twice, but got waived before he ever got to play. “It’s comfortable for me here,” he said. “Comfortable for me is good.”
On the streets of Seoul, as a star of one of the country’s better basketball teams, he is a minor celebrity.
“Everyone recognizes you,” he said. “But it’s not overwhelming. They want to take their picture with you. That’s it.”
His wife, Mandisa Watkins, planned to fly back to New York a few days later. Her husband didn’t plan to end up in Korea, but he’s found his niche, she said.
“The people here are very kind,” Mandisa Watkins said. “They treat him well. He loves it here.”
by Brian Breuhaus