Basketball struggles to regain popularity

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Basketball struggles to regain popularity

TOKYO, Japan - Dongbu Promy forward Kim Joo-sung is widely considered the best all-around player in the Korean Basketball League today. The 31-year-old has earned the distinction of being the highest paid player in the KBL for six consecutive seasons and was described by an NBA scout who came out to Korea last year as a “money player.”

Kim is set to earn 690 million won ($588,570) this season. The next highest paid player in the league is Kim Hyo-beom of the SK Knights with 513 million won.

On the court, Kim has the skills to excel. The Chung-Ang University grad posted averages of 16.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 3.9 assists last season. His gentlemanly personality off the court makes him an ideal candidate to become the face of the professional league, which has been in existence since 1997.

In an interview with the JoongAng Ilbo at Dongbu’s preseason training camp in Tokyo, Japan, Kim did not sound so happy about the state of professional basketball in Korea: “I’ve been playing professional basketball for nine seasons and people still do not know my name,” said Kim. “That’s the current state of Korean basketball.”

The KBL has been in existence for over 10 years but the popularity of the sport does not come anywhere close to the throng of fans that used to pack the stands to take in university basketball tournaments during the 1980s and 90s.

“There are people who think that Lee Sang-min, who retired earlier this year, and Hyun Joo-yup, retired last season, still play in the league,” said Kim. “Seo Jang-hoon [ET Land’s center] is one of the big names from that era who is still playing in the league but other than the stars that thrived at the collegiate level during the early 1990s, there isn’t a representative star in the KBL today.”

According to Kim, the reasons for the KBL’s failure to make the sport popular are a direct result of the struggles of the national team at international competitions.

“Baseball and football national teams have done well at the international level and their professional leagues have garnered a lot of interest from sports fans as a result,” explained Kim. “Volleyball is now attracting more fans than basketball. All volleyball games are televised live and, while the sport has attracted more viewers and fans in general, basketball has hit rock bottom. That’s why it’s important for us to do well at the 2010 Guangzhou Asian Games in November.”

A lot is riding on the 2010 Asian Games. As such, the KBL is collaborating with the Korea Basketball Association in an attempt to fully support the national team. Earlier this year, they hired Lenny Wilkens, who was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame as a player in 1989 and as a coach in 1990, to serve as the team’s technical adviser.

It won’t be an easy task for the Korean national team. Since the 1951 New Delhi Asian Games, Korea has won three gold, five silver and three bronze medals. Korea’s last medal was a gold medal at the 2002 Busan Asian Games in an exciting 102-100 overtime win over heavy favorite China. Korea will have be at its absolute best against taller and physically stronger teams like China, Iran and Lebanon in order to reach the medal rounds.

“The entire team is ready to prove what Korean basketball is made of,” Kim said. “At the training camp held in Los Angeles, we played well against the NBA’s Development League players. I think we’re fully capable of earning a medal in Guangzhou.”


By Lee Jung-chan [jason@joongang.co.kr]
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