[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Unfaltering confidence with a side of modesty

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[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Unfaltering confidence with a side of modesty

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Heo poses for a photo during an interview with the Korea JoongAng Daily on April 9. [PARK SANG-MOON]

Over the next few weeks, the Korea JoongAng Daily will meet with athletes from across the sporting world to discuss how they got their start and earned their fame as well as their lives on and off the field.

This week’s interview is with basketball player Heo Hoon of the Busan KT Sonicboom.




When asked who his role model is, Heo Hoon replied “I don’t have one.”

A particularly surprising response considering the line of legendary basketball players he comes from. But maybe it’s the fact that the sport runs in his blood that gives him his trademark unwavering confidence.

He began playing basketball in elementary school, and by the time he made it to university, he’d already made a name for himself. So it came as no surprise that after he graduated from Yonsei University with a degree in physical education, just like his older brother Heo Ung who plays for the Wonju Dongbu Promy, Heo Hoon, too, decided to turn pro.

The younger Heo was drafted first by the Busan KT Sonicboom in the 2017, but his failure to meet high expectations meant his first two years in the Korean Basketball League (KBL) were filled with criticism.

Injuries also plagued Heo during his initial start with the Sonicboom.

The comparisons to his father didn’t help.

While many said he had the physicality for the sport, he was far shorter than his father, standing at 1.80 meters (5 feet 11 inches) compared to the senior Heo at 1.88 meters.

His shorter stature, in terms of the world of basketball players, led him to the position of point guard.

And it was in this position that Heo finally proved his critics wrong in the 2019-20 season.



Basketball’s constant presence

Since being born on Aug. 16, 1995, basketball has always been a part of Heo Hoon’s life.

His father, Hur Jae, had a long and illustrious career in the KBL before retiring in 2004.

But retirement didn’t mean the end of basketball for Hur who moved his whole family to the United States so that he could learn how to become a coach.

Surprisingly, Hur had no desire for his sons to follow in his footsteps, and it took multiple pleas from Heo’s older brother before his dad finally gave in.

“He probably said no because he knew how hard it would be,” Heo says. “But my brother was very stubborn, so he kept on asking our dad, and eventually, my dad just gave up and said yes. So after a year and a half [of living in the United States], me, my brother and my mom came back to Korea to play basketball while my dad stayed.”

Heo says that at that time, he didn’t really think about playing basketball. Rather, he wanted to be a doctor.

But his childhood dream was hindered by a well-meaning coach who recognized his talents early on.

After returning to Korea, Heo attended Samkwang Elementary School, and on his first day, chatter was widespread that “Hur Jae’s younger son is here.”

“After the basketball coach heard that I was attending the school, he just believed that I would have potential and was really nice to me,” Heo says. “He took me to PC cafes, bought me snacks and all that. So he lured me to pick up a basketball and start playing.”

While his elementary school coach could be credited with the start of Heo’s career, his father’s influence has been a constant throughout his time on the court.



Changing jerseys

During his time at Yonsei University, Heo’s jersey number was 9, the same as his father.

But after making his KBL debut, Heo decided to take a step out of his father’s shadow.

“I didn’t want to wear my dad’s number because it would have looked too obvious,” Heo says.

He made his debut in the KBL wearing the number 23, and in his second season, he changed to 5. After playing a season wearing 5, he had to change it once again, as he had too many injuries throughout that season with that number.

“Since I kept on getting injuries, I didn’t get a good vibe from the number 5,” Heo said. “So I got rid of that number.”

He finally settled on the number 2 jersey. When asked why he went with this choice, his answer was simple.

“Since I’m the youngest on the team, that was one of the only numbers that was available,” Heo says.

While his reason is simple, changing his jersey to the number 2 brought him some serious luck.



The season that changed it all

In the 2019-20 season, while wearing the number 2, Heo made significant improvement from his previous two seasons with a scoring average of 14.94 points per game and 7.23 assists, which was good enough to top the league, throughout 32 matches. His performance also led to him topping the fan voting for the KBL’s All-Star Game this season.

Unfortunately, the season came to an abrupt end, due to the coronavirus, and Heo’s lucky streak was broken.

“Our team was in a great position to get into the upper half of the regular season standing this season,” Heo said. “But after the coronavirus outbreak, we lost two of our foreign players. We played two matches without the two foreign players, and the season ended earlier. So it is a little disappointing.”

Heo says that he understood his foreign teammates’ decisions to leave the country as the virus had just begun to spread and Korea was at the height of the pandemic.

Before suspending the season, the KBL, along with the Korean Volleyball Federation and Women’s Korean Basketball League, tried to play the remaining matches behind closed doors, meaning Heo got to experience games in an empty stadium.

Playing behind closed doors allowed Heo to learn the importance of his fans.

“I couldn’t concentrate at all,” Heo says. “I lost energy and just questioned myself ‘what am I doing?’ during the match. Even if I tried to focus, I couldn’t and just didn’t want to play. So I learned the importance of the fans.”

Heo has some of the most loyal fans of any player in the KBL along with his brother. Not only do these fans energize him when he’s on the court, they’ve also sent him some pretty memorable gifts.

“Because it’s 2020, a fan sent me 20 lucky $2 bills,” Heo says. “The moment I received them, I got good vibes. Not because it was money, but because it felt like I was going to have all the luck this year.”

But even with the good vibes, Heo doesn’t think he’ll be named MVP of the shortened season. He’s putting his money on Kim Jong-kyu of the Promy instead.

“Well, I have a long basketball career ahead of me,” Heo says. “I have next season, and I’ll work harder so I’ll try to win the MVP, in a more perfect situation.”



Family ties

This modest approach when faced with comparisons clearly stems from the years he has spent being compared to his father and older brother.

While he says he doesn’t mind the media asking him questions about his brother or especially his father, there is one thing that gets on his nerves. Heo says he hates being asked, “In what way are you better than your father?”

“To be honest, I’m not better than him,” Heo said. “Since he was such a legendary basketball player, even comparing him to other pros in the KBL, they aren’t as good as him. I think it’ll be impossible for me to achieve anything that my father has already accomplished.”

There’s one other area he says he can’t live up to either: his father’s reputation for drinking.

“He was very famous for basketball, but he was also very famous for drinking,” Heo said. “I’ll never be able to beat him at that.”



Career highs and lows

Despite his modesty, there is one area where Heo has made his own record.

His best and most unforgettable moment was during the Sonicboom’s match against Anyang KGC on Feb. 9 this season when he scored 24 points and picked up 21 assists. By doing so, he became the very first and only player in KBL history to achieve 20-20 (20 points and 20 assists in a single game).

As for this worst moment, he says it was a game against his brother during the 2018-19 season. When the Sonicboom faced off against the Promy on Feb. 19, 2019, there was already huge attention on the game as it marked the very first time the brothers faced each other in a KBL game.

There were high expectations, but the match wasn’t as intense as the fans expected it to be as his brother easily outplayed Heo. Looking at their statistics for that game, it was clear that Heo Ung was the winner. The older brother scored 24 points while picking up six assists and five rebounds while the junior Heo only scored five points while picking up three rebounds and three steals.

“I just got destroyed by my brother,” Heo said. “Everyone could tell. So that is a match I wish everyone would forget.”

This season, the brothers had a one-on-one match during the KBL’s All-Star Game, and once again, his brother was the winner. However, Heo Hoon says that one-on-one match doesn’t count as his team won the All-Star Game.

“Our team still won,” Heo said. “And if they set up a proper one-on-one match, then I’ll probably win. I’m better than my brother.”



The Hur family vacations

Despite the apparent sibling rivalry, family is extremely important to both the brothers.

As they both play in the KBL and his father recently became a TV personality, it has become more and more difficult to spend quality time together.

Noticing the lack of family time, the brothers decided to start a tradition of taking family trips at the end of last season.

This year, too, the family planned on going on a vacation, but due to the coronavirus, Heo says he’s just home all day long, with the exception of taking his dog outside for walks.

Heo also learned to become a better team player from his vacation with his family.

He says that because his mother, father and brother all had different likes and hobbies, and because he is the youngest in the family, Heo says his job was trying to suit them.

“I realized that in terms of traveling, you have to go with people who you can get along with,” Heo says. “My mom likes to swim in the morning, my brother like to do activities in the afternoon and my dad wants to drink at night. Since I’m the youngest I just had to do what they wanted to do.”

What did Heo really want during the vacation? Sit outside by the pool and just chill under the sun.



Fun of the sport

The now-24-year-old says it has taken him until now to find the real beauty of basketball.

“Well during the winter, we train really hard, and when we win in the summer, we feel joy,” Heo says. “And we also believe that the hard work pays off. I think that makes me keep playing basketball.”

Since first experiencing this in high school, he has been motivated to chase that feeling and continues to work harder and harder every season.

In terms of his preparations before the game, Heo doesn’t have a specific routine or any rituals. He tries to keep it simple. On days when he doesn’t play well, he just tries to brush it off and tells himself, “It’s not my day today. I’ll just play better next time.”

Heo says the art of teamwork is still something he needs to master.

“It’s difficult,” Heo said. “Team sports are harder than individual sports in general. In individual sports, it’s just you getting criticized when you play badly, but in team sports, when I play badly, I put the team at a disadvantage. But on the other side, we don’t always win by me playing well. Since we spend so much time together as a team, we all have to know each other’s personalities and characteristics so it’s hard. Since my position requires me to notice all that, I think team sports are definitely difficult.”



Moving forward

Having only played three seasons in the KBL, Heo is still considered a young athlete and his immaturity can be seen in his relationships with his teammates who are of a similar age or younger.

He likes to goof around with these teammates and says that even when he becomes a senior player, and maybe even captain, this silly side of his won’t change. He hopes to be remembered as an easygoing captain but also a captain who takes care of the team and his players.

Since Heo faced injuries every season of his three seasons in the KBL, going forward, he hopes to play through all the matches injury-free.

His long-term goal is simple. Before he retires, he hopes to lead the Sonicboom to win the KBL championship title.

“I want to win, and I want to show great performances on the court, for as long as possible,” Heo says.

BY KANG YOO-RIM [kang.yoorim@joongang.co.kr]

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