Park Ji-su hopes to lead Korea to Olympic glory
Korean basketball superstar Park Ji-su will get the chance to compete on the biggest stage of her already impressive career when the Korean women's basketball team competes at the Olympics for the first time in thirteen years in July.
Korea secured a spot at the Tokyo Games in February last year in Serbia, earning a berth for the first time since the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Park, who plays center for the Cheongju KB Stars in the Women’s Korean Basketball League (WKBL), has already earned her seat on the national squad and will be heading to Tokyo during the summer.
But before Park can get to Tokyo, she still has a lot of basketball to play.
Having finished the 2020-21 WKBL season last month with the KB Stars losing to the Yongin Samsung Blue Minx in the championship game, Park, the newly dubbed WKBL MVP, is headed straight to the United States where she joins WNBA side the Las Vegas Aces.
At just 22-years-old, Park is already one of the biggest names in the WKBL and one of the few players ever to have concurrent careers in both Korea and the United States.
Park comes from a sporting family. She started playing basketball in the third grade with her brother, who is now part of the professional volleyball team Cheonan Hyundai Capital Skywalkers at her parents’ suggestion — her mother is a former member of the national volleyball team and her father a former player for the Samsung basketball team.
Her talent was evident early on, and she debuted with the senior national team at the age of 15.
Park started her professional WKBL career with the Cheongju KB Stars in 2016, receiving the WKBL Newcomer Award for the 2016-2017 season.
At only 19-years-old, Park was drafted into the WNBA, becoming the first Korean player to enter the U.S. league in 15 years, after Jung Sung-min, who was picked by the Seattle Storm in 2003.
Park played for the Aces in 2018 and 2019, missing out last year due to an injury, and was called back this year.
As the WKBL and WNBA seasons play at different times of year, Park is able to appear in both leagues. As she gets ready to fly out to Las Vegas to join her U.S. team, Park has to concentrate on putting a difficult WKBL season behind her.
“As the start of the season, I thought I saw empty spots on the court but the opponents saw right through me, and it resulted in a turnover," Park said in an interview with the Joongang Ilbo on April 4.
"I thought I was going to cry [after the championship], but I also felt relieved it was all over. I stayed home all week after that. I realized I had lost five kilograms (11 pounds) during championship games.”
Despite having just finished the WKBL championship series, Park doesn't have much time to rest.
“I am flying to the United States on the 18th or 19th”, Park said. “It’s not every day that you get a chance to play in the WNBA. I haven’t had to chance to really give all I have got.”
Despite having played two seasons in the U.S. league, Park has spent most of that time on the bench with an average of 1.9 points per game with 2.4 rebounds, much lower than her domestic average of 22 points with 15 rebounds.
She is determined to play better this time.
“A’ja Wilson, the Las Vegas Aces MVP, is the same height as me and can make 'and ones',” Park said.
"And one" is a phrase used when someone is fouled while making a shot, but still succeeds in getting the shot in while also earning a free throw, giving them a chance to score twice.
“The coaches trust me enough to put me not only at center, but also at positions three and four — small and power forward. I will improve my middle shots as well as my post ups.“
With the WNBA starting in May, Park will have to drop out of the league during the season to join Team Korea in Tokyo at least two weeks before the Games begin.
“I got a positive answer from the Aces when I asked if I could be extracted three weeks before the Olympics," Park said. "However, whether I will need to quarantine in Korea or go straight to Tokyo, or maybe even get vaccinated, are things I still need to figure out. I am discussing the specifics with Chun Joo-weon, the national team manager.”
The Korean national team ranks at No. 18, and will take on Spain, Canada and Serbia, ranked third, fourth and eight respectively.
“I think we will need at least one win to advance to the quarterfinals," Park said. "I think the game against Serbia will be our chance.”
Park has big ambitions for her first Olympics.
“Women’s volleyball became better known after the Olympics," Park said. "I hope that I can make women’s basketball popular by advancing to the quarterfinals in Tokyo."
BY PARK RIN, YUN SO-HYANG [firstname.lastname@example.org]