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(Yonhap Feature) Foreign basketball players impressed by fan support, work ethic

By John Duerden
Contributing writer
SEOUL, Oct. 17 (Yonhap) -- The 2011-12 South Korean basketball season opened last week with the usual list of new head coaches and players, and a slightly changed rule limiting each team to one instead of two foreign players in a move that the sport's governing body hopes will create more opportunities for local players to become genuine stars at home, and overseas.

   It remains to be seen how successful the move will be. The nation's soccer league has been able to send players to the big European leagues yet increased its foreign import quota from three to four per team in 2009 while baseball teams are allowed two overseas stars and have also sent stars to the United States.

   As is common in South Korean professional sports, most of the ten teams in the Korean Basketball League, or KBL, are backed financially by Korean conglomerates such as Samsung, LG and SK. Spread throughout the nation, with Daejeon and Gwangju being the only major cities without a team, fans are treated to some high-level basketball.

   They also see imports that play to a good standard. A number of players from the United States have graced Korean courts over the years. This year, the spotlight at the media day on Oct. 10 was on Peter John Ramos, a Puerto Rican professional player who joined Samsung Thunders. At 222 centimeters and 130 kilograms, he is now the tallest on the South Korean court, just 1cm taller than local star Ha Seung-jin of Jeonju-based KCC Egis, champion and favorite to retain its title.

   Former NBA player Rodney White was also in demand by photographers and journalists alike as he prepares for a season with Anyang KGC.

   White, like many who have come before him, will have to deal with culture shock on and off the court or field and a big part of that means adjusting to the fact that there is not much of a life outside the team.

   Jasper Johnson, who finished a two-season stint with Busan KT Sonic at the end of last season, recommended that there be a little more opportunity for foreign players to explore their temporary home.

Peter John Ramos (R), who joined Samsung Thunders, shakes hands with Ha Seung-jin of KCC during the media day Oct. 10 ahead of the opening of the 2011-12 Korean basketball season. Ramos, at 222 centimeters, is now the tallest player on court, outdoing Ha by 1cm. (Yonhap)

"The only thing I would change about the KBL would be the practice time," he said. "I think with the amount of games we play, we should have more rest time. A day off is rare in Korea... We don't really have a lot of time off, so spending time with anyone other than your teammates is rare."

   And yet, the imports who stay are often the ones that enjoy such time, as Johnson's former Busan teammate Charles Rhodes attests.

   "It's great," said Rhodes. "Koreans are really nice, hardworking and respectful. This is the place to be. The culture is very different from the United States but I love it. I'm friends with a lot of players. We usually party, have dinner, and hang out at each other's condos with friends."

   The lifestyle may take some adjusting to but the players instantly take to the local fans. It is generally accepted that fans in Korea are more polite and more supportive than their American counterparts.

   "The fans in Korea are more forgiving than American fans," said Johnson. “They cheer and support their team whether it wins, loses or draws. In America, you have to be a winner to get that kind of support."

   For Rhodes, the people who come to watch are his favorite aspect about playing the game in Korea.

   "I truly love these fans. They really are supportive and energetic. That's why I try to sign every autograph and pose for every picture."

   Up the southeastern coast in the industrial city of Ulsan, Laurence Ekperigin has had similar experiences.

   "The fans give great support in Korea but back home they are rowdier," he said.

   The overseas players are trying to help Korean basketball rival its counterpart on the soccer or baseball field and perhaps one day make a genuine international impact.

   "I am sure they will do better internationally," said Johnson. "I think with the rule changes to only use one imported player, the Koreans will develop their games more."

   The basics are already here, they said, as the locals have what it takes.

   "When I first got here I realized that Korean basketball players were generally smart, and used their speed to their advantage. They can also shoot the ball well," said Ekperigin.

   As is also common to other sports are the characteristics displayed by Korean basketball players that impress foreign observers. "My first impression of the KBL was it was fast!" said Johnson. "Whether it is practice or the games, everyone is moving so fast. Once I got used to the speed of the game, everything else just fell into place."

   "I think the strengths of the Korean players are their work ethic, they work very hard at their games. They never complain and are very easy to coach and they have some of the best shooters I have seen in my few years of pro ball."

   "The Korean lifestyle is different but I have a lot of respect for it. They do think a certain way and it maintains the balance of power and makes for a safe and respectful environment," he said.