Hoop Dreams: Pick Up Basketball in Korea

korea14052Messed Around, Wound Up With A Triple Double

Now that the reasonably warm weather has returned to Seosan, I’m spending a lot more time partaking in one of my favorite pastimes: pickup basketball. This game has been with me since I was kid. With my house located directly across the street from a giant schoolyard blacktop with four full courts, perfect for the casual game of Horse or impromptu games of hoop. All you had to do was walk up, call next game, and wait for your turn. Games to eleven, winner stays, play by ones, win by two. Couldn’t be simpler.

If organized basketball is like a orchestrated concert with its complex trapping schemes and triangle offenses and various other forms of higher strategy, pickup basketball is the sporting equivalent of a basement jam session. It’s fluid, it’s fast, unrehearsed and unhinged.

Playing basketball in Korea, I’ve found that the numerous cultural differences I experience elsewhere in daily life seem to just fade away when on the court. That’s the beauty of sports. No matter where you go, the rules of the game are constant. If you take three steps without dribbling the ball, that’s a travel. If you hack someone’s arm while he’s going to the hoop, that’s a foul. If someone makes an incredible circus shot, you let him know he got lucky. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Seoul or Seattle, rules are rules. When you’re thousands of miles away from home, it’s comforting to know that some things in life are impervious to change, like the singularly satisfying sound of a composite leather ball swishing through a chain-link hoop.

Maybe it’s the unifying characteristics of the game that have been a catalyst for basketball’s rapid global growth in popularity in recent years. When I went to China last December, my tour guide told me that his life long dream was to travel to Los Angeles to see Kobe Bryant play a game in the Staples Center. That day we talked more about the NBA than we did about the Forbidden City.

Though the fundamental rules of the game are concrete, there are still plenty of distinctions between the pickup games I’m used in the States and the ones I play here in Korea. One of the biggest contrasts is the fact that teams tend to play zone defenses instead of man-to-man. Instead of guarding an individual player, defenders guard a particular space on the court, thus making driving to the basket more difficult and forcing offensive players to shoot from the outside. In a warm, heated gym, taking outside shots is straightforward, but on a brisk March afternoon with the sun in your eyes and swirling winds wreaking havoc on your release, connecting with a a long range jumper can be next to impossible. The low scoring turns games into marathon events, but for the true fan of the game, that’s actually an added bonus. I don’t really care about who wins or loses, I just like being on the court.

There are other differences as well, some of which have nothing to do with the actual game unfolding on the court. Take, for example, the increased occurrence of PWG – that’s Players Wearing Glasses. With so many guys sporting on-court eye wear, the propensity for flying spectacles is quite high. Some guys use a little strap that keeps their glasses from getting sent airborne. It’s a look that probably won’t strike fear into the hearts of opponents, but it keeps your specs on your face, and that’s all that matters. Kurt Rambis would be proud.

Perhaps the biggest contrast between games in the States and games in Korea takes place on the sidelines between games. Instead of reaching for a glass of water or some neon-colored sports drink, many players reach into their pockets and pull out the ultimate thirst quencher: cigarettes. Call me crazy, but when I’m doused in sweat and gasping for air, the last thing I want to do is inhale the smoke from a smoldering menthol, but hey, that’s just me.

In the end these differences are minor. Like a guitarist choosing his Telecaster over his Les Paul, it’s not really important what you play as much as how you play it. And when it comes to basketball, it turns out that rebounding, passing, shooting, defense and teamwork are the same in any language. Just follow the simple formula and you’ll be ok. Games to eleven, winner stays, play by ones, win by two. Couldn’t be simpler.


3 responses to “Hoop Dreams: Pick Up Basketball in Korea

  1. Remind me of how good i was in three-point shot few years ago.

  2. You describe it well when say the rules are simple. However, the game is not. It requires what we often forget – put our ego on the sideline – play as a team. A lesson that is bigger than the game itself.

  3. I think you have no idea, if you say that Korean pick up game rules are same as the ones in USA or Europe. They have no idea about rules, and don’t even know what that word means. So I think as part as that goes, your text is totally irrelevant. Cheers.

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