Written by Anthony Cho ETA’11-12
The game of basketball is about making impossible choices: Shoot or pass? Drive or dish? Lebron or Kobe? Jordan or — actually, that’s not really a question for a North Carolina Tar Heel.
These choices reveal a lot about a hoop fiend like myself.
For example: What’s better, jumping a bonfire to celebrate my Tar Heels’ national championship during my junior year, or coaching a band of misfit elementary students to a YMCA championship a year later? Like Lebron and Kobe, both are great, but they aren’t the best. For me, basketball’s ultimate reward — the Jordan of joys — is the kinship and chemistry created by a great team.
Before I arrived in Korea, my biggest concern was not language barriers or gastronomical adjustments, but whether I could watch and play basketball. Would the basketball gods to whom I stayed faithful smile upon me in Korea, or would they create a Shaq-sized vacuum in my life?
Gochang County, where I live and teach, is a small agrarian community where the sweat of farmers and smell of fertilizer dominate the senses. It seemed that Gochang has no time for pro sports. I was determined to start a basketball club at my school, but life often plays stifling defense.
After some initial investigation, I quickly learned three things: 1) there are no basketball goals in the school 2) most of my students are too busy studying to play and 3) the students who do play ball would rather play soccer.
Having been rejected by both the professional leagues and my school, I turned to the community. I scouted my town for basketball hoops. I discovered a court in a park very close to my home with goals, but they were closer to Naismith’s fruit basket on a pole than modern hoops. I was on the verge of giving in to a life without jumpers, jams or joy.
Finally, I stumbled into the community gym whose sign promised a basketball court. If they had nets, I was game. Before entering, I could hear the battle hymn of hoops: shouts of laughter, eruptions of cheers and sneaker-squeaks on the court. I could taste the sweat in the air. This was a scene from my American life.
Grinning ear to ear, I zealously swung open the pearly gates. There were indeed nets — badminton nets. There were people of all ages — from toddlers to the elderly — swinging their rackets and smashing the shuttlecock of my hoop dreams. My heart sank. The basketball gods mocked my odyssey.
Luckily, these gods are more merciful than mighty Poseidon. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the basketball goals, orphaned and begging for some attention. I went to the gym office, borrowed a basketball and obliged these goals until the lights turned off.
This gymnasium became my sanctuary. The first few weeks teaching were both physically and mentally exhausting, so I regularly came to the gym to shoot around. I would turn to my friend, Wiz Khalifa, clear my mind and make it rain. It was a reminder of good times with friends in Chapel Hill; these familiarities helped me ease into my new life in a foreign land.
One fortuitous weekend, I happened upon a game — not badminton, but basketball. People in team jerseys playing a full-court, five-on-five game. This was a sign from above. I hustled over, introduced myself, and asked for a shot on the court. I’m sure they relented out of courtesy (thank the gods for Korean etiquette culture).
I thought that if I played well (and politely), they would ask me to play again. I dreamt of friendship, league ball, storming the world of Korean recreational basketball. I had to play with a delicate fervor to prove my worth, treading the fine line between baller and ball hog.
After the game, one of the guys approached me to make small talk.
Where are you from? What are you doing in Gochang? How long will you be here?
It was like a first date. We were getting to know each other, and there was definitely chemistry. I knew that he would ask for my number later and thought to myself, “So this is what it’s like to be courted.”
Finally, the words I had been waiting for all night finally came out: Let’s play again sometime. What’s your telephone number? I’ll give you a text next weekend. I did it. It finally happened. I giddily gave out my number.
Fast-forward to the present. Now I have eight 형 (older brothers) in Gochang. Some of them have children, some just got back from the army, some are looking for work and one owns a children’s clothing boutique with his wife. These veterans showed me the best spots to eat and kept me abreast of local politics and gossip. As time went on, their company became just as comforting as the basketball that we played.
Looking back, I now realize that it really wasn’t basketball that I was looking for anyway. As much as I love the sport, I loved the community more. We started our season this spring with zero wins and two losses, but the losses didn’t bother me as much as they might have in America. It was painfully obvious that we lacked the talent on the court to win games. However, we laughed off the court and were more concerned about what to eat for dinner afterward.
For the first time in my basketball career, the number in the wins column wasn’t the best measure of our team. Instead, I looked forward to the games where I could hang out with my brothers. They now ask me questions like: why I don’t serve in the Korean army, if I have ever seen an NBA game or even if I could teach English to their kids. I fire back by saying I’ll teach their kids right after I teach them how to dribble.
Anthony Cho is a 2011 ETA at Gochang Buk High School in Gochang.