Valentine’s Basketball, Korean Style

I surprised my girlfriend with our first live Korean Basketball League game on Valentine’s Day 2010. Valentine’s Day was also Lunar New Year’s Day, falling on a Sunday before the work-free Monday of a 3 day weekend.

On our bus ride in to Seoul from Ilsan it was apparent that this was not your average Sunday. The bus wasn’t as full as usual and many shops and restaurants were closed. Lunar New Year is one of the biggest holidays in Korea, if not the biggest, and most people are spending quality time with the family. Even the popular Butterfinger Pancakes in Gangnam was quiet. The second floor wasn’t opened up when we arrived, and our wait was only 5 minutes to getting seated.

After a delicious late breakfast, my girl had no idea where I was taking her as we walked down in to Gangnam Station. Getting off at the Sports Complex stop confused her even more. The only thing we’ve ever done here is attend baseball games at Jamsil Stadium, and it’s definitely not baseball weather. But it became obvious as soon as we walked out exit #8, revealing the giant SK Knights inflatable gate to the entrance as well as the box office at Seoul Student Gymnasium.

The scene out front of the arena was very Korean. Little R2D2 looking green guys, representing one of the telecom companies, were walking around and handing out flyers. Food stands were set up selling the usual beers, sodas, dried squid and other Korean snacky treats. When we asked someone to snap our photo in front of the gate, other Koreans with nice looking cameras stopped to take our picture as well. The dude that captured our image was also twisting up little balloon animals so we left in possesion a little orange dog.

After browsing the SK merchandise we made our way to the seats to watch warm ups. I put us in the couples section, which sits just above media row that was all but empty for this game. The couples section features 2 seats side by side, with no arm rest in between, as well as a little table area on either side for your belongings. Another perk of sitting in this section… we were given 6 Krispy Kreme donuts and 2 Demi Sodas on the house, which was a nice surprise mid-way through the 1st quarter.

I can’t find accurate capacity information online, but Seoul Student Gymnasium is not very big. I was a bit disappointed at the lack of fans. I wrote about the headache of purchasing tickets to this game in advance, for fear of a packed arena. Next year I know, the only thing packed on this particular holiday is the freeway as the whole nation travels to and from their relatives. And at least I now have a better understanding of what it takes to purchase event tickets online.

We sat down about 15 minutes prior to tip off and soaked in the atmosphere. A giant Happy New Year banner hung above one end of the arena. Both teams were performing typical basketball warm up drills. Arena workers walked around passing out noise makers, which were large glossy cardboard rectangles with ridges. Once folded again and a again along the ridges, they make a surprisingly loud noise when slapped.

The pre-game performance was, in true Korean sports tradition, very odd. To start, an announcer man in athletic gear, and several women in traditional Korean hanboks, walked out to center court. They gave a deep bow all the way down to the ground, I believe to show gratitude to the fans for showing up to watch. And just before the bow, I think they thanked the sponsors, which included Nike, Krispy Kreme, Krazy Burgers and the telecom companies.

Next was the Korean national anthem, which was a awkward for a few reasons. Everyone rose to their feet, placed their hands over their hearts… and began staring at us. Turns out we were sitting directly under the flag. And I don’t remember this from Korean baseball games, but for some reason it felt like I too should have my hand over my heart. Maybe because everyone was looking in my direction. I know they weren’t looking directly at me, but still I felt spotlighted. Maybe because there were far fewer people in attendance than at a baseball game, giving it a more intimate feeling. Maybe because I’ve been to more professional basketball games than any other sport back home, and have done the American national anthem countless times. Lending to the strangeness was the jumbo screen showing SK basketball highlights in slow motion during the anthem. They do the same thing at the baseball games. At home it’s all about paying respects to your country. Here, it’s also about watching sick passes, blocked shots and 3 bombs.

Before the starting lineup for the visiting Olleh KT team was announced next, to very little fan fare or attention paid, even more women in hanboks walked to the court and performed a traditional dance. I’m assuming the traditional attire and festivities were because of the significance of the holiday.

The lights then dimmed in preparation for the announcement of the starting lining up for home team SK Knights. The ladies in hanboks stayed on the court, and before you know it… they were lit up like Christmas trees. Were they really the team dancers in disguise? While all of this is happening, tons of characters are running around acting goofy. They consisted of a bottle of Pocari Sweat, Krispy Kreme donut, Kraze Burgers hamburger, the SK Knight and some donkey.

The game itself was entertaining. Of course it’s not on par with what I’m used to watching back home, but it’s the best you can get around here. SK tried to run the ball when given the opportunity. KT played more of a half court. There were 2 foreigners on SK, 3 on KT. It seemed like the white guy on KT was the best player on the court.

I don’t think many KBL players have big time playing experience. Ha Seung Jin played with the Portland Trail Blazers and Milwaukee Bucks. This giant now plays for the reigning champs KCC Egis. There could others with greater experience, I’m just not aware of it.

During the game, the atmosphere was similar to what you would find at the Rose Garden Arena back home. During time outs and intermission there were shooting contests for prizes. I think 1 of 5 contestants hit the rim. They have break dancers, similar to the Trail Breakers, just not quite as talented. The dancers ditched the hanboks and returned for the second half sporting booty shorts, pink tops and knee braces. A kissing cam embarrassed couples in the crowd. Just like home, it found it’s way to blasting two dudes on the screen. The dancers even busted out the bungee and shot goodies in to the crowd.

In the end, the visiting KT Olleh took the win. The post game consisted of interviews on the court, fans snapping courtside pictures, and parents taking kids on to the playing surface for shot attempts at the basket. The bonus of a low attendance game at Seoul Student Gymnasium… it took no time to escape at the end of the game.

The biggest bummer of the day was piling in to a cab bound for dinner in Sincheon. It took a while to even get the cab, and as it entered the freeway we quickly realized we had made a poor decision. As all of Korea made their way back to the city after visiting their grandmothers in remote areas, the Lunar New Year traffic had completely clogged up any hope of a speedy getaway. So we had him exit as soon as possible, and grabbed a bus in Apgujeoung that avoided the freeway. The 472 quickly got us to Sincheon and tacos at On the Border.

Overall, a fun experience and I’m sure I’ll be attending more Korean Basketball League games in the future.

Learn Korean with


~ by ripcitytoseoul on February 19, 2010.

One Response to “Valentine’s Basketball, Korean Style”

  1. It was a wonderful day that I’m grateful for. Looking forward to doing it again soon 🙂

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