Buzzer Beater Banter: Eric Sandrin (NEH Magazine)

To follow is the piece I wrote on KBL and Korean National team basketball player Eric Sandrin (이승준) which appeared on the cover of the July Issue of NEH Magazine.

Buzzer Beater Banter: Talking Ball with International Superstar Eric Sandrin

When I sat down with Eric Sandrin, known in Korea as Lee Seung Jun I had completely forgotten that I was interviewing someone for what would become the cover story of the next issue – I was more concerned with having a kick ass, legitimate, full-fledged conversation about basketball. We talked about the differences between playing in the Korean Basketball League (KBL) and the National Basketball Association (NBA), including what it was like to play for an NBA Summer League team and get invited to an NBA training camp. We discussed the ramifications of being selected in the KBL ethnic player draft versus the foreign player draft, the history of Korean basketball and the ups and downs that have ensued, the difference between International basketball (FIBA) and NBA rules and what it’s like to play professionally in leagues all over the world, including a stint with the renowned Harlem Globetrotters. I could go on and on about the juicy tidbits he dished and how I ate up every single one of them with fervor (as if I was Bear Grylls stumbling upon grubs in a rotten palm tree in middle of the Amazon rain forest.)

To explain, and maybe justify my excitement, I should mention that I come from Rip City, the place between San Francisco and Seattle where basketball reigns supreme. The reason why? Our one and only professional team for years, the Portland Trail Blazers. From the time my grandmother held me in her arms as an infant during my team’s only victorious Championship run – screaming Rip City at the top of her lungs, I was hooked. Some might even say obsessed, with Blazer basketball and the NBA.

I knew he graduated from Seattle Pacific University, but Eric revealed that he actually attended the University of Portland for the majority of his collegiate career before blowing out his knee and moving back north to complete his studies. He told me stories of playing in a pick up game with Nate McMillan, Seattle Super Sonics legend and current head coach of the Trail Blazers. He recited word for word Coach Nate’s pep talk that led to a victory on the court that day. “Usually pick up games run to eleven. We were down I think 5-2, so he calls a time out, in a pick up game right? He comes over and he’s like, ‘Hey look, I don’t know what’s going on here, but this is not cutting it. We’re a lot better than this team. We’re pros. Everyone out here right now, needs to play better. OK?’ We were all like, ‘OK!’, and went on a 6-0 run and won the game. It was crazy, who calls time out in pick up game in the open gym?” Listening to Eric re-live the moment, it felt like I was in the huddle, or watching Coach Nate on the WIRED segment of a TNT basketball broadcast as I’ve done countless times.

As the conversation progressed, so did the correlations between his career and ties to my hometown. Needless to say, my brain was the sponge soaking in priceless basketball banter.

More important than all of that though, I learned what it means to rely on your athletic ability for your livelihood – what it’s like to play with and mutually depend on your brother, on the court and in life and the pride that comes from competing against the best in the world by representing your country on the national team. We talked about what it means to return to the country of your mom’s origin and fully assimilate to become a passport carrying citizen. How these experiences can lead to a deeper understanding of yourself and your family by living in the place they came from. Beyond being enamored with the basketball talk, I walked away with a personal memoir of sorts from a high level international athlete who happened to have a lot of ties to where I grew up.

Eric is from the Seattle area, born to a Korean mother and an Italian American father. From early on, he and his brother, Daniel – who are two years apart in age – would spend many summers visiting family and vacationing in Korea. Not the modern Korea we experience now. Their grandmother lived in the country.

“My grandmother’s house, man,” Eric says, “it had like stone walls and a latrine, like a trench. It was by the rice patties, we had to make fires. It was basically going on vacation to camp. We had to butcher pigs and stuff. She had paper windows,” I asked him to clarify, paper windows? “It was funny. Me and my brother were like, ‘paper windows?’ We were poking holes in them, getting bit up all night with bugs and stuff. So she finally put the glass windows in. Then we’d break the glass windows, and my grandma’s all mad. It was crazy.”

Spending summers in the Korean countryside as children was an influential experience for the brothers. I get the impression it laid the foundation on which their Korean house would later be built, planting the seed of interest in Korean language and culture that would stick with them throughout their childhood and carry on into adulthood.

As Eric and his brother grew in age, so did their interest in athletics. However it wasn’t always basketball, “I didn’t even really like basketball, he [Daniel] started playing because my dad played. I always played soccer,” Eric told me, “But because he didn’t like soccer, I was like, ‘I guess I got to play basketball, so we can play together.’”

Soon the time came when they knew they were good, “Our dad, he’s a big guy. I remember one day we were playing with him, and we were starting to beat him right? He got mad and pushed us down, kind of hard,” Eric remembers, “We were driving around and he pushed us, bloodied up our knees and stuff. I was like, ‘wait a sec, is our dad getting kind of like… you know?’ Then we were like, ‘you know what, maybe we could be alright.’”

Turns out they were more than alright. As they excelled at the high school level, the college letters came rolling in. The goal however, wasn’t necessarily to play at the professional level. As Eric puts it, “Our family wasn’t wealthy, so we were kind of thinking if we become good at basketball, maybe we can get a scholarship and go to school for free. Playing in the NBA would have been great and all, but to leave college with no debt would have been alright too.”

Eric has now played professionally all over the world: America, Brazil, France, Luxembourg, Germany, Hungary, Singapore, and Korea, to mention a handful of countries. I’m familiar with basketball culture in Europe, but Brazil? That’s intriguing, so I asked what it’s like playing in a place like Brazil?

“It was awesome. I wish I would have gotten paid. That’s the reason I didn’t go back,” Eric told me. Hold on, you didn’t get paid to play? “They were like, ‘If you come back, we’ll give you the rest of your money.’ I was like, ‘What are you talking about, I already played.’” This negative experience didn’t seem to completely tarnish his memories however. “Brazil is a beautiful country. The people, the landscape, the food — everything. But it’s just so corrupt man, it’s unbelievable.”

Eric suited up for a minor league squad back in the states for a while, but was having the same problem that he had in Brazil: receiving payment for playing. In an attempt to gain some recognition on his way out the door of this league, he accepted an invitation to play in the All-Star game. NBA scouts would be in attendance and it would be a great opportunity to let his skills shine in front of an influential crowd. What he didn’t know yet was just how significant this decision would turn out to be.

After playing well in the game and taking third in the dunk contest, Eric was approached by Mannie Jackson, owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, who was watching festivities with his wife. Apparently she took a liking to Eric and convinced her husband to ask him to join their crew of entertaining basketball showmen.

After signing the contract Eric phoned his father, whose response was, “Don’t you have to be a different color to play for the Globetrotters?” He brings up an interesting point. I’m no expert, but I don’t recall having seen a Globetrotter that wasn’t black. I refer to Eric for a history lesson, “They had a couple white guys play for them in the past, a couple women. They actually had a Mongolian. And me. We’re like the only people that weren’t African American.”

The lack of international flavor on the Globetrotters is evident by the nickname he was given. Shanghai. As in the Chinese city.

“It’s pretty funny. I think that’s what his [Mannie Jackson’s] wife wanted to call me. And then like all these online blogs came and were like whoa whoa, hold on hold on, how can you call this guy Chinese, he’s Korean. It was all in good fun.”

The Globetrotters experience was eye opening for many reasons. He travelled the country playing everywhere from mega metropolises to small towns. The US tour is over one hundred games, and that’s done in three months, which means he’s playing nearly everyday, with double headers on the weekend.

Playing the Staples Center in Los Angeles in front of 17,000, including Dr. Dre, Sharon Stone and Pam Anderson, who is sitting on your bench, is enough to make a lot of athletes jealous. That said, it’s not for everyone. As Eric puts it, “If you want to play with the Globetrotters, you got to make a decision, because your competitive basketball career will be over. It’s all show. I mean you make good money, and it’s a good living. They really take care of you. You’re basically like an athletic actor. It was a good experience. It was a lot of fun. But I still had a competitive desire.”

He was playing in Europe post Globetrotters, when he received two phone calls. One was from the Los Angeles Lakers and the other from an agent gauging his interest in coming to Korea. Because he still had aspirations to play in the NBA, he suggested the Korean agent give his brother Daniel a call who had been utilizing his education to work in finance because it was more lucrative than the few years he spent playing professionally in Europe.

Daniel moved to Korea, played basketball at Yonsei University and got his citizenship. His hard work paid off as he landed a spot in the professional ranks of the KBL as well as the distinguished honor of representing Korea on the national team.

Hearing his brother hype up Korea, and speak of his experience playing against the best in the world on the national team (and after getting cut in NBA camp) Eric too decided it was time to move to Korea. He now plays for the Samsung Thunder in Seoul and is a member of the Korean national team.

Eric is quick to give credit where it is due when discussing his opportunities in Korea. The commissioner of the KBL was acknowledged as someone with the foresight to try something new, change the game up and make it exciting by opening the door to foreigners and half Koreans like himself. He also pointed out, “My brother and Kim Min Soo, they came well before me, and I think they set the precedent for what the level of play would be for half Koreans and whatnot. Without my brother and a couple of other guys, it would be impossible for me to be here. They were kind of like the Jackie Robinsons.”

Beyond basketball, living in Korea has been a way for Eric to learn more about not only his heritage, but himself. He tells me, “I’m getting more insight into my mom, and her family, and also myself. There’s certain things that you do innately right? Maybe they are just passed down from your mom or dad, or whatever. You do stuff and you don’t know why, but coming here, I understand.”

When asked what his favorite part about living in Korea is, without hesitation the answer is being here with his brother.

“It was hard being in different places. Especially because my brother had a hard go, it was tough on him when he first got here. He continues, “Being able to be out here, and help him when he needs help, and for him to help me when I need help, that’s the best thing.”

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~ by ripcitytoseoul on August 1, 2011.

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