By Yoo Jee-ho
GUANGZHOU, China, Nov. 12 (Yonhap) -- Lee Seung-jun slapped high fives with his teammates after sinking a jump shot during a shootaround as South Korean men's national basketball team practiced Thursday before the Asian Games here in southern China. He playfully tried to block a teammate's layup and jumpers. When everyone else put up a layup on a fast break drill, he slammed it down, just for the heck of it. He even dribbled between his legs on the way to the free throw line.
As his tough-love head coach yelled directions during an intrasquad game, Lee, the 204-centimeter forward, managed to dribble the ball behind his back as he tried to find an open teammate -- and didn't look out of place doing so.
With his long locks flying and the tattooed image of two tigers roaring on his left arm and across his chest, Lee is the epitome of fun on a squad full of quiet and unassuming veterans, led by no-nonsense head coach Yoo Jae-hak.
But don't let Lee's seemingly devil-may-care approach fool you, because representing South Korea carries an extra meaning for him.
Lee, who plays for the Samsung Thunders in the Korean Basketball League (KBL), was born Eric Sandrin to a Korean mother and an American father. He obtained his Korean citizenship in 2009, three years after his younger brother, Lee Dong-jun, also a pro basketball player. This is Seung-jun's first international tournament for the land of his mother's birth.
"My brother always told me how much fun he had, how proud he was to be a part of (the national team)," Lee Seung-jun said. "Now that I am with the team, it's a dream come true. I'm really, really happy."
When asked what it would mean for him to win the gold for South Korea, the usually effervescent Lee turned almost speechless.
"It'd be amazing," Lee said, shaking his head in incredulity at the mere mention of the word "gold medal." "I couldn't be happier."
Lee Seung-jun first joined the KBL in 2007 as Eric Sandrin. He was then registered as a foreign player on Mobis Phoebus. KBL clubs are permitted two foreign players each, and they rely heavily on imported stars, who typically have superior skills to locals, for scoring and rebounding. But an ankle injury limited Lee's explosiveness and he wasn't retained after the season.
Then, under a new league rule, KBL teams could draft half-Korean players starting in 2009 and register them as Korean. Being able to join the KBL as one of the locals opened a new window of opportunity for Lee, who was selected by the Thunders. His younger brother, Dong-jun, also plays in the KBL. Formerly Daniel Sandrin, the younger Lee obtained his Korean citizenship in 2006 to join the Daegu Orions in the KBL the following year.
Dong-jun had an opportunity to represent South Korea in international competitions before Seung-jun. The older brother had been regarded as the more talented of the two, but the younger Lee had worked his way up with a versatile game of his own.
This summer, it was Seung-jun's turn as he beat former NCAA guard Jeon Tae-pung (born Tony Akins) for the sole spot on the team for a naturalized Korean player.
Under regulations of FIBA, the international governing body of basketball, teams are allowed only one player who became naturalized after the age of 16. That is to prevent countries from stockpiling U.S.-born players who are fast-tracked to gain citizenship.
Dong-jun also lost to Seung-jun in the battle for the national team spot. But the Lee brothers share a close bond -- close enough that the older Lee said the two tigers in his tattoo symbolize himself and his brother.
In the image, both tigers are climbing a mountain, which Lee explained is a symbol of success.
"My brother and I are both trying to grab success," Lee said of the tattoo, which he got last year.
Lee has enjoyed success as a solid offensive threat on his KBL club, averaging 15.3 points and 7.1 rebounds per game while making almost 60 percent of his field goals last season. But on a national team with 11 other all-star-caliber players, he knows he has a different role to play.
"I think my role is guarding the bigger guys, because we're playing a lot of teams with really tall people. Get rebounds, play defense, and then score when I have my opportunity," he said. "And play as hard as I can."
With the national team's 221-centimeter center Ha Seung-jin fighting nagging injuries, Lee's hard-nosed work in the low-post will become even more crucial.
But working hard on his game hasn't kept Lee from having a little fun.
"I just try to keep the guys relaxed because I think sometimes in Korea, we take things too seriously," he said. "We have to remember that this is still a game."
Perhaps in South Korea's conservative world of professional sports, where players are often asked to maintain a clean-cut image, having long hair and big tattoos could label an athlete a rebel.
But Lee is one with a cause.
"I think we have a really great opportunity to win the gold medal and bring some interest back to basketball in Korea," Lee said after South Korea held its first practice Thursday ahead of the Asian Games here. "Maybe 10 years ago, basketball was really, really popular, but now basketball has kind of faded away. Now it's baseball and soccer and other sports."
Basketball plays second fiddle, at best, to baseball in South Korea but it's not Lee's fault. He plays just the kind of explosive and exciting basketball that fills the house.
In China, though, the ultimate goal for Lee is to win one for his adopted home.
"Our team's been focused since we got together. Now that the tournament has arrived, I think our focus is really sharp," Lee said. "I think we've got good chemistry together and have good feelings, good teamwork. We came here to win the gold medal."
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