The path from Florence, South Carolina to Incheon, South Korea is one that Carlos Powell has often travelled. He begins his route by driving from Florence to Columbia where he takes a 45-minute flight to Atlanta. From Atlanta, he prepares for the long haul. A 14-hour flight from Atlanta to Incheon, South Korea where even business class can’t provide 14-hours of comfort for a man who stands 6’7″.
As long and difficult as that may seem, it doesn’t even compare to the basketball journey Powell took to become the leader of his Incheon ET Land Elephants of the Korean Basketball League (KBL). In his fourth year playing in the KBL, he has become the American godfather of Korean basketball.
Powell and I first met after a tough loss to the Goyang Orions on a breezy January night in Incheon. It was a game where Powell fouled out after some questionable calls that wouldn’t even stand trial in a court of law. His team however, was able to rally a fourth quarter comeback before a game winning shot rolled off the rim as the buzzer sounded. “Man, that was a tough one. We needed that one,” says Powell. After I introduce myself and tell him that I was interested in writing his story I asked him if he had time to do an interview, he agrees without hesitation. We walk to the same media room that I spent two months of my summer working in during the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. His baggy sweat pants were covering the two giant bags of ice on his knees that just took another pounding during an intense physical game that put him up against two of the best foreign players in the league; Troy Gillenwater and Leo Lyons. I asked him if ten minutes would be ok, he said sure. We would talk for 25 minutes, and as we said goodbye, there was no one left in the arena but me and him. “Time to go watch some game footage,” he says as he walks down the empty hallway towards the exit.
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How do you define “Korean style basketball”?
I think Korean basketball is more up-tempo. It’s really quick, really fast. You have to catch on really fast. It’s like every team here plays like the Phoenix Suns or the Golden State Warriors. It’s kind of different and it’s an adjustment for us foreigners but overall it’s pretty cool.
Are practices geared towards that style of play, just run-and-gun over and over again?
Yeah, the crazy thing is the Korean players only get a week off of the entire year (365 days). During the off-season they run mountains and run up and down the court. I know I wouldn’t be able to do it.
I don’t think the referees here in Korea get criticized enough for some of the terrible calls they make. It’s like they are untouchable.
It is man, it really is. The foreigners here we all talk about it. We get singled out a lot. It’s like a dictatorship here. You can’t say anything to them, you can’t ask them questions. I’ve never played basketball like that before. I’ve never even heard of that before.
So nobody is allowed to talk to the refs? They are basically robots then.
The only person that can talk to them is me because I’m the captain. Only the captain can ask the referee a question. But at the end of the day, nobody is coming to watch referees make calls. And when they start taking control of the game and stuff like that it’s just so frustrating. They take the fun out of the game.
How do you keep your composure?
I have to bite my tongue. A lot of times it’s a different call on one end and something similar on this end that doesn’t get called. It’s very inconsistent. I have a lot of people from America who get up at 5 a.m. to watch the games they ask me the same question, ‘How do you control yourself?’. I’ve been here for a while so I was used to it but this year it’s totally different. I think the new rules that the KBL implemented this year are in the refs favor and that’s not right.
If anyone watches you play they can see that you’re like a coach on the floor. You’re a floor general. But you weren’t always like that. When you played in Australia you were a scoring champion. When did you know that you had to change your game from scorer to contributor?
You know it had a lot to do with the players that surround me. I realized that the team surrounded me with a lot of good shooters. And my coach told me I could score anytime but the team has a lot of shooters. I understood exactly what he was saying and since then I’ve always played the game with a team first mentality, getting everyone involved. My whole thing was to get my teammates going, getting them motivated. I’ve always been a gifted scorer. But when I was trying to get into the NBA I knew I had to do something different because there are a ton of scorers out there. So when I was with the Phoenix Suns (training camp) I adopted the point forward position. It was a cool adjustment. If you go isolation every time, that can put wear-and-tear on your body. That’s why I like to watch Lebron a lot because he can score anytime, but you are nothing without your team. You get your teammates going early, and get their confidence up, that’s how I like to play the game. Once they get going and their shots start falling, we become unstoppable.
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Growing up in Florence, basketball is second to the baseball dominated culture. Even Powell played a little baseball as a kid. But where he really earned his stripes as basketball player was playing five-on-five pick up ball at Northwest Park with the older guys. Powell grew a reputation there, a reputation that his family looked up to.
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Before doing this interview I was doing some research and found that you have a younger cousin who is playing pro ball in Europe, Sam Muldrow.
Oh yeah, big Sam.
What’s the story with your cousin Sam?
We grew up together; he’s my first cousin, my mom’s sister’s son. We are a big basketball family. My mom played basketball, my aunt played basketball, but I’m the best [laughs]. Sam is a good kid. He went to South Carolina University just like me. He kind of followed me there and I tried to mentor him. He has a younger brother, and in two years he (Sam’s younger brother) is going to be a professional player. So Sam acts like a mentor to him. I never really had anybody really show me the way. Growing up I had four sisters and one stepsister. I was always like the father figure/man of the house so I had to grow up early.
Do you think your cousin Sam Muldrow will ever play in the KBL?
He actually came to tryouts last year in Las Vegas but they said he wasn’t in shape. Nobody can be in “Korean shape” [laughs]. I’m in pretty good shape because I take care of myself a lot but I told him early that in Korea it’s a different type of conditioning. They RUN over here. They said he wasn’t in shape but he’s big. So hopefully one day he gets a chance to play over here because he’s a good basketball player.
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After a solid collegiate career at South Carolina University where he was named SEC player of the week and led the school to a historic win over rival basketball powerhouse Kentucky University, Powell declared himself eligible for the 2005 NBA Draft. The draft came and went without Powell’s name being called so he decided to take his talents overseas and start his new career as a professional basketball player in Portugal. From Portugal he went to New Zealand where he was the leading scorer of the Australian National Basketball League with 28 points per game.
In the summer of 2007, Powell returned to America and played for the Golden State Warriors summer league team. But just like the 2005 NBA Draft, his name was left off of the final roster. So he returned overseas picking up a pro contract with BC Azovmash of the Ukrainian Super League. His mind was still set on one thing and one thing only, the NBA. And that goal seemed to be getting closer and closer when he was selected 2nd overall in 2007 NBA D-League draft by the Dakota Wizards, an affiliate team to the Golden State Warriors. But it wasn’t the Warriors that came calling. It was the Phoenix Suns who were most interested in Powell offering him a training camp contract in 2009. The NBA seemed inevitable for Powell. But in a league where ‘amazing happens’, the only thing amazing about the situation is when Powell was left off the Suns final roster. Everybody was amazed, shocked, confused.
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There was a time in your life where it was almost a lock for you to play in the NBA. You were in the NBA Summer League and you were even invited to the Phoenix Suns training camp but you never got that official NBA contract. Everyone assumes there were a lot of broken promises and that’s what kept you out of the league. Is that true?
Yeah, sort of, kind of… [sighs]. You know, I don’t want to say politics was the reason because everyone says politics is the reason. At the end of the day I got respect from a lot of NBA players. That was my biggest thing. I’m big on respect. I come in and give it everything I got everyday in training camps and stuff like that, and go as far as making it to the final cut and they would say ‘we are going to do this and if this happens you are going to be the first one we call”, you know… it was stuff like that but you know it’s cool man. I just took it and ran with it. It got me in Korea. It got me a nice job here. So I can’t complain, I’m doing well.
What was training camp like with Steve Nash and the Phoenix Suns?
I loved it man. Steve Nash, I was with him, Grant Hill, Amare Stoudemire, Jason Richardson, and all those guys. Man that was so fun. That was some fun basketball. They gave me an opportunity and I took advantage of it. I will never forget the games I played in Phoenix. Playing with Steve Nash man, a two-time MVP, that was dope man. I remember games like it was yesterday, playing with Steve Nash. We played this one game (pre-season) against Portland and he was just feeding me open shots, I hit like three threes in a row. It was crazy. I’ll never forget that.
In the NBA D-League draft, you were draft second overall in 2007. And then in 2009 you were the first draft pick. But in between those two years you decided to play in Korea for a year. What made you decide to do that?
The KBL offered more money than the NBA and D-League. And I had a family to feed.
Was it tough putting that putting your NBA dream on hold?
Ah man it was real tough, real, real tough. You know I was in the NBA D-League playing my butt off. I was deserving of a team giving me a shot. And I didn’t get it. And when you start seeing other guys getting called up to the NBA, that’s when I knew it was my time to start going out and making money. You know, when your chasing a dream, you really chase after a dream and don’t make it, and your pockets are empty, it’s tough, it really is.
I can’t get off this topic without asking you how close you were to signing and playing for the Phoenix Suns?
It came down to one guy, Taylor Griffin [the team chose Taylor Griffin over Powell]. I think he only played in the NBA for that one year. I don’t exactly know what happened there but everybody who was on that team knows man, they knew that was supposed to be my spot. Some of the guys even came up to me and said, ‘keep your head up, because you are supposed to be here’. They told me I deserved it man. But much respect to Steve Kerr too [Steve Kerr was the Phoenix Suns GM].
Was there an incident that happened during your second year in the NBA D-League that caused you to just leave and sign with a team in China?
I actually got upset with the NBA D-League. It was the New York Knicks to be honest. It was when I was with my Albuquerque team, and I was really close with Darvin Ham who was the assistant coach at the time. And he knew a couple of guys in the New York Knicks front office. He kept telling me that the Knicks need a guy and they are going to come calling. But then the Knicks ended up getting a guy off the couch, Jonathan Bender. They took Jonathan Bender off of the couch. I believe he was in retirement. He wasn’t even playing. That really hurt man. I’m being serious, that really hurt.
At that moment, were you thinking that NBA is just not going to happen for you?
I never said it wasn’t going to happen. But at the end of the day I gave it all I had man. I left it all out there you know. And again, players respected me. They know I should have been given a shot. They know that when I come out to pick-up games during the summer, like they tell me I should have been given a shot.
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For a man who’s big on respect, Powell got his respect where respect is do in the KBL. In a league where results are rushed and foreign players are in imminent danger of being released, Powell has been able to cement himself in Korea. He’s been able to lead the Incheon ET Land Elephants to the playoffs in two of his three seasons in Korea. Currently in his fourth season, Powell and the Incheon ET Land Elephants are one game out of playoff contention with just under two months of basketball remaining. For ten years Powell has been re-inventing his game to find a consistent role on a team. And he uses those past experiences to help guide his Korean teammates. While most foreigners in Korea are conducting language exchanges, Powell is providing a basketball exchange and his Korean teammates are soaking it all in like a sponge.
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You seem really comfortable here in Incheon. You know a lot of players come and go, but you’ve been able to play for Incheon for every single one of your four seasons in the KBL. How did you and Incheon become such a perfect fit?
It’s been cool here man. You know the moment where I really felt like this is the place to be was when the head coach put me captain of the team. That’s like unheard of in Korea, to be American, and captain of the team. It’s been two years in a row now. I remember last January we were on a serious losing streak, and coach was like, ‘we need a change, so I’m going to put you as the captain’. And then we went on to win nine out of the next 12 games.
Do you think the Korean players are receiving proper training here in Korea? It seems like the practices here is too military style.
The difference man, I think here they don’t really focus on skills. So I skill coach them during practice. I’ll work with the guards and show them stuff that we in America do. Because they don’t do that stuff here, they just do a lot of running and shooting.
So you implement your own skill training during practices?
Yeah, actually I take the three point guards and the two wing players every day before practice and we get cones and do ball handling drills and stuff like that. I do that every day with them to try and teach them small stuff that they can use during the game. Honestly, for these guys (Koreans) it’s all about running fast, and shooting. That’s basically it. You don’t really see a crossover here. It’s either a three-point shot or a drive straight to the basket. I try to teach them small stuff. It’s just another role I have on this team man, coaching them during practice.
Last fall you were in attendance to watch the Korean national team win gold on your home court here at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games. What was that experience like for you to witness that?
It was a good game (gold medal game). I actually had a few friends on the Iranian team from my days of playing in Iran. But it was cool man, especially for my guy Stevenson (Moon Tae-Jong). It was cool. It was pretty dope man. They went out and played really smart basketball. It was fun to see. That Mobis coach is good. He puts players in great situations. There are a lot of guys on Mobis who if they played for another team, you ask yourself ‘would he still be that good?’. Not the coach, but the player. You see that a lot when you put guys into a system and they excel. But he does a good job of bringing the players’ full potential out.
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I recall seeing Powell at the 2014 Incheon Asian Games gold medal game. He was about four rows up behind the Korean bench and was often asked by fans to snap a quick photo with them. He smiled every time. In fact, I don’t think he ever stopped smiling. It looked like he enjoyed every minute of being a fan for once. He was just watching the game just like everybody else. It was easy to spot out the foreigners in the large Korean based audience and Powell was having as much fun as the local Koreans.
Before the tournament, SK Knights foreign player Aaron Haynes was asked by the Korean Basketball Association (KBA) to join the trend of other Asian nations and become a naturalized citizen to then join the Korean national team (as we’ve recently seen with Andray Blatche in the Philippines). The deal fell through, but that didn’t stop the basketball community in Korea to wonder why Powell wasn’t in the discussion to become naturalized.
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When you heard the news about Aaron Haynes and him possibly becoming a naturalized Korean to play for the Korean national team did you feel like the KBA didn’t give you a fair consideration as a candidate?
I was shocked they even asked Aaron to do that. Because they don’t usually give Americans chances like that, it’s different over here. I think in European countries if you play three years there you get like citizenship or something and you can play for that country’s national team. But it’s different rules over here man [laughs]. Everything is different over here. I think the team would do better at the FIBA World Cup if they had an American on their team.
Would you do it if the KBA asked you to?
Yeah that would be cool man. Seriously, I wouldn’t mind doing that at all.
The KBL is considering changing its current rule from one foreign player on the floor at a time to two foreign players playing on the floor at a time. What’s your opinion on that?
I think it’s great because my first year here that’s how it was. The first and fourth quarter the two guys were playing together, then the second and third we swapped out minutes. But man, I say it would be a lot easier. Because we could actually communicated. Like, “back screen, back screen! or force him left, force him left!”, you can’t really say that here because you would have to say it in Korean. You would have to say a long sentence in Korean for the Korean players to understand. Communication here is tough, but like I can speak a little bit as far as left or right but with an American you just know he’s going to be there. So that’s going to be cool. But they are changing a lot of rules. Man, they change the rules every year. And what’s this 6’3” height restriction rule? I don’t understand, you know what I mean, like I really don’t understand because you have guys that have been here a long time like Aaron (Haynes) and me so that 6’3” height restriction is going to be tough.