The SK Knights most valuable person is no more than 190 c.m. tall and hasn’t played a minute of competitive basketball in his life. He is Han Sung Soo, the ‘Kobe Bryant of translators’ as SK Knights American import Aaron Haynes describes him, a nickname that modest Han Sung Soo would find disrespectful to Kobe. But even the great Kobe Bryant would agree that every craft has a master, and Han Sung Soo has certainly mastered the craft of translating basketball terminologies.
For the past sixteen years Han Sung Soo has spent the Seollal holiday in Korea with foreign basketball players. Han Sung Soo, 43, is the translator for the Seoul SK Knights of the Korean Basketball League (KBL), a league that has been hiring foreign players since 1997.
It’s the first day of Seollal and the SK Knights are playing intercity rivals the Seoul Samsung Thunder. Han Sung Soo takes his place in the pre-game huddle right next to head coach Moon Kyung Eun, and directly in front of foreign players. He kneels down to a position where he is parallel to the players who are sitting at the front end of the bench. You can’t really notice Han Sung Soo right away but if you look closely he’s there, translating game strategies to the two Americans, Aaron Haynes and Courtney Sims, and one Korean/American, David Michaels.
When a foreign player plays pro basketball in a country like South Korea there are three essential necessities that are needed. The first is obviously money, second is a place to live, and the third is a translator. Han Sung Soo provides the latter of the three. His role as a translator is something that Han Sung Soo revolutionized over the course of his career. He quickly realized that being a translator for a pro team is much more than translating Korean to English or vice versa. A basketball translator requires you to match the intensity, the emotions, and the speed of the game. Like an opposing team’s defense you need to know where your players are at all times. And that’s just during the game. Off the floor, you become the lifeline for foreign players. You become their go-to person for day-to-day activities.
So how did you first get into being a translator for a KBL team?
Growing up I never really played any basketball. But I was a huge NBA fan. It also helped that my dad was a coach. He coached in Korea for twenty years. He was the one who first got me into this business in 1998. Back then it was a little chaotic because the role of a translator was still new and a lot of teams just relied on the coach’s broken English and stuff like that. And when I first started, I didn’t really have a job description or guidelines so I had to figure it all out on my own. I thought I knew all of the basketball terms and everything but that didn’t work out to well. So I bought an NBA book and translated it all to Korean. I actually translated two or three books. Doing that helped a lot. I actually took a few books from my dad too, and from there I could really understands the basketball terminologies.
This brings us to the love story of basketball and Han Sung Soo. When it comes to basketball’s popularity in Korea, Han Sung Soo’s father is one of the pioneers who spread interests for the game throughout the country. Han Chang Do (Han Sung Soo’s father) began his career coaching basketball at the collegiate level. He then became a broadcaster in Korea and is known to be one of the first people to introduce the NBA to Korean basketball fans.
What are your earliest memories of basketball with your father?
“I think it was probably back in the 80s when I was in elementary school. At the time I didn’t really know who he was but Wilt Chamberlain came to Korea as part of a missionaries basketball program. And it was my dad who was translating that event. Wilt was the first NBA player I ever met. I can remember shaking his hand but I didn’t really know who he was, I was pretty young at the time.”
With your father living a busy coaching life, how did you find your own passion for the game of basketball?
“Well I was always a terrible basketball player, but I loved to play. I really got into the game when I moved to the States and watched the NBA. Also, in Seattle, we had a court in our backyard. We used to bring the cars back there and turn on the headlights so we can play at night. In Korea, it’s hard to do that. But I see some kids now days who play at the school. Hopefully we can have more facilities like that to help grow basketball in Korea.”
Did you ever feel pressured to carry on your dad’s legacy in South Korea?
“You know I’ve never mentioned my father on the record before, I think this is the first time. I love talking to him, but everybody here knows my father so I have to respect him. I take a lot of pride in that, but there are ears everywhere so I don’t want to talk about any negative things. I never really felt any pressured, but I have to respect my father. My first couple of years working in this industry some people would come up to me and ask about my father. I didn’t even know these people but they all knew my father so it was pretty funny. Sure my dad helped me out a lot. But for me I think it was my experience abroad that really helped me understand how leagues work and stuff like that. And that really set my standards high to be the best professional I can be.”
While Han Chang Do was pioneering a new form of basketball media in Korea, Han Sung Soo was paving his own path. It is widely assumed that Han Sung Soo’s father taught him everything there is to know about basketball, but that’s not necessarily the case. Han Sung Soo learned a lot about basketball from unique experiences abroad, in countries such as the United States and Australia.
Before Han Sung Soo was ever a translator he was a student at Highline Community College in Seattle, Washington, and North Sydney College in Sydney, Australia. He spent most of his time in Seattle where his grandfather runs a church. “My grandfather on my mom’s side was a pastor. He earned his citizenship in the United States. So he would invite everybody to the States and we would live there together. I stayed there for like eight years of my life,” says Han Sung Soo. After eight years in the United States, Han Sung Soo developed some unique habits. It was inevitable that he would cheer for the hometown Seattle SuperSonics, “my favorite player was Tim Hardaway. My favorite team was Seattle, of course,” but it was something else that he gathered from America that made his transition to Australia a little awkward. “It was funny because I was speaking English in an American accent. So when I first got to the school some people were like ‘where the hell are from man? You are an Asian student but you speak with an American accent’.”
Between that time from America to Australia, Han Sung Soo got his first part-time job in Seoul, “when I came back to Korea, my dad was working for the NBA television show in Seoul and I got a part time job translating interviews and stuff like that. And that’s kind of how I got started.”
His young journey would start in Seoul before landing in Seattle where he did his high school and some college, back to Seoul, and eventually Australia where he finished his degree. He was a travelling student who always kept basketball in his back pocket.
Was it difficult living abroad? Or is it something you enjoyed doing?
“First of all I love travelling to different countries. In the States I was in with the Korean community more than in Australia. But in Australia there were so many people from different countries so during that time I was involved with different cultures. It really helped me understand different cultures and different communications, it was kind of a skill I developed that I use now for my job as a translator.”
You lived abroad for so long, after a certain amount of time you probably got used to it to. But did you experience ‘reverse culture shock’ once you moved back to Korea for good?
“Not really because as soon as I finished my degree in Australia I came back to Korea and served my mandatory two-year military service. So it kind of forced me to re-adapt to the Korean culture. I left Korea as a teenager and came back as a Korean/American type guy but the army service changed my momentum.”
When Han Sung Soo finished his military service, he felt like a new man. A man with an opportunity to become the best basketball interpreter in South Korea. It was a job destined for him. It was a job he wanted and it wanted him. It was more than a job, it was a passion, a lifestyle, something worth living for. Many great professionals were destined to become what they are today. One of those greats is a legend who grew up learning the craft abroad, like Han, he would use this foreign environment to master his craft. That man was Kobe Bryant. Han spent most of his youth in America, Kobe spent most of his youth in Italy. Han’s father was a professional basketball translator, Kobe’s father was a professional basketball player. It was destined for these two individuals to meet at some point in their lives. On September 8th, 2006, Han Sung Soo met Kobe Bryant at Jamsil Arena in Seoul, South Korea.
So how did it happen? How did you get the chance to meet Kobe Bryant?
“I remember back in 2006 when Kobe Bryant was touring around Asia, he stopped in South Korea and I had the chance to translate for him. Our team, the SK Knights is sponsored by Nike so since Kobe was touring Asia with Nike, I had the opportunity to translate for Kobe.”
So take me back to that day, what happened?
“It was a week day, and it was around the time that the 2006 USA Dream Team played an exhibition game against the Korean team. Anyway I met up with the coordinator of the event and he took me into the locker room and there he was, Kobe Bryant, just sitting right there in front of me. I couldn’t believe it, so I went up to him and introduced myself as the translator, shook his hand and talked to him for a little bit. Honestly, he was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. He was very professional and a great teacher for the young kids. And here’s an even funnier story, at the time I didn’t know them, but there were two young kids there learning from Kobe who ended up playing on the SK Knights. It’s a small world here in Korea [laughs]. I still talk about that moment to this day. You don’t forget about those moments.”
Assuming he spends another four seasons with the SK Knights, Han Sung Soo will complete twenty years of service to the team. He, like his father, will go down as a pioneer for Korean basketball. He invented, and reinvented, and reinvented again the position of a basketball translator for a Korean basketball team, “after this I want to still be involved with sports. I love sports and I can’t see myself not working in the industry.”
That sentiment goes to show the dedication of Han Sung Soo. Even after twenty years in the business, he wants more, not for himself, but for the culture of sports in Korea. The Seoul SK Knights are currently in the final stretch of the season before the enter the 2015 KBL playoffs where they will battle for a shot at a KBL championship. The SK Knights have a chance, they have a deep roster who can get hot at any time. If they do win a KBL title this year, Han Sung Soo will be right there, in the shadows of the two tall American players celebrating. He might not win the KBL Finals MVP, but he’ll certainly get the nod for most valuable person to the SK Knights organization.