THERE ARE many great basketball players out there, but there is only one who has been named “national treasure.” Seo Jang-hoon (’93, Dept. of Sports & Leisure Studies), currently a member of the Incheon ETLand Basketball Team, is the one whose role as a center is so amazing that people felt as though he should be protected as a “treasure.” During his more than 20 years of basketball life, he won over 13 prizes and recently broke the record and earned more than 10,000 points for the first time in Korean basketball history. Though his teammates who shared the glory of the past with him retiring now one by one, Seo is still shooting higher and higher.
Annals: When and why did you decide to become a basketball player?
Seo: Actually, I liked playing baseball, not basketball when I was in elementary school. However, as I went to middle school, it was suggested that I try playing basketball because of my height. Unlike other players who started playing at a young age, my late entry to the court made it hard for me to stand out. I used to be on the bench waiting for the coach to call on me but everything changed in ninth grade when I suddenly grew much taller. I became exceptionally taller even compared to my basketball colleagues then, reaching almost 2 meters. My extraordinary height helped me play with much ease and brought me victories along with fame and attention.
How was your life in Yonsei University?
At the time when I became a university student, the whole society was in a basketball boom. Basketball was one of the few pastimes through which students could release their stress and have fun in those days. Basketball fandom was created and I could feel the fervor in my everyday life as a member of the Yonsei basketball team. Each day, 200 or 300 girls would stay all day long in front of our lodge just to get a glimpse of us, and over 1,000 fan letters were delivered to our team. Some of the members had good looks on top of their exceptional skills, becoming many girls’ prince charmings.
However, there was not much time to enjoy the sweet taste of being the center of attention because I was still a basketball player who had to earn scores and lead the team to a victory. I was not only a member of the school basketball team but also the national team. Thus in winter, I would participate in the winter basketball league where university teams and business basketball teams all came together to compete, while running in university tournaments or national games at other times.
As you can expect, leading an ordinary lifestyle was impossible for me. I could not freely wander around outside or inside campus because of my fame. Regularly attending class was also very hard. People often have a misconception that professors would let the sports player students get good grades without doing much work, but this was hardly true at Yonsei University. Yonsei was known for its strictly imposed regular class rules for the sports players, so I barely managed to graduate.
Your basketball was overall successful from the beginning. Did you have any big slumps that you can particularly remember?
I believe not just basketball players but people from all walks of life go through times when everything seems to work in the wrong way. As a basketball player, I did not have a critically big slump, but went through endless minor ones. Rumors or incidents that had nothing to do with my performance on the court would get on my nerves, stress me out and eventually negatively affect my athletic condition. At those occasions, I kept telling myself and made myself believe that it is just a temporary lapse and I am still a competent player. Of course it is necessary to give an objective analysis on what went wrong and the efforts to overcome it.
Three of your university basketball colleagues who played with you at the zenith of the basketball boom retired this year. How do you feel about that and what is your plan for the future?
Lee Sang-min, Moon Kyung-eun, and Woo Ji-won were like brothers to me. We experienced ups and downs together, sharing both good and bad moments. Even though we never had an opportunity to play in the same team again, we always felt we were together, seeing one another on the court. I have always thought we would run on the court together forever until this year and now I feel as though I myself have retired. I am deeply sorry and sad.
Even though I am still playing, I, like them, probably will not have many days left until my retirement. I wish that, until the day I step down, I will be known as the same player that people remember from my best day. Usually, even players who were great in the past are forced to retire after their athletic performance slowly declines. I will try my best and retire when I think I am not as competent as I should be.
After my life as a player, I want to give back what I have received from people. (Seo is known for his generosity and philanthropy, donating large amount of money to young basketball players, children with cancer, and children with no parents, etc.) I got so much love and support from people and I think whatever I do, I should work hard to give something back to people in need.
As an alumnus, what kind of advice would you like to give to young university basketball players as well as Yonsei students in general?
The sports field has changed along with the rest of society. Since society values versatility, student players, too, should avoid being like sports machines that are only good at the sports they play. To be a real star, a certain degree of social skills and intelligence should be acquired along with sports skills. Although the infrastructure is not sufficient to nourish such players, individual players should make their own efforts, especially before graduating, to take interest in and gain general knowledge of various fields.
When I watch the news and hear about how difficult it is these days for university students and graduates to get a job, I am worried and feel sorry. However, even though the younger generation may be struggling with hardships, I would like them to know that they have the best armor of all: youth. Youth is something that fuels you with an endless strength to fight against challenges, but it is not something you can purchase with money. The situation Yonseians are facing now may indeed be harsh but I think the “trying one or two times and giving up easily” attitude should be avoided. In such a young age, if one believes in oneself and keeps on trying one’s best to achieve their goal, it will eventually pay off.