SLUG HEAD COACH VS. SOUTH KOREAN PRO TEAM

SANTA CRUZ -- After months in storage, the hardwood bearing the Santa Cruz Warriors' trident-esque logo once again served as the center stage in Kaiser Permanente Arena.

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But as for the basketball shoes sliding across it Wednesday afternoon -- the rainbow couldn't compete with their variety or brightness. The balls bouncing against it bore the insignia of Star, not Spalding. And the words echoing over it weren't usually English, but Korean.

"It's kind of an 'If you build it, they will come -- from all over the world,'" said Andrew Loomis, assistant general manager of the D-League Warriors, as he watched the Seoul Samsung Thunders team go through drills. "If this wasn't in Santa Cruz, they probably wouldn't be here."

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The Thunders, one of 10 teams in the Korean International Basketball League, arrived in Santa Cruz on Sunday after a 10-hour flight from Seoul and hit the hardwood at KP Arena later that day. The team will run twice-daily practices and seven scrimmages in the arena until it returns to Korea on Sept. 15. One of the scrimmages, on Sept. 13 at 7 p.m. against "The Cruz presented by Krate" -- a hodgepodge of college players and former and aspiring pros -- will be open to the public.

The Thunders have been traveling to American locales for training camps for years. After going to Los Angeles to train at USC last year, this year they decided to try Santa Cruz after Loomis suggested it to a member of the program at the D-League Showcase in Reno in January.

Going from living in a city of 10.58 million people and training in a city of 3.82 million, most of the players' initial impression of Santa Cruz was that it seems, well, small.

As team captain Kim Seung Hyun said through team translator Scott Rim, "The atmosphere makes it easy for me to focus on basketball."

While coach Kim Dong Kwang chuckled at the suggestion he might go surfing during his visit, a couple of the 14 players and front office staff said they would like to try that sport -- or skateboarding or at least visit the beach. But there won't be much time for extracurricular activities. The team practices or scrimmages twice a day, weight trains three days and holds shoot-arounds on three other days each week.

"They play a lot of games -- three or four a week -- and they practice a lot," said Jasper Johnson, a University of Mississippi product, on how Korean basketball differs from its American cousin. "You kind of have to keep up."

Getting all the players up to speed is one of the primary purposes of the Thunders holding a camp in Santa Cruz. To a person, the players mentioned developing better team chemistry as a goal for their sojourn, in part

The Seoul Samsung Thunders run drills at Kaiser Permanente Arena in downtown Santa Cruz Wednesday. (Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel)

because the Korean game tends to emphasize the team over the individual.

"Overall, the basketball IQ is high. They're fundamentally and technically good," said Daniel Sandrin, a small forward out of Seattle Pacific University. "But it's definitely very mechanical, whereas American basketball is very free; it's more about individual skills. This is the original John Wooden kind of program."

But chemistry can be found in Korea. The kind of big, strong, fast players produced in America can't, necessarily.

According to Korean league rules, each team can only carry two non-Korean players, and only one of them can be on the court at a time. That makes most of the lineups smaller than what is, on average, seen on American teams.

According to the Thunders' website, the players' average height is just under 6-foot-4. Johnson, who is in his fourth year in the Korean league but his first year in Seoul, brings a team-leading 6-foot-8, 255-pound frame to the court. Former University of Oregon player Michael Dunigan (6-10, 244) is a close second. Sandrin (6-7, 220), meanwhile, is one of the highest paid players on the team because he is not only the third biggest player but also half Korean, so he doesn't count against the team as a foreign player.

"Most of the teams choose between Asia and North America. If we come to America, there's a higher level of competition," Kwang said through interpreter Rim. "They're exposed to and practice against a better

Seoul Samsung Thunders' Daniel Sandrin is among the Korean team's players working out at Kaiser Permanente Area Wednesday. (Shmuel Thaler/Sentinel)

level. That's why we chose to come to Santa Cruz."

The Thunders play from October to March in front of an average 7,000 fans in Jamsil Arena, which was built for the 1988 Olympics. All their games are broadcast on TV and a few of them are major sports stars in the country -- notably assistant coach Lee Sang Min, nicknamed the Korean Kobe.

Last March, the Thunders finished in sixth place in the league, the final team to make the playoffs. This year, they hope to overcome a seven-year drought and preseason predictions that have them pegged to finish last to win the team's third league title.

The Santa Cruz experience may be just the ticket.

According to D-League rules, the Warriors can't actually compete against their Korean visitors. But the Thunders might take home some of the good fortune the Warriors experienced on that same hardwood floor in the soles of their bright sneakers.

 

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