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When You Smell Burnt Hair, Don't Go Looking for Snacks
John Buckley reflects on Colorado sports franchises while enjoying a South Korean basketball game and going one-on-one with a little dried squid
Photo by John Buckley 

When You Smell Burnt Hair, Don't Go Looking for Snacks

By John Buckley

December 10, 2007 —  I’ll admit it; I’ve never been the world’s biggest basketball fan. I grew up in a state where the Denver Broncos ruled the land (even during seasons such as the current debacle) and one where we were then fortunate enough to be granted an NHL team that won Sir Stanley’s Cup in the first year of the Colorado Avalanche’s existence. Baseball was always fun to watch because it went well with Coors beer and this year’s Rockies-fever carried us all the way to the World Series before we got swept by the Yankees in Red Sox clothing.

Colorado basketball? I’m 31-years old and my 5-year old nephew has seen as many Denver Nugget playoff victories as I have. True, they’ve been steadily improving over the past several years with additions such Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson. I’ve taken notice, but not enough to claim true fan status.

And what exactly is a Nugget? I’ve heard the term in reference to a portion of marijuana and also as a butt nugget, and that’s about it. I’d hate to hear from the lawyers at McDonald’s, so I’ll leave that one alone. But wait, there was once gold in them there hills, which is what first drew my family to the state in the 1800s. So kidding aside, I know the name has something to do with gold nuggets, though the team’s play over the years has been anything but golden. Whatever the origin, you have to admit, it was a pretty funny choice for a franchise name. So in that regard, I throw my full support to the Nuggies.

My past ambivalence towards the sport aside, when I got invited to attend a Korean Basketball League game this week, I jumped at the chance to attend. You see, I’ve come to realize that just walking outside my apartment’s door in Korea is a ripe opportunity for entertainment, regardless of the occasion. So I made plans to meet my friend Kathleen and her boyfriend Paul outside of the Daegu Shilay Che Yuk Gwan (at least that’s how it sounds), home of the Daegu Orions. With none us of possessing cell phones, this seemed a rather vague and risky set of meeting directions. That is, until I recalled my email exchange with my current boss about how I would be able to find her when she met me at the airport. “Don’t worry,” she said. “You’ll be the only white person walking out of the airport”. As un-PC as that sounded in an e-mail, I arrived to find she was right on the money. And sure enough, the second Kathleen and Paul walked up to the arena, I spotted them with ease.

As we approached the ticket booth, we realized that the most expensive tickets were US $15, apparently not needing to pay inflated salaries to the likes of A.I , Jay Cutler or Joe Sakic. Ultimately, we settled on the $8 seats and were pleased to find our seats at mid-court about 15 rows up.

The arena itself was not as impressive as the Pepsi Center or Mile High Stadium. It had a kind of high school gym atmosphere, with the matched enthusiasm of a State Championship setting. I was hoping to spot Jimmy Chitwood walking out from beneath the stands, but he didn’t show up. Had he been there, he would have found that the rim of the hoop was exactly 10 feet from the floor, just like in good ole Hickory.

Unlike in Hickory, he would have found several thousand Koreans dancing and beating balloons together while chanting “O-ree-on-say” (Korean for O-ri-ons). I can’t say that Koreans dance only in my presence, but it’s a nice thought. Kick it...

When You Smell Burnt Hair, Don't Go Looking for Snacks
Buckley with friends Kathleen and Paul outside of the Daegu Shilay Che Yuk Gwan in South Korea

When the game got started, Kathleen and Paul explained to me that each team is allotted three foreign players, which seemed to equate to three rather large African American players on each team. Random Fresh Prince of Bel Air reference; wait for it. . .at the start of the game, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the episode of the Fresh Prince where Will joined Carlton’s Bel Air high school basketball team. West Philadelphia, born and raised - the mantra of his wealthy, skill-challenged teammates was to “just pass it to Will”. Surveying the size of the players during warm-up, this looked to be what was in store for the game that was about to be played.

Ethnocentric that I am, I kind of assumed that the American players would dominate this Korean game the way that the 1992 “Dream Team” did during the Olympics of that year. But as I watched the warm-ups, I began to see that these Koreans could actually play. I was a bit saddened that I might not get to see the Carlton dance, but held out hope none-the-less.

Truth-be-told, as the game got going, the Koreans seemed to possess the kind of quick ball-work and intensity that you now see in International play against “America’s best”. Though the Americans provided some highlight worthy dunks, it was clear that the game plans of each team revolved around much more than just “pass it to Will”. It was actually quite refreshing to see these two cultures working together and appreciating each other’s assets and brand of play.

Though the game itself was quite entertaining, the real treat for me was found in watching the scene unfold. Having been here for two months now, I frequently revel in watching Koreans (a strange and foreign culture) just enjoying themselves. I don’t do that enough at home in my own strange culture. I looked around and saw families enjoying their weekend together, couples sharing kisses under the lights and small children finding joy in salty snacks and the company of their friends and family. Ah shucks.

Though a cursory glance around yielded many familiar images to those of any sporting event at home, there was also plenty to take in to remind us that we were, in fact, not in Kansas anymore.

As we sat there and watched the game, being urged to cheer at the prodding of a male cheerleader in a red jacket and white gloves, I commented to Paul that I thought I smelled burnt hair. Wondering what might be producing this peculiar odor, I decided to endeavor to find myself my own salty snack at half-time. Without an endless concourse of choices such as could be found in the Pepsi Center, I approached the only snack bar in the vicinity. Noticing that the smell of burnt hair seemed to be emanating from the distribution of grilled, dried squid, I declared this to be one of those “when in Rome” moments and ordered my own portion.

Now I watch my fair share of culinary travel shows. The host inevitably gets served something wacky and ingests it with phrases like “very interesting”, “the texture is so unique and intriguing” and “this is the epitome of the cultural background of this country’s street food”. Without the burden of cameras trained on my reaction, I struggled through a few bites before proclaiming, “Man, this smells like burnt hair and it tastes even worse”. None-the-less, I gnawed off most of the squid’s tentacles before deciding to give the body mass a try. Big mistake. I’m writing this hours later and I’m still hiccupping up fish bait.

As I sat there gnawing on my squid, I was fortunate enough to be distracted by the half-time entertainment of belly dancers and adorable cheerleaders. The culmination of the festivities came in the form of paper airplanes littering the playing floor. Having witnessed several CU Buffalo marshmallow fights, I first assumed this to be an act of random belligerence. That is until a man took the floor with a microphone and began picking up the folded pieces of paper. Evidently, each sleek airplane was simply the delivery device of kindly notes written to the beloved O-ree-on-seys. The man collecting the numerous pieces of paper then read the hand-written notes to the crowd. The crowd roared with laughter and adoring approval after the reading of each note. I couldn’t help but wonder what these notes would have said to the 5-7 Denver Broncos (the Orions are apparently ranked 10 out of 11 teams). I don’t think they could have been read aloud to a stadium filled with families and young children.

As the second half continued, I began to question my overall ambivalence towards the sport of basketball. It was actually really fun to watch and to be a part of the crowd. Now, I can’t say this will translate to me purchasing season tickets to the Nuggets when I get home, but I will certainly make an attempt to follow more games than I have in the past. Or not, maybe I’m still on a squid high.

Whatever the case, I would certainly make the effort to attend another Orions game. Whether I’ll endeavor to join the cow-costumed fan club remains to be seen. See picture montage below.

Next up on my Korean sporting agenda: a ski trip to Muju Ski Resort with a group of Koreans. I have more than a passing knowledge of the sport of skiing and now know to steer clear of the squid snacks, so stayed tuned...

View a youTube video of the Korean Basketball League experience by clicking here.



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