It was not so long ago that girls were largely absent from school playgrounds in Korea. From soccer fields to basketball courts, while the boys played in sports games, the few girls that were spotted, most took on the roles as cheerleaders or worked as team managers.
That was not the case at the Seoul National University gymnasium on a recent Thursday, where a team of women basketball players zipped across the court, practicing dribbles and crossovers, smiles never leaving their faces.
Kwon Hee-yeun, a basketball guard and sophomore majoring in consumer science, said while she has tried her hand at individual sports that are popular among women in Korea, like yoga, pilates and golf, "nothing really compared to team sports."
"The joy that basketball brings to me is simply unparalleled,” she said in an interview with The Korea Herald at the SNU gymnasium in Gwanak-gu, southern Seoul, on March 9.
Sun is the name of the Seoul National University women’s basketball team and the back-to-back Korea University Sport Federation Club Championship winner in 2021 and 2022.
Of 26 universities with a women’s basketball team in Korea, Sun stands out. While the players in other women’s collegiate basketball teams are mostly sports-related majors, Sun comprises students who major in fashion design, mathematics education and psychology. The captain of the team, Lee Rae-eun, studies physical education and is the only player with a sports-related major.
Though Sun started out as a group named “LABA” -- an acronym for "Lady Basketball" -- formed to participate in a small basketball event in 2014, Sun became a university club team in 2019.
“We went to a tournament and named ourselves after our university (SNU). But the announcer accidently called us Sun. We felt that the name did not sound too bad. We became Sun after that,” said another guard, Kim Ye-eun, who studies sculpture.
While some members were interested in basketball even before joining the team, 22-year-old center Jung Seung-yoon joined Sun knowing hardly anything about the sport.
“I like to move around and consider myself a sporty person. But I spent half of my freshman year doing almost nothing during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020,” she said.
“I really had to do something in the second semester and Sun was the only active sports club then. I only had one choice and joined the team. And now, I have met the buddies of my life,” Jung said, her face beaming.
But before their wins, Sun had to work through some teething problems.
According to Lee, the Sun captain and forward, there was distrust among teammates and the training programs failed to yield results.
“We were all fired up, passionate and interested in basketball. But nobody had the professional knowledge needed to lead the team," Lee said, recalling how it was like a few years ago.
"We referred to YouTube videos, books and various posts in online communities, but nothing really changed much. The self-taught practices were hard. We had weak teamwork and people started to lose interest.”
The situation, however, changed dramatically in May 2022 with the arrival of Lee Jong-ae, a women's national basketball team player from 1996 to 2008, who volunteered to coach the team.
“From footwork to basketball tactics and strategies, I tried to have the team work on the basics. The players’ desire and passion were real. The members smiled when they had video clips of practice sessions and other things to study at home,” head coach Lee Jong-ae said.
Lee Jong-ae is well aware of the demanding courseload at SNU, one of the most prestigious universities in Korea, but was impressed by the passion the players had for the sport.
“I was surprised that the players are willing to come to the basketball court early in the morning and late at night just to be a better player,” Lee Jong-ae said.
“Their love for basketball may be greater than that of professional athletes,” the coach said, adding that many students come to play basketball on top of the regular three-hour training on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
The players were also motivated to work harder to prove that they weren't only book smart.
What Sun hated the most after losing a match was hearing that “They don’t need to be good at basketball since they are from SNU,” Lee Jong-ae said.
“The players never wanted to be considered that way, so those words were another thing that motivated Sun. SNU students may be the best at studies, but I guess they are just as good at sports too," the coach said, sounding like a proud parent.
Though Sun is aiming for its third championship win at this year's Korea University Sports Federation tournament, Lee Jong-ae said the bigger goal is to make a team where anyone can enjoy basketball.
Thanks to hit female-led sports shows “Kick a Goal” (2021), “Witches” (2021), “Jump like a Witch” (2022) -- Lee Jong-ae said there has been a growing interest in joining Sun, and all women's sports in general.
"I hope all players -- both old and new -- can enjoy thrilling matches, learn the precious values of team sports, such as sacrifice, respect and teamwork,” she said.
The Sun's captain shared that there were a total of 30 students who had signed up to join the team last week, a larger-than-expected number.
“The team is open to all students from our university. I know that two exchange students are joining Sun this year. I hope we all can have a wonderful time playing basketball,” Lee said.
Though they are not pro basketball players, Sun members clearly love the sport.
“I think I know most of the players of the Korean Basketball League and Women’s Korea Basketball League. I actually held a part time job at a basketball stadium, recording simple data and stats,” Sun guard Kim said.
“Rae-eun (the captain) and I will be going to Jamsil Arena this weekend to watch a match between Seoul SK Knights and Anyang KGC. We are so excited,” Jung, the center, said, adding that her love for basketball is unmatched both inside and outside the basketball court.