Currently, a total of 36 coaches in KBL and WKBL assist the coach of each team. While there are former star players, there are also coaches who have not received much attention as players. In this corner, I would like to introduce those who were not flashy players but succeeded as professional team coaches. The main character of the May issue is Anyang KGC coach Choi Seung-tae. Coach Choi Seung-tae, who finished his short career due to a chronic knee injury, left for coaching training in the United States at his own expense. After that, heㅋㅋㅋ벳 started his leadership career by becoming a coach at Jeonju KCC. Having worked as a coach at Changwon LG, he joined Anyang KGC ahead of this season and assisted head coach Kim Sang-shik to help win the regular league championship.
※This article was published in the May issue of Jump Ball, a basketball magazine.
Q First, how did you start playing basketball?
It was when I was in the 4th grade of elementary school. Coincidentally, while watching the broadcast of the basketball party, coach Heo Jae appeared. At that time, Busan Kia (now Ulsan Hyundai Mobis) was losing by 6 points with 1 minute left. However, coach Heo Jae scored 8 points within 50 seconds and won the match. After seeing that, I told his father that I wanted to play basketball.
Q During Yonsei University, you played together with Bang Seong-yoon and Lee Jeong-seok. He even won MVP his senior year.
When I was in 1st grade, (Bang) Sungyoon wasn’t there so I got the rookie award. And I got MVP in my junior year. Basketball was so much fun back then. It was to the point of winning a practice match against a pro team. And overall, there are many good players on the college stage, so I think I had fun playing the game.
Q After finishing your junior year, you participated in the 2004 KBL rookie draft as an early entry. Was there a special reason?
At that time, the Yonsei University members were very good. And my personal circumstances were difficult. Because when I went pro, I could get an advance payment. Everyone around me told me that I was good at basketball, so I participated in the rookie draft thinking that I would be selected.
Q You joined KCC with the 7th pick in the 1st round of the rookie draft.
I have suffered from a knee injury since I was in high school. Even after coming to Yonsei University, both cruciate ligaments ruptured once, so I underwent two major surgeries. I thought if it wasn’t for the injury, I could have been picked in the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd place. Considering the injury, there was some regret about the nominations. Still, there are good people like Cho Sung-won and Choo Seung-gyun on the team, so I learned a lot. I think my view of basketball has also grown.
Q You played two seasons at KCC before being traded to LG.
I played the most games when I was a rookie. I was preparing for my sophomore season, but I injured my knee again. So I was traded to LG. There, I played as a sixth man in the first and second rounds, but I injured my cruciate ligament again, so I couldn’t play basketball anymore. LG told me to work hard on rehab, but I was very tired myself. That’s how I was voluntarily withdrawn, and I wandered around for about a year and a half.
Q After voluntarily withdrawing, you came back and continued playing at Incheon Etland (currently Daegu Korea Gas Corporation) and Daegu Orions (currently Goyang Day One).
Director Choi Hee-am of ET Land called me. So I rehabilitated hard and played two playoff games at the end of the season. After that, coach Kim Nam-ki wanted me to, so I was traded to the Orions, but I couldn’t adapt well. That’s how I got my first retirement.
Q After retirement, he participated in the 2010 KBL 2nd team draft and was called by Seoul SK.
I missed basketball a lot. I didn’t want to regret it. Even if I quit, I wanted to try hard again. I worked really hard at that time, but I really liked the SK members. I didn’t even get a chance. I got a chance at the beginning of the season, but I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t run properly because I was afraid of physical fights. So I quit without any regrets.
Q: When you think about your days as a player, do you have any regrets?
I was proud of myself when I was younger. I’ve been told a lot that he’s good at basketball. However, when my classmates grew due to injuries, I was going backwards, so the sense of shame that came from that was too great. It was really hard then. But when I last played for SK, those thoughts disappeared. Because I worked really hard. It was difficult during my time as a player, so I tried to study more, and I think my love for basketball grew.
Q What would it be like if there were no injuries?
I really thought about that a lot. Maybe it wasn’t good enough? I personally think that I would have become a player who tried to represent the national team and that young friends say, ‘I want to be like that player’. I was very proud of basketball myself.
“The day I went to the NCAA Tournament, I got goosebumps all over my body.”
After retiring, coach Choi Seung-tae moved to the United States and joined the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) as manager. After a lot of hard work, he became the team’s coach and started his leadership career, and enjoyed the honor of advancing to the NCAA Tournament stage in the 2014-2015 season. Returning to Korea at the call of former head coach Seung-Gyun Choo, he was appointed as KCC’s coach ahead of the 2015-2016 season. From the 2020-2021 season, as an LG coach, I gained more experience under former coach Cho Seong-won.
Q After his retirement, he spent his own money on coaching training at Alabama v. Birmingham.
As soon as his retirement, I went right over it. It was when my sister went to graduate school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Coincidentally, there is an NCAA Division 1 basketball team and even a language school, so it was really good for me. My younger brother was studying for rehabilitation, so we had exchanges with the athletic club, but on the first day after arriving in the US, he took me to the basketball team coach. I asked to be allowed to watch the training, but after hearing that I was a professional player, he asked me to help, so I entered as a student manager.
Q I am curious about the process of being promoted to coach.
When I was a manager, I filled the players’ personal water bottles with ice, packed towels, and did everything by myself. When the players fell during training, I ran and cleaned the court. After a year like that, my English skills improved and I was able to communicate, so the team asked me to teach the players like a skill coach. I started with 1 player for the first time, and later, the number of players learning from me increased to 12 players. After that, I got accepted to graduate school, got GA (Graduate Assistant) qualification and became a coach.
Q Did the University of Alabama Birmingham cause a surprise by beating Iowa State University in the round of 64 of the NCAA Tournament in the 2014-2015 season?
At the time, the University of Alabama at Birmingham was middling in NCAA Division 1. By winning the conference, we earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament. When I won the conference finals, I got goosebumps beyond words. I felt better than when I won the regular match at Yonsei University. Have you ever had an experience that is not easy to do? In the round of 64, we met Iowa State University, the championship candidate, and we made an upset. I was really happy.
Q: What was your experience as a coach at the University of Alabama in Birmingham?
At first, American culture was fresh. He said there was no distance between the players and the coaching staff. Conversation and communication seemed to be better unlike Korea, which is vertical. However, I am usually free, but when it comes to training time, the atmosphere changes. I was sensitive to breaking the rules, so the coach mercilessly told me to see the players and leave. There is an image that America is free, but it is absolutely not. During training, I felt more vertical than in Korea.
Q You started your leadership career at KBL as you took over as KCC coach in the 2015-2016 season.
The first team I joined was KCC, right? At that time, seniors Lee Sang-min, Cho Sung-won, and Choo Seung-gyun were the main pillars of the team. I was the youngest, but I got along well with the seniors, and we kept in touch even after retirement. You knew that I went to the United States to study leadership. As a player, Seung-kyun Choo seemed to have taken good care of me, and he called me when he became the KCC coach.
Q KCC won the regular league championship in the first season, how did it feel?
It was my first season as a coach, so I was very motivated. Because I was 34 years old. It was a time when I didn’t know anything, so it was great to win. I thought, ‘You are rewarded for working hard’. I met Orion in the championship match, and I liked the luck and atmosphere of the opposing team better. The 3-point shooting success rate throughout the series was close to 60%, so it was impossible to win. Orion did a great job.
Q Ahead of the 2020-2021 season, you joined as an LG coach.
I said it before, but I think the seniors looked at me pretty (laughs). Seong-Won Cho took the LG baton, and I was so thankful that he found me. In a way, thanks to seniors Choo Seung-gyun and Cho Seong-won, I think I’m also coaching at KGC. I am so grateful.
Q What did you learn from being a coach in charge of the D-League at LG?
He had to read the game and concentrate, so he studied more himself. Actually, when he first led the D-League at KCC, he was confused. After going through such a time, he definitely felt more relaxed. He seems to have realized the meaning of the saying that annual leave accumulates.
“I had a strong feeling that I could win the regular league championship in the second round.”
Ahead of this season, coach Choi Seung-tae was called by coach Kim Sang-sik to come as KGC coach. This time he was the head coach, not the youngest coach. Coach Seung-tae Choi was born in 1982 and Coach Seong-min Cho was born in 1983. Among the 10 clubs, KGC is the only team whose coaches were all born in the 1980s. There were concerns before the season, but coach Choi Seung-tae performed his role brilliantly, and KGC won the regular league championship against everyone’s expectations.
Q Unlike KCC and LG, I had no relationship with manager Kim Sang-sik, but he came to KGC as a coach.
I really didn’t even think about it. One day, director Kim Sang-shik called me. Seung-kyun Choo and Seong-won Cho were players on the same team, but I rarely saw coach Sang-shik Kim. When he was the head coach of the men’s basketball team, all he said was hello in the gym. He was so surprised that his hands trembled when the bishop called. He was so grateful that he said he would work hard and came.
Q He continued to be the youngest coach and then became the head coach, did you feel any pressure?
There was a big difference between the youngest coach and the head coach. It was burdensome at first, and there were trial and error. I didn’t know what role the head coach was supposed to play. When I was the youngest coach, all I had to do was work hard, but the head coach had to act as a bridge between the coach and the players. Whenever that happened, director Kim Sang-shik taught me a lot. After studying like that, I think I’ve gotten used to it to some extent now.
Q Coincidentally, all of KGC’s coaching staff were former shooters.
The coach and (Cho) Seong-min were professional shooters, but I also liked the play of giving a pass while throwing a shot. It felt like a cross between a point guard and a shooting guard. Still, I knew the importance of shooting better than anyone else. If even one of the five players on the court doesn’t have a shot, the offensive options are bound to be limited. The coach is also a shooter, so he emphasizes the importance of shooting to the players.
Q KGC won the 3rd wire-to-wire regular league championship in KBL history. Did you expect it?
Well, in the second round, the team went 8-1. At that time, I had a strong feeling that I could win. I thought I could overturn the pre-season evaluation. The performance was so good, there were no ups and downs. I think coach Kim Sang-sik’s basketball was gradually applied to it, so it seems to have transformed into a more terrifying team.
Q Last March, did you become the first champion of the EASL (East Asian Super League) Champions Week?
It was so meaningful. KGC won a big tournament with a new coaching staff system. I thought it was very meaningful. Teams that are good in East Asia participated, and they won the championship by defeating SK, who lost in the championship match last season. After winning the Champions Week, I gained more confidence in winning the regular league.
Q Do you have your own philosophy?
I value responsibility. Not just a leadership philosophy, but a philosophy of my life. If you have a sense of responsibility, you can’t help but do your best. You can feel the sincerity when talking to the players. From a certain moment, the word “responsibility” was strongly imprinted in my life.
Q: I think you showed that you can succeed as a leader even if you didn’t get attention as a player?
I have to do better and succeed in the future (laughs). I didn’t see the light as a player, but I had a dream just like everyone else. I worked hard without giving up on what I love. I looked at it and longed for it, so I could see the way. It’s not the end just because you can see the road. There, you have to be more responsible and study and work hard. If you keep tapping it, it seems like a ball of thread is unraveling.
Q: What are your goals as a leader in the future?
For now, I want to do my best in this position. I still have so much to learn. After learning as much as I can in my position, if the opportunity arises, I want to coach a national team or an overseas team. Like everyone else, the ultimate goal is the director. It’s a dream I want to achieve if I have the ability and the opportunity.