JiSu Park: An International Star’s Struggle To Fit In
She has been called the future of Korean women’s basketball since she was 13 years old. While she’s lived up to the hype in her native country, JiSu Park is fighting to earn her keep in the WNBA.
JiSu Park is watching. The Las Vegas Aces are in Connecticut for a late-August match between two of the best teams in the WNBA. She doesn’t say much, just observes carefully from the far side of the bench as the game progresses. It’s a close game. She hasn’t stepped on the court today, and she won’t be. It’s a coach’s decision. With a frontcourt featuring Liz Cambage, A’ja Wilson and Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby, the Aces have limited playing time for the Korean center.
Unless someone told you, you’d have no idea that Park is a superstar in a different league. Never mind that it’s in a weaker league, the Women’s Korean Basketball League (WKBL). Being named the unanimous MVP and leading your team to a championship is an impressive feat for any 20-year-old. That success was never a surprise in Korea. She became the youngest player to join the Korean national team as a 16-year-old. But in the WNBA, she hasn’t accomplished much yet, and she knows that.
“I haven’t been able to hold my own this season, and honestly I’m worried that I won’t be able to come back next season,” Park said the day before the game. “People tell me it’ll be fine, but I don’t feel like it’s fine. I mean the worry will pass over time. I need to play well, but I’m not, so I think it’s up to me. I want to play better.”
So for now, she watches. She’s got plenty of examples to learn from. Her coach is a four-time NBA All-Star Bill Laimbeer. Her teammates A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage are two of the league’s best.
Park was born into a sports family. Her dad was a basketball player in Korea, and her mom a volleyball player. After a quick attempt at volleyball in second grade, Park saw her older brother — ironically now a professional volleyball player — playing basketball. “Watching the ball go through the hoop just looked so fun, so I told my parents I wanted to play basketball,” Park says.
When she began playing on the school team as a third-grader, there was plenty of passion but not much skill. She wasn’t getting much playing time because of the older players, but that didn’t keep her from staying motivated. (Elementary school runs until sixth grade in Korea.) Park reached out to her coach on Cyworld, the go-to social networking platform in Korea at the time, and left a secret message begging for playing time. The coach gave it to her —although without knowing how to do much else, all she did was run up and down the floor. She was mortified to discover those messages in middle school, but she can laugh about it now.
“Future of Korean Women’s Basketball”
It’s a typical struggle of a 20-year-old. The uncertainty about one’s future. When you’re supposed to be the “future of Korean women’s basketball,” the struggle carries an additional weight. It’s a label Park remembers first hearing as a 13-year-old, when she made her international debut at the 2012 FIBA U-17 World Championships.
The hype surrounding her was so great that at the 2016 WKBL Draft lottery, KB Stars head coach Deok-su Ahn gave a full bow to the crowd after his team won the lottery. So far in the WKBL, she’s lived up to the hype. After being named the WKBL Rookie of the Year in 2017, she won the regular season and Finals MVP in just her third season — a type of feat WNBA fans are well-acquainted with after Breanna Stewart accomplished the same thing last season.
There’s JiSu Park, and there’s Park JiSu. One sits at the end of the bench. The other became the youngest MVP in league history. One is shy. The other not as much. The tremendous difference in the level of play between the WNBA and the WKBL is one thing, but there’s more to her seemingly split persona than just that.
“I give her a lot of credit of having to exist in a language that’s not her primary one,” teammate Carolyn Swords told the Las Vegas Review-Journal at the start of the season. “She takes it all in very gracefully and just has a great time, shows us a little bit of her personality now and then.”
“I’m really not this shy when I’m in Korea,” Park says, “but it’s inevitable here because of the language and culture. Korean culture is very careful, so I always question if I’m allowed to do this or that. I want to have a good time with my teammates too.”
Park doesn’t have a personal translator. The best she has is a translator app. In fact, she learns most of her English from her aunt, who’s an English teacher in Korea — literally on the other side of the planet. She gets assignments from her aunt, records her responses and waits for her aunt to correct her mistakes. While her language skills have improved, it’s still a big enough challenge that Laimbeer can be hesitant to tell her what to do on the spot. It’s certainly not good enough for her to be comfortable around her teammates.
And it doesn’t help that she’s a 20-year-old living on the Strip. She can’t gamble or drink, nor does she want to. “People call it a homebody,” Park says. “I love staying home on off days. Las Vegas is very flashy and glamorous, but my personality is the complete opposite, and honestly, I’m home a lot.”
In Korea, she had the morning and afternoon practices, followed by an optional evening practice that’s only nominally optional. There’s only a single two-hour practice here. Yet, she again finds herself at the gym all the time.
“People ask if I ever get bored, or how I relieve stress,” Park says. “I don’t think I know how to yet. … If I get stressed or feel blue, I just stay that way, and I just stay home.”
“I’m Trying To Just Enjoy It Now”
Before Park, there were Sun Min Jung and Seung-jin Ha. Jung spent a season with the Seattle Storm in 2003. Ha lasted two seasons in the NBA until 2006. Neither managed to average even 2 points per game. Over a decade later, Park entered the WNBA as a 19-year-old. She hasn’t made much impact yet, but at only 20 years old, she’s shown flashes of her potential.
“She’s very smart,” Laimbeer says of Park. “And she’s arguably our best positional defender. She’s always in position defensively, which is great. She challenges every shot, goes after every rebound — all the good traits you want in a basketball player.”
Her minutes have inevitably gone down this season with the addition of Cambage, and that didn’t bother Park. But something else does: “I’m more disappointed at myself,” she says. “Regardless of my playing time, I need to at least do my job, but I’m not even doing that. I’m more frustrated about when I get on the court but don’t show up, even more so than when I’m not playing.”
It would be a challenge for any 20-year-old who starred elsewhere only to realize she has ways to go. “How come the things that worked so well in Korea aren’t working here?” Park recalls asking herself. “Is this all I can do?”
But she’s learning. Learning to not be frustrated in the struggles of the here and now. Learning that with hard work and effort, she can do more. Learning to look ahead.
“She was so young when she came, and just her maturity, you can see that it’s growing,” Swords told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. It’s the same process of maturity Park experienced playing on the national team.
When she first joined the national team, Park found a lot of pride and excitement in being able to represent her country. And thanks to her veteran teammates, she played recklessly, trying whatever she wanted to without worrying about the consequences. But as the older players phased out and her peers became fellow national team teammates, Park had to start assuming the leadership role. She felt the pressure of being the “future of Korean women’s basketball.” She began to question her every move. Time and experience has taught her to realize that she doesn’t have to put so much pressure on herself.
“I’m trying to just enjoy it now,” Park says. “Of course, that’s not easy, and when the season resumes, there will be times when I feel the pressure. But the fact that they’re giving me attention is something to be thankful for, so I’m trying to overcome the pressure.”
The pressure remains abroad. She’s trying to earn her keep in the WNBA. It’s certainly not handed over.
But for all of Park’s doubts: “She’ll be in this league for a while … Everybody knows it,” says Laimbeer, who believes she’ll be a great career backup in the WNBA. “She may surprise everybody when she gets to be 26, 27. That’s a long way from now.”
When that time comes, Park just might surprise herself.