It’s May 16, and Hana One Q’s Taebaek training camp is in full swing. During weight training at the Taebaek Kogen Gymnasium, Kim Jong Un made eye contact and asked with a smile. He asked if it was awkward to wear Hana Wonq’s practice clothes again after six years.
Not at all. Although he is a veteran of Woori Bank’s glorious past, his history is more deeply embedded in Bucheon Hana One Q, a team from the New World, than in Woori Bank. The ‘legend’ Kim Jong-un, who made a mark in the history of the WKBL, made his final choice as a player with the ‘family’ Hana OneQ.
This article was added/adapted from an article published in the June 2023 issue of .
April has been a hot month in the WKBL for the past few years. After the partial change of the free agency system, the possibility of big-name players moving is higher than before. From Park Hye-jin (Woori Bank) in 2020, to Kang Isul (KB) in 2021, to Kim Dan-bi (Woori Bank) and Shin Ji-hyun (Hana OneQ) in 2022, the free agency market has been hotly contested every year.
However, this year was different. Compared to last season, which saw the departure of Kim Dan-bi and the arrival of Kim Sonia (Shinhan Bank) as compensation, the market was quiet from the start.
With Ahn Hye-ji, Jin-an, and Lee So-hee (BNK), Park Hye-jin, Park Ji-hyun, and Choi Yi-sam (Woori Bank), Bae Hye-yoon (Samsung Life), and Kim Sonia (Shinhan Bank) set to become free agents next year, and Park Ji-soo (KB) the year after that, the next two years are expected to be even hotter. This year, the prevailing view was that it would be a quieter market, a valley in the middle of the frenzy.
For one thing, the biggest name, Kang Yi-sul, directly mentioned the possibility of staying with the club early on, and the other big names 메이저놀이터, Kim Han-byul (BNK) and Kim Jong-un, are in their mid-30s and are not easy to move. Therefore, it was widely expected that there would be no moves that would make an absolute difference in the team’s strength.
However, when the free agent list was announced, an unexpected rumor emerged. While many clubs said, “We’re taking a break this year,” when it came to signing outside free agents, there were clubs that said, “Kim Jong-un is our number one priority.”
Born September 7, 1987. After graduating from Onyang Girls’ High School and entering the professional ranks through the 2006 WKBL Draft, Kim played 19 seasons in 18 years. The phrase “I’m not far off” has become a habit of hers. For a long time, Kim had been told to “retire after breaking the WKBL’s all-time scoring record”. Initially, he was confident of breaking the record, but after suffering a major injury in the 2020-2021 season, he was reticent about this goal.
“To be honest, I was seriously thinking about retiring after this season. But now that I’m a free agent, I’m talking about it. I’m thinking about it. I’m thinking about a move. I don’t think it’s possible for me to challenge myself at this age, and I don’t know what the point is… I’ll think about it again if they actually contact me. I’ve decided I’m going to keep playing anyway, so that goal scoring record we talked about before, I’m going to break it and I’m going to retire. By all means!”
At the beginning of April, Kim did not take an active stance on the transfer. But other teams’ desire for her was clear. The women’s basketball free agency market is often characterized as a “blindfolded” process. Rumors circulate that a team is interested in a player, only to have that team deny it. There is also a lot of secrecy around the negotiation process.
However, the case of Kim Jong-un was different. Hana OneQ and Shinhan Bank made it official early on.
They were proactive. Both teams emphasized that “we must have Kim Jong Un.” In a phone call with Kim Jong-un, the advice was, “Make sure to judge and decide on your own when it comes to free agency.” However, when it comes to free agency, women’s basketball players often cite “reason” above all else.
For Kim Jong-un, it was to return to her family, Hana Won Q, and to be able to play with her best friend Lee Kyung-eun at Shinhan Bank for the last time. But transfers weren’t his only skill.
In the past, when Park Hye-jin became a free agent, Kim first offered her salary to help her stay, and last year, Kim Dan-bi’s move to Woori Bank was also influential. It wasn’t an easy decision for him to leave his juniors behind. However, as time went on, there were reports that Kim was leaning towards a move rather than staying, and in the end, he chose to return to Hana OneQ.
Looking for romance in the pros is a waste of time, but at least Kim Jong-un’s choice seemed to be nostalgic in an era where romance is dead. Woori Bank is a team that competes at the top of the league and runs a sophisticated system of basketball that coach Lee Sat-woo has built. Kim has had his ups and downs since moving to Woori Bank six years ago, but he quickly adapted to the system.
After winning the overall title last season, Woori Bank is looking forward to a strong finish next season. Woori Bank is known for having one of the toughest and most grueling training regimens in the league, but it’s clear that Woori’s head coach is also very considerate and respectful of his veteran players.
It was at Woori that Kim Jong-un was able to spend the last years of his career most comfortably. Despite the lack of salary cap space, staying was the most stable option given the circumstances, but after much deliberation, Kim decided it was time to leave.
“When I saw the article about Hee-jong’s (Yang) retirement from KGC, I really sympathized with him because he said, ‘I think the 20 minutes I play are more valuable than the 20 minutes my juniors play,’ which is something I’ve always thought about before, and it was one of the reasons I was thinking about retiring. If I stayed with the team, Coach Wee (voiceover) would definitely make time and space for me to play, and if I wanted to challenge the WKBL record for most points, he would give me that opportunity, but I thought it would be better for the younger players to play than for me to play.”
One of the biggest reasons why the decision to leave Woori Bank was difficult was because of Satellite and Coach Jeon Jeon-won. During his first year at Woori, there were many times when he was driven to the bottom by Satellite’s harsh training regimen, but in retrospect, it was during that time that Kim transformed.
Kim, who had been aiming for the playoffs all his life, was able to win the overall title and win the MVP because he met a good team and a good coach. For Woori Bank, the signing of Kim Jong-un was a “stroke of genius. With the retirement of center Yang Ji-Hee, who was part of the team that won the championship, and the departure of superstar foreign player Jonquel Jones, Kim was able to maintain the organization and power of the team like an iron castle.
Since his arrival, Woori coach Lee Sat-woo has always used a three-point rotation on the court.
Starting with Park Hye-jin, Lim Young-hee, and Yang Ji-hee, Woori’s main line was followed by Park Hye-jin, Lim Young-hee, and Kim Jeong-eun, and last year, Kim Dan-bi joined the lineup. Kim was the backbone of Woori Bank’s steadfastness in women’s basketball, a sport that often sees a vertical drop in performance after back-to-back championships.
“It was hard and I cried a lot, but Coach Woo is like a lifesaver for me, and I’m always grateful. If it wasn’t for him and Coach Jeon Jeon-won, I wouldn’t be where I am today. When I made the decision to transfer, I felt so sorry for him, and when I left the team, he advised me, ‘Don’t go out there and push yourself too hard and get hurt. ‘ I called him on Teacher’s Day the other day and he was worried about me, so I cried.”
There is no “Woori Bank Kim Jong-un” anymore. Even during the team’s run to the top of the standings last season, there was only one variable in Satellite’s mind: the return of Park Ji-soo. A returning Park Ji-soo is the biggest obstacle for Woori Bank to defend its championship, and the absence of Kim Jong-un, who controlled Park Ji-soo with strength and discipline, could be a disappointment for Woori Bank in that regard. But Kim shook his head.
“Do you think Woori Bank will notice that I’m not there? No. Coach Woo will somehow create a player who plays the role of Kim Jong-un, or if not, he will create another form. The reason why I thought, ‘If I leave the team, it’s now,’ is because I was confident that the other players can play all the roles without me.”
Why did Hana OneQ and Shinhan Bank want Kim Jong Un? Longevity, experience, and leadership. Hana One Q, whose players are all in their 20s except for Kim, and Shinhan Bank, whose players are physically strong and push with determination, both need a control tower to guide them on the court. They desperately needed a veteran who could center the players both technically and mentally on and off the court.
After much deliberation, Kim chose Hana OneQ.
Kim began her professional career by joining Shinsegae, the predecessor of Hana OneQ. Considered the “best rookie in the history of the WKBL,” Kim was the ace in the hole for Shinsegae, a team that had fallen from grace. Although the team failed to climb out of the bottom half of the standings, she led them through their struggles.
After the team was eliminated from the playoffs, she gritted her teeth and dedicated herself to the team during the garbage season, saying, “The road to the stadium is so hard.” He played 13 seasons with the team from the 2006 Winter League to the 2016-2017 season, appearing in 367 regular-season games. He averaged 16.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 2.5 assists in 34 minutes and 20 seconds.
After the 2015-2016 season, things changed for Hana OneQ. The team began a full-scale rebuild, and Kang Isul became the centerpiece of the team. Wait-and-see success stories like Yeom Yoon-ah and Baek Ji-eun also emerged, while promising youngsters Kim Yiul and Shin Ji-hyun won the Rookie of the Year award.
Kim, on the other hand, was slowed down by a nagging back injury. For the second year in a row, he was unable to play 20 regular season games, and his scoring average dropped to less than half of what it had been. With so many nagging injuries, there were some who believed that Kim was entering an aging curve sooner than expected as he approached his thirties.
After the 2016-2017 season, his worst since his professional debut, Kim became eligible for free agency. It was expected that he would re-sign under various conditions and circumstances. At the time, before the change in the FA system, if a club offered the salary cap of 300 million won, the player had no choice but to stay, regardless of primary or secondary status. No one expected Kim Jong-un’s negotiations with the club to fall apart, but that’s exactly what happened.
At the time, the Hana One Q management team didn’t see Kim’s value in the same way as before. The team’s center of gravity was naturally shifting to younger prospects, and Kim Jong-un was no longer able to fulfill the role of ace. He was no longer the team’s ace or captain.
It was a painful negotiation for Kim, who had dedicated 13 seasons to the team. Regardless of the terms of the contract, Kim was so frustrated with the negotiation process that he ended his negotiations with Hana OneQ. Hana One Q also did not offer a top dollar offer to keep him on the team.
At the time, a Hana One Q representative said, “He has chronic injuries to his knees and back, so it’s hard for him to play like he used to. He needs to adapt to the team’s changes. There is an injury risk and his age, so even if he goes to the free agency market, he will not get satisfactory results. I don’t think any club would want to take him because he’s under a lot of pressure. Kim Jong-un has to realize that. However, he has dedicated himself to our team, so if he comes back in the third round, we will sign him without reducing the amount of money we offered him in the first round.”
If a player fails to find a new team in the first round of negotiations with the original club, he will have to go through a third round of negotiations with the original club. In the third round of negotiations, the offer could be reduced by up to 20% from the first round. Hana OneQ’s stance was to show consideration for the franchise star by offering Kim Jong-un, who would ‘naturally’ return for the third round of negotiations, an amount without a cut.