Emil Kim: Walking Onwards

Lee-Huang Chen / New University

In a sea of Asian basketball players, senior wing Emil Kim doesn’t stand out at first glance. The untrained eye, however, doesn’t know that Kim is the only Asian-American currently playing Division I men’s basketball in the state of California.

The 6-foot-5-inch senior who grew up in nearby Santa Ana is one of three players currently not on scholarship for their grueling commitment to the team, and the only one not actively recruited to Irvine. But through the stacked odds and clash of cultures, Kim has persevered and found success on the highest collegiate level, doing what he has always loved to do.

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An overwhelming majority of walk-ons in college basketball receive little to no playing time. The few scraps here and there that most players receive are in minutes that no longer matter, in games that never have high implications. But last season, Kim beat the odds by playing his way into the regular rotation: in a possible 30 games, Kim played in 21. He averaged nearly 10 minutes of action and 1.9 points per game. This year, in 17 games, he has put up nearly identical numbers under a new coach, showing that his playing time was not because of any special treatment. Kim has earned his success.

“I knew I was going to get better coming in here, but I wasn’t naïve,” Kim says. “I never expected it to be this good.”

Because of his size, Kim matched up well against the opposing team’s taller wing players. On the court, Kim is not much of an outside shooter, but instead likes to fake shots and drive to the basket. On defense, he uses his speed to pester opponents, and manages to pick-up a steal or two every game with his quick hands. At the end of the 2009-2010 season, Kim was rewarded a rare start in the Big West Tournament.

“That was awesome, couldn’t ask for anything much better than that,” Kim says, “besides the fact that we lost.”

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While impressive for a walk-on, Kim is by no means a star. Some would question the commitment and dedication required to something outside the bounds of academia.

“I’m burnt out every single day,” Kim says, shaking his head. “But basketball has always been my number one priority. It’s been the catalyst for everything else in my life.”

This may sound like the typical basketball player, but Kim’s family and upbringing as a Korean-American was anything but typical.

“It was definitely a battle and struggle with my mom, who wanted me to do well academically,” Kim says. “But she let me do what I wanted in the end, and I managed to end up at a great school. She’s on board now.”

In the locker room, the culture clash and different worlds are evident as well. But Kim has managed to fit in, and in fact cherishes the great chemistry among his teammates.

“Sometimes you feel a little different, a little uncomfortable … it’s really two different cultures,” Kim says about his time growing up. “All my teammates now are great people though. I really enjoy it.”

In the stands, Kim will notice a few extra cheers from his fellow Asian-Americans. They can relate to his living out the dream.

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Kim’s journey to UCI was a long and winding road. His first high school, Los Alamitos, featured five guys who would go on to Div. I schools, including Landry Fields, who now starts for the New York Knicks in the National Basketball Association. Kim was 5-foot-8-inch as a freshman, and not as athletic as the rest of the guys, who were already starting to pump iron. At the time, Div. I basketball may have been the farthest thing from his mind.

Later in high school, Kim transferred to Calvary Chapel, a smaller private school where he finally was able to be the go-to player. With a dad at 6 feet, mom at 5 feet 5 inch es and older brother at 5 feet 10 inches, Kim was destined to grow taller than them all. By the end of high school, Kim was 6 feet 3 inches and 180 pounds, too skinny to get any offers except from Div. III Linfield College in Oregon.

In tiny McMinnville, Ore., located near the very northwest region of Oregon, Kim found himself with nothing to do but play basketball. He became their rookie of the year, and he finally started to fill out his frame. But it was too far away from home, and Kim became bored.

“I was blessed with my height, but everything else I had to work for,” Kim says.

The next year, he decided to transfer to the Cal State East Bay, another Div. III program. However, this didn’t pan out as well, and he decided to transfer once again. At Orange Coast College, Kim didn’t play basketball, and he contemplated stopping his basketball career for the first time.

Applying to UCI on a whim, purely on the strengths of his academics as a history major, Kim was surprised to have even gained admission. Despite an already full team, Kim, ever persistent about pursuing his dream, contacted one of the assistant coaches about walking on.

“I definitely didn’t do anything special [while trying out],” Kim says. “I think they just liked that I was a taller wing … when they offered, I instantly accepted.”

When he started playing, Kim played scared. He played not to mess up. Head coach at the time Pat Douglass saw this, and said a few key words that changed Kim’s attitude.

“Stop thinking of yourself as a walk-on. You belong, so you need to play like you belong.”

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This year, with a small team void of healthy post players, Kim has been forced to play the power forward position, even being the tallest guy on the floor in a five-guard spread at times. Kim admits to not being used to these positions, but he takes whatever the coaches give him.

“Every game I’ve been the smaller guy. Every game,” Kim says. “I like to sneak up on people … underdog mentality all the time.”

When asked if he feels any bitter-sweetness to his basketball career winding down, Kim is relatively nonchalant. But passivity and emotions aside, Kim is proud of his achievement playing Div. I basketball, especially as a Korean-American.

“You kind of feel like you’ve made it as a player when you play Div. I ball,” Emil says. “I’m definitely thankful … not many people get to take it this far.”

Through the daily grind and struggle of practice, Kim still has his ups and downs. Recently, there was a stretch of three games where he saw no playing time at all. Against Vanguard however, an NAIA school that Kim had sought a scholarship from before, he was able to truly shine. He scored a career high 15 points in only 15 minutes of action, picking up three rebounds and two steals as well. One can only speculate how well Kim would do on a nightly basis if he had decided to play in a lesser division.

“I had some extra motivation [for the Vanguard game], since a lot of the same players there had been chosen over me,” Kim says. “As a competitor though, you’re not satisfied against lesser competition.”

After graduation, Kim aims to play professional ball in Korea. Armed with a degree and experience from the United States, Kim will once again be making history.