In Koreatown, the Lakers are the team holding court
Bathed in the neon glow of the Palm Tree L.A. lounge, Jay Park downs a shot of soju and keeps his eyes on the flat-screen.
Steve Nash is pushing the ball up court while Kobe Bryant lurks at the three-point line. Dwight Howard bumps for position near the hoop. The Lakers may still be on the bubble for a playoff spot and that other L.A. squad is suddenly the sexy team in town, but here in the punchy loud Koreatown bar, it’s all about purple and gold.
For years, the Lakers claimed a steady fan base in the sprawling Korean American community, but this season the intensity has been amplified — with games now broadcast in Korean, a first in the NBA.
Time Warner Cable, which invested nearly $3 billion for regional TV rights to Lakers games for the next two decades, hired four Korean Americans as play-by-play announcers and color commentators, adding a fifth person just days ago.
For Park and others, it has brought a new intimacy to the action.
“I’m learning who the players really are, not their names only,” says Park, a grocery store clerk who grew up in Seoul.
Daniel Lee, an attorney who practices in Koreatown, said that while it’s a “big deal” for his parents’ generation to now be able to follow the local basketball team, the broadcasts add a new dimension for him as well.
“We who have followed Magic [Johnson] and Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] for so many years are eager to know more,” he said.
So while Park and his buddies sit glued to the giant monitor, with K-pop music in the background and a fog machine that will envelop the room in a thin mist as the night moves along, the Korean American announcers huddle — not at Staples Center, but at Time Warner Cable’s sports studio on the edge of El Segundo.
From the excitement within Palm Tree L.A. and other nightspots across Koreatown, one would never know the announcers were calling the game from a soundproof booth while watching a video feed.
“It’s more fun,” Park says. “More clear in my language.”
This is what Time Warner Cable officials banked on when they decided — at the last minute — to launch the 2012-13 season with their second foreign-language broadcast, adding to the Spanish offering. The Dodgers also plan to add a Korean broadcast next season as part of their deal with Time Warner.
Airing in Spanish is an obvious choice, with the emergence of Latinos as a demographic force in Southern California, said Melinda Witmer, the company’s executive vice president. But Korean?
“All of this was planned in about a month — lightning time,” said Witmer, who’s also chief video and content officer. “We knew this is an audience that we could take a shot at serving better,” with the older generation preferring their native language and “the younger generation increasingly learning Korean.”
There are no hard numbers to measure, since viewers choose the language option through their cable box while watching the games, not by selecting a specific channel. But Time Warner said the anecdotal evidence — including interest from auto retailers and other potential advertisers — indicates the broadcasts are a hit.
The Korean broadcast team was built around Paul Lee, the sports editor at the Korea Times, and Young Don Lee, an on-air personality at Radio Seoul.
Paul Lee, an admirer of the “Vin Scully style” of telling stories and the over-the-top enthusiasm of John Madden, says he works to infuse that kind of spirit into the Lakers broadcasts.
In contrast to the more formal style of Korean commentary, Lee isn’t afraid to mention, say, the private life of a professional athlete or the mental characteristics that forged a player.
“You need to bring out the human side of someone famous or someone you see only on TV, and we can, and we can offer it in Korean.”
Lee, who generally writes a handful of stories for his publication before rushing to the studio on game days, emigrated from Korea at 13 and grew up on a steady diet of American sports. He spent his early years covering the LPGA. “I’m having so much fun doing something others dream about,” he said. “We are thankful we’re getting a great response.”
Young Don Lee, standing in a booth newly furnished with slim, curving tables and accent carpeting, says he focuses on “the full picture” when he and his partner work games. The Lakers are the “New York Yankees of the NBA,” the announcers agree. That’s why when they talk about Bryant or Pau Gasol being sidelined with an injury, they try to add perspective and a sense of history.
South Korea has professional basketball teams, so viewers have a basic understanding of the sport. But it can be academic, Young Don Lee says. “We want to have some fun and we want our audience — many times, it is the whole family together — to have good knowledge.”
The others collaborating with him are Seung Chan Lim, a Korean TV anchor, and Sang Yeol Moon, a journalist who arrived in the U.S. in 1998 to follow former Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park, the first Korean to play major league baseball.
Daniel Lee, the attorney, says what’s happening in Los Angeles should be a model for other sports organizations.
“Do they know that Koreans are huge fans of baseball and basketball? Every bar in Koreatown is filled during the playoffs because there’s so much team spirit.”
Lim says, of course, Korean American fans are consumed with the same question that’s on every fan’s mind: “Will the Lakers make it to the playoffs?”
And on nights such as this, fans like Park have to wonder.
The Lakers had been cruising, up by 19 points. Park and his buddies were so confident that they ordered more pizza and vodka, cheering as Howard scored.
But by the fourth quarter, the lead had evaporated for good and the group strolled through the Vegas-style club and over to the karaoke room.
“Basketball brings people together,” Park says. “Every culture loves it.”
For a moment, Lee lets his mind wander.
“Imagine,” he said, “if they had been able to hear Chick Hearn in Korean?”
Get our high school sports newsletter
Prep Rally is devoted to the SoCal high school sports experience, bringing you scores, stories and a behind-the-scenes look at what makes prep sports so popular.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.