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Asian Legends Series: Hur Jae
MANILA (Enzo Flojo's Asia on My Mind) - So far in this Asian Legends Series on my column, we have discussed two stars from the 2000s, but now I wish to put in the spotlight someone who reigned supreme before the new millennium began.
We already discussed the magic of Lebanon's Fadi El Khatib and the meteoric impact of China's Yao Ming, and now we'll take a look at the sublime career of Korean legend Hur Jae - both as a player and national team coach.
Nicknamed "The President" in Korea because of his many achievements on the hardwood, Hur is one of the pillars and most influential personalities in all of Korean basketball.
Born on September 28, 1965, in Chuncheon, the capital city of Gangwon province in northeast Korea, Hur started playing basketball in third grade, already showing promise as a left-handed ball-handler and shooter.
Topping off at 6ft 2in/1.88m, Hur was never the most physically imposing player on the court, but he let his smooth game and his feisty demeanor do most of the talking.
As a player, Hur proved to be one of the most dominant and enduring in Korean basketball. He played for Kia Motors and Wonju from 1988 to 2004, and he represented Korea on the international stage on many occasions.
He first donned the national colors in the 1984 FIBA Youth Asia Cup, where Korea won the gold medal in front of their own hometown crowd in the capital city of Seoul.
After that, Hur was already called up to the senior national team, first playing at the 1985 FIBA Asia Cup in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where Korea finished second place overall behind champions Philippines and qualified for the 1986 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Spain.
In that World Cup, Hur exhibited his amazing offensive potential, becoming the team's third-leading scorer despite being among their youngest players at just 20 years old. His tournament-best performance was dropping 22 points in a 111-103 loss to Panama.
Not surprisingly, Hur returned to the national team for the Asian Games in Seoul later that same year, where Korea won all but one of their games to finish with the silver medal behind China.
In his final year at Chung-Ang University, Hur was once again called up to the national team as they played in the 1987 FIBA Asia Cup in Bangkok, Thailand. Hur helped Korea win their first seven assignments of the competition before falling to China in the Asia Cup Final in overtime, 86-79. That was an iconic game for Hur, though, as he torched the Chinese with 33 points, and he was eventually included in the tournament's All-Star Five together with the Philippines' Alvin Patrimonio, China's Zhang Bin and Sun Fengwu and compatriot Lee ChungHee.
Next, Hur competed in his first Olympics in 1988, joining the national team as Korea hosted the quadrennial event. The Koreans did not fare too well in this competition, finishing winless in the group stage, though they did get a monkey off their backs by beating China and the Central African Republic in the Classification Round, 93-90 and 89-81 respectively. Hur was among the team's top gunners again, scoring 17.1 points per game and hitting nearly three triples per contest.
After the Olympics, Hur finally joined the commercial team of Kia Motors Basketball, carrying the squad to a total of seven championships and being named Most Valuable Player (MVP) three times. When the Korean Basketball League (KBL) was founded in 1997, Hur was among the biggest names and draws of the newly formed professional sports association, and he did not disappoint, with Kia becoming the league's first champions. Hur became MVP anew in the league's second season, though Kia lost in the championship series to Daejeon Hyundai in seven games.
As a professional player, Hur was arguably the KBL's brightest star in the late 90s to the early 2000s. He won a total of two KBL titles (one with Busan Kia and one with Wonju TG Sambo), became the MVP in 1998 and was in the league's Best Five in 2000.
Hur would retire from the KBL in 2004, leaving behind quite a legacy, though he returned to become a head coach the following year, taking the reins of Jeonju KCC Egis. He would be Jeonju's head tactician for a total of ten seasons, steering the club to two KBL titles in 2009 and 2011.
Going back to Hur's national team career, his 1988 Olympic stint would not be his last as he also returned to play for the national team at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. At already 31 years old, Hur was already among the squad's elder statesmen, but he could still hack it, averaging 8.8 points and 5.2 assists per game while shooting 37.5% from beyond the arc.
Hur also played at the FIBA Basketball World Cup in two other editions after 1986. He was, in fact, among the most electrifying scorers at the 1990 FIBA Basketball World Cup in Argentina, where the then 24-year-old turned a lot of heads by scoring 54 points in a 117-115 victory over Egypt. Even to this day, Hur's 54-point showing in that contest is still the highest single-game scoring performance in any FIBA Basketball World Cup match.
Hur would play in his last FIBA Basketball World Cup in 1994 in Canada, where he lit up the scoreboards again, leading Korea in scoring with 19.4 points per game and finishing with three wins in eight games. Hur was among the top five scorers in that tournament along with big names like Australia's Andrew Gaze and Croatia's Dino Radja.
Aside from making a splash on the world stage, Hur also carved quite an impression in the continental basketball circuit. He saw action in a total of six FIBA Asia Cups (including the aforementioned 1985 and 1987 appearances) and three Asian Games (including the 1986 edition).
Hur was part of the Korean national teams that placed second in the 1989 and 1991 FIBA Asia Cups, losing to China in the Final both times. He skipped the 1993 edition but returned to play in 1995, leading Korea to another strong performance and very nearly toppling the Chinese. That was a very memorable tournament for Hur as he was named MVP of the tournament and its Best Scorer.
Hur skipped the next Asia Cup in 1997 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where, ironically, Korea finally won the title after 28 years of frustration, but he did make his final Asia Cup appearance in 1999 when the competition was hosted in Fukuoka, Japan. Hur helped Korea finish in second place again behind China.
China were always the team that seemed to be an insurmountable foe for Hur, and that showed even in the Asian Games. In the 1990 edition, China eliminated Korea in the semi-finals, and in 1994 Korea finished with the silver medal, losing to China in the Final again.
As a national team coach, however, Hur had a bit more success. He helmed Korea first from 2008-2009, steering the squad to titles in the 2009 East Asia Games and 2009 East Asia Basketball Championship. He returned to the national team bench for the 2011 FIBA Asia Cup in Wuhan, where they finished third overall behind China and Jordan. He left his position as head coach after that but came back in 2016, first finishing second behind Iran in the 2016 FIBA Asia Challenge. In 2017, Hur was still the national team's head coach in the FIBA Asia Cup in Lebanon, where the team reclaimed their place on the podium, defeating New Zealand in the battle for third place, 80-71. That was also an emotional win for Hur as his eldest son, Heo Ung, led the team in scoring with 20 points as they beat the Tall Blacks for the first time.
The following year, Hur was again head coach of the national team in the 2018 Asian Games, where they won all but one of their assignments. Korea beat their first four opponents in the tournament only to lose to Iran in the semi-finals, 80-68. They went on to claim the bronze medal, though, defeating Chinese Taipei, 89-81, in their last game.
That was the last time Hur coached the national team, where both of his sons - Heo Ung and the younger Heo Hoon - also saw action. That's actually one of the most unique and interesting things about Hur. Aside from being a supremely accomplished player and coach, Hur has also been able to raise two sons who have followed in his footsteps, with both Heo Ung and Heo Hoon achieving different levels of success at the youth level, the KBL and the national team.
For many Asian and even world level teams, Hur is remembered as a terrifying opponent who could light it up on any given day. Until today, he continues to be a prominent figure in Korean basketball as a TV commentator, and with his sons blazing their own trail and no doubt continuing to play for Korea in the foreseeable future, Hur's legacy as "The President" continues to be felt.
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