“I think I’m done with you until college”: Issues that shook up the free agent market

The 2023 free agency market was full of big names, but it was also full of controversy. As many stars moved as last year’s market, the symbol of Anyang KGC, Oh Se-geun, also signed with Seoul SK in a surprise move. I couldn’t help but think of ‘latte’ when I saw KGC’s fans in tears. From the transfer of Lee Sang-min, which caused a stir in the KBL a decade ago, to staggered trades and truth games, we take a look back at the issues in the free agency market.

This article was originally published in the June issue of Jump Ball, a basketball magazine.

A small ball shot by a ‘love 3-point shooter’
Jung In-gyo, who until recently coached Sungkyunkwan High School, was an excellent shooter during his playing days. In his first season in the KBL, 1997, he averaged 4.3 three-pointers in 21 games, with a 48.1 percent success rate. His nickname was “Love’s Three-Point Shooter. For every three-pointer he made, he donated 10,000 won to charity, which endeared him to fans. After the 1997-1998 season, he was traded to the Busan Kia (now Ulsan Hyundai Mobis) for Heo Jae, the “Basketball President,” and became a household name.

After moving to Yeosu Gold Bank (now Suwon KT) in 2000, Jung In-gyo became the first generation of free agents after the 2000-2001 season. 2001 was the first year of the KBL’s free agency system, and a total of 29 players became free agents, including Jung In-gyo. While Kang Dong-hee, Kim Young-man (Kia), Heo Jae (Sambo), and Oh Sung-sik (LG) re-signed with their original teams for huge salaries, Jung In-gyo was unable to reach an agreement with Gold Bank. Jung In-gyo earned 110 million won in salary the previous season, but was offered 50 million won in negotiations. While it’s clear that his performance was on the decline, averaging just 7.2 points in 33 games, it was a deal that hurt his pride.

The compensation rules also hindered him. At the time, the team that signed a free agent in the top 30 in salary had to give the original team 30 percent of the player’s current salary multiplied by the length of the contract, plus compensatory players (excluding four protected players). At the time, Jung’s salary was ranked 19th. Despite his utility as a backup shooter, no team was willing to take on the compensation.

The bigger issue was the length of the negotiations. At the time, free agents had one month to negotiate with their original team, from May 1 to 31. If no agreement was reached, the player could negotiate with other teams throughout the month of June, but again, there was no option to renegotiate with the original team for players who did not receive an offer. Jung In-gyo, who did not receive an offer from another team, was on the verge of retirement. “At the time, there were many articles saying that I was a ‘duck egg in the Nakdong River’. I admit that my performance was bad, but the first offer I received from Goldbank was very humiliating.” There was only one way for Jung to extend his playing career: as a trainee, and at the time, a trainee could earn up to 18 million won a year. After declining Gold Bank’s offer to become a trainee, Jung In-gyo temporarily decided to retire, but after much deliberation, he decided to make a fresh start. “I thought it was bad for the development of the league to have retired players due to the wrong rules from the first season after the FA system was implemented. My seniors also gave me a lot of encouragement and advice about continuing my career as a trainee. I put my pride aside on the way to signing the contract.”

After extending his playing career, Jung In-gyo signed with Mobis under new coach Choi Hee-am in 2002 for an annual salary of 60 million won, and later played for Seoul Samseong before retiring in 2004. The KBL also made its first tweaks to the free agency system, holding a board meeting and adding a secondary negotiation period with the original team in response to Jung’s “Nakdong River duck egg” status. The “love three-point shooter” had his own little ball.

A Rare Time Difference Trade
On April 30, 2006, not long after the end of the 2005-2006 season, Changwon LG and Incheon E-Land (now Daegu Korea Gas Corporation) made a trade that raised questions. In exchange for 300 million won in cash, LG sent Cho Woo-hyun, Chung Jong-sun, and Chung Sun-gyu to E-Land. Cho Woo-hyun was LG’s starting forward who averaged over 30 minutes a game in every game of the 2005-2006 season, while Chung Jong-sun and Chung Sun-gyu (then vice president) were role players who consistently received playing time off the bench. In today’s terms, that would mean giving up Lee Kwan-hee, Yoon Won-sang, and Lee Dong-hee for cash.

The mystery was solved after the free agency period ended. LG acquired shooter Cho Sang-hyun, who played for Busan KTF (now Suwon KT), and he was one of the big fish covered by the compensation rule. However, LG handed over a number of players to E-Land prior to the opening of the free agency period, leaving KTF with a limited number of cash-only options. KTF ended up selecting Lim Young-hoon, who had averaged just 3 minutes and 4 seconds per game in 19 games the previous season.

As the free agency period came to a close, LG made another trade with Electronic Land. They handed over Hwang Sung-in and 300 million won in cash in exchange for Park Ji-hyun, Park Kyu-hyun, Park Hoon-geun, and Lim Hyo-sung. Park Ji-hyun was the starting point guard who was about to be discharged from the military, while the other three were utilized as bench members. The 300 million won in cash from the first trade was practically a blank check.

With an empty roster, LG was able to sign free agent Cho Sang-hyun to minimize the leakage of power under the compensation system, and then make a second trade after the compensatory player designation was over to keep all the right players. With a solid lineup on the bench and in the starting lineup, LG rebounded from missing the playoffs in 2005-2006 to finish as the regular season runner-up in 2006-2007.

We’ll leave it up to the reader to decide if LG was strategically exploiting a loophole in the system or if it was a case of cheating. In an effort to address this loophole, the KBL has instituted a new rule that players cannot be officially traded during free agency in May of each year.

“We are trying to understand KCC”
The 2007 free agency market was unprecedented in the history of the KBL, and probably never will be. Seo Jang-hoon (Samsung), who became a free agent for the second time after the end of the 2006-2007 season, wanted to play with Lee Sang-min (KCC), with whom he had maintained a close friendship since his days as a student at Yonsei University. KCC, which was in last place, was also in need of reinforcements. KCC went to the free agency market with a lot of enthusiasm and signed Seo Jang-hoon and Im Jae-hyun (then SK) at the same time to strengthen the team.

In an interview at the KBL Center on May 27, 2007, the day he signed with KCC, Seo Jang-hoon said, “(Lee) Sang-min jokingly said to my brother, ‘We’ll have to play together again before we retire…’ I’m glad I got the chance. I’ll play with the attitude of a freshman,” he said. Jump Ball also had a planning meeting for the July 2007 issue with the title of the cover story, “The Reunited Combo: Lee Sang-min and Seo Jang-hoon,” but it wasn’t long before a new concern arose from the fans. The question was who KCC was going to put under protection.

At the time, the FA compensation rule was 100% of the player’s previous season’s salary plus compensation or 300% of the previous season’s salary, and there were only three protected players who were exempt from compensation. In addition to Lee Sang-min, KCC had another signature star, Choo Seung-gyun. One of Seo Jang-hoon, Im Jae-hyun, Lee Sang-min, and Choo Seung-gyun could not be a protected player, as free agents must also be included.

There were rumors that Im Jae-hyun would be excluded and that Samsung would trade him to another team after designating him, but the day after Seo Jang-hoon’s press conference, KCC officially announced that Lee Sang-min was not included. Fans of Lee said, “Even if Samsung doesn’t take him as a compensation player, how can they throw a player who has dedicated more than 10 years to the team down a river like a child?” Seo Jang-hoon also expressed his dismay, saying, “I wonder if Samsung wanted Sang-min’s brother in the first place. I hope it works out.”

Sang-min was approaching his late 30s, but he was still one of the most popular stars in the league. Rival Hyundai KCC had the added pressure of having a strong image, but with his skill and ticket power, no team would want to take him off the protected list. On the morning of May 30, Samsung announced that it had named Lee Sang-min as a compensation player.

“I don’t care about the words ‘franchise star’ or ‘old’, I don’t care about the words ‘franchise star’ or ‘old’. I am very satisfied that we were able to sign Lee Sang-min.” This was a comment from Cho Seung-yeon, the head of Samsung at the time.

I wonder if he had been suffering a lot in the past few days. “I’m trying to understand KCC,” said Lee Sang-min, who appeared at the Samsung press conference with a disheveled appearance. The encouragement around me has been a great help, but there are parts of me that feel unfamiliar because I’ve only played for one team for a long time. I want to contribute to Samsung as long as I have the physical strength and ability to do so.”

KCC also suffered from measles. An online community organized a movement against the KCC leadership for handing over Lee Sang-min in vain, and the signing press conference for Seo Jang-hoon and Lim Jae-hyun was held in mid-June, more than two weeks later than originally scheduled. At the time, KCC head coach Heo Jae said, “I am heartbroken about Lee Sang-min’s transfer. I will take all the responsibility. Right now, we need the fans’ support for the new players.”

Seo Jang-hoon’s feelings were similarly mixed. He signed with KCC because he wanted to play with Lee Sang-min, and now he’s the reason Lee Sang-min is leaving KCC. “Until now, many people only knew I was a basketball player and didn’t know which team I played for, but now they know about this. It put me in an awkward position,” he said bitterly.

“I think my relationship with you goes back to college,” said Lee Sang-min to Seo Jang-hoon after he started a new life at Samsung. The cover story of Jump Ball’s July 2007 issue was renamed “The Unfulfilled Superstar Combo: Lee Sang-min and Seo Jang-hoon”. The KBL increased the number of protected players to four.

‘Rookie’ instead of ‘rookie’
In 2013, SK was the only team not to draft a mixed-race player through the naturalized mixed-race draft. As a result, they had priority negotiating rights to shooter Moon Tae-jong, who became a free agent with the E-Land after the 2012-2013 season. After a successful career in the European League, Moon made his KBL debut at a late age, turning 39 in 2013.

Despite his impending departure, Moon was still a force to be reckoned with. In the 2012-2013 season, he averaged 13.5 points and 1.6 three-pointers in 46 games, showing off his rusty shooting touch. He was nicknamed “The Fourth Man” and “Tazza” for his intensity in close games.

For SK, it was the final piece of the puzzle. SK won the regular season title by tying the record for most wins (44), but they were humiliated in the championship game by Mobis. With the addition of Moon Tae-jong to a team that ranked eighth in three-pointers made and ninth in three-point percentage, it wasn’t unreasonable to think that SK could make a comeback in V2.

However, SK gave up on signing Moon Tae-jong. It was a decision made after much deliberation. Tae-jong Moon’s age and the fact that the team won the regular season made it inevitable that the main players like Kim Sun-hyung and Choi Buk-kyung would receive salary increases. There was also an internal opinion that investing a large amount of money in Moon Tae-jong was not efficient. “I wanted to bring Moon Tae-jong because I was greedy, and he was definitely a player we needed, but we had to consider the salary cap,” said Moon, who was the head coach of SK at the time. We also considered the motivation of veterans Park Sang-oh and Kim Dong-woo.”

After SK waived his rights and he automatically became a free agent, Moon Tae-jong received offers from four teams. The original team, E-Land, KT, and the Goyang Orions (now Day One) also submitted letters of intent, but LG ultimately landed Moon.

In fact, in the free agency market, there were no options for players whose negotiations with their original teams fell through. Players who received offers from multiple teams had to sign with the team that offered the highest salary in their first season. This was to prevent so-called “backroom deals”.

2013 was the first free agency market with a spoonful of “free” in the “auction. A player could only choose a new team if they offered 90% of the highest bidder’s salary. For example, if Team A offered 100 million won, and Team B offered 90 million won, the player could choose Team B. However, LG offered 680 million won, far exceeding the bids of the competing teams, thus eliminating the case for Moon Tae-jong.

Moon responded to LG’s investment by surpassing Yang Dong-geun and Kim Joo-sung (over 600 million won) to become the “salary king” of the 2013-2104 season. He broke the record for the oldest MVP in history and led LG to its first regular season title.

SK, on the other hand, paid dearly for overpaying for Moon. The team focused on recruiting and developing “rookie” Park Seung-ri (real name David Michaels) from NCAA Division III Whitman College, but his development fell short of expectations. SK finished third in the regular season behind LG and Mobis in 2013-2014, and Park averaged just 6.2 points and 3.9 rebounds in 22 minutes and 27 seconds over three seasons.

He didn’t even earn Korean citizenship. The rules required him to obtain Korean citizenship before his three-year contract with SK expired in order to continue his career in the KBL, but he didn’t even meet the requirement of “residing in Korea for at least three years.” As a result, he left the KBL in 2016 with no real competitive edge. On the other hand, Moon Tae-jong, who was passed over by SK, remained competitive until his final season in 2018-2019, when he won two championships.


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