The class is called “Introduction to Korea,” which is a lot like it sounds. It is exploratory in nature, a cross-section of the culture, tradition and history of Korea. It was a summer requirement for each Kansas men’s basketball player competing in the World University Games this month in Gwangju, South Korea.
It also led to senior forward Jamari Traylor, on a day in mid-June, taking a deep breath and enjoying a mouthful of Kimchi, the fermented side dish that is a staple of Korean cuisine.
“It’s cabbage,” Traylor said a few hours later. “And they stick it somewhere in the ground and let it sit there for like weeks or something like that. It gets kind of rotten, I think, but it’s kind of good for you.
“I don’t really know exactly. I don’t know if I’m saying it right, but I had it. I’m not a big fan of it, to be honest. But I’m trying new things.”
Traylor, a native of Chicago, turned his palms upward and smiled. As a fifth-year senior, Traylor often plays the role of the prankster older brother in the Jayhawks’ locker room. He is part glue guy, part jester and part team sage, offering the young KU players an emotional lift and the rest of the locker room a wise voice to follow.
In other words, he is just the type of person who would embrace a summer trip to the other side of the world.
“You’re not going to get this type of opportunity,” Traylor said. “The summer is going to be here. We got to get better.”
For most of June, Kansas’ players prepared to represent the United States in an international basketball tournament. The Jayhawks will open the event against Turkey at 10 p.m. today inside Dongkang Stadium in Gwangju.
In three weeks of practice, they have integrated new parts into the roster and attempted to mesh as a team. They have also spent that time learning about South Korea, the Asian nation of more than 51 million people that will play host to this month’s tournament. Specifically, the Kansas traveling party will be stationed in Gwangju, the nation’s sixth-biggest city, located in the heart of an agricultural region known as Jeolla.
“It’s going to be an experience for all of us, but we’ll go through it together,” junior forward Landen Lucas said. “It’s going to be a fun time.”
The summer class on Korea was not a requirement of the World University Games, but rather a collaborative idea between KU coach Bill Self and associate athletic director Scott Ward, the chief academic adviser for the KU basketball program.
With KU scheduled to leave for the tournament in late June, the players taking part in the event would lose the opportunity to take classes during Kansas’ two summer-school sessions. So Ward devised a class opportunity that was essentially a study-abroad course, with a month of classes on campus and projects and papers to be completed after the trip to Korea.
“We needed to do something,” Self said, adding: “Everybody needs to be going to summer school. Everybody needs to be taking classes.”
The class also prepared for the players for the inevitable culture clash, which can basically be summed up by something that sounds like a setup for joke: What happens when you take a team of 18 to 22-year-old Division I basketball players, and drop them off around the world?
“It’s kind of different,” said senior forward Hunter Mickelson, who hails from Jonesboro, Ark.
Mickelson said he was intrigued by the history — and geopolitics — of North and South Korea. He also conceded that he was not looking forward to the food.
“I’m not too picky over here,” Mickelson said. “But based on some of the stuff that I’ve seen, I don’t know if I can eat a whole (lot) of that stuff.”
Lucas, meanwhile, should be among the most comfortable Jayhawks after spending part of his childhood in Japan. Lucas’ father, Richard, played basketball in a Japanese professional league, and Lucas spent two stints in Japan. His first language was Japanese, and Lucas said he spent part of the course trying to pick up some Korean. It was more difficult than he anticipated.
“You know what, not at all,” Lucas said, when asked if he could pick up on some Korean words. “I mean, maybe some.”
Inside the classroom, there was some gentle ribbing when discussing which Kansas players would handle cultural adjustment the best. Lucas’ pick to handle it the worst: junior guard Frank Mason.
“I feel like Frank is going to be new to everything,” Lucas joked. “And he speaks his mind, so we’re going to hear every experience that he goes through.”
A week later, the Jayhawks boarded a plane and began the 28-hour trip to Gwangju. There was a connection in Detroit, another 12-hour flight, and they arrived bleary-eyed but energized. During their first moments inside the country, a group of Kansas players ran into a delegation from Chile. There were a few moments to kill, and so they sat down and played UNO with some Chileans. The immersion into Korean culture could wait a few more minutes.
“It’ll be something different for me,” Mason said. “Something that I’m not used to. But right now … I’m learning a little bit everyday and looking forward to going over there and doing some new things — and experiencing a new culture.”
KU schedule for World University Games
▪ Friday, July 3: USA vs. Turkey (10 p.m.; ESPNU)
▪ Sunday, July 5: USA vs. Brazil (6:30 a.m.; ESPNU)
▪ Tuesday, July 7: USA vs. Chile (12:30 a.m.; No TV)
▪ Tuesday, July 7: USA vs. Serbia (10 p.m.; ESPNU)
▪ Wednesday, July 8: USA vs. Switzerland (8 p.m.; ESPNU)
▪ Saturday, July 11: Quarterfinal (12:30 a.m.; ESPNU)*
▪ Sunday, July 12: Semifinals (1 and 4 a.m.; ESPNU)*
▪ Monday, July 13: Gold Medal game (6:30 a.m.; ESPNU)*
*If KU/Team USA advances to medal round