David Michaels (박승리) is a professional basketball player who, at 23 years old, was the youngest of the recent mixed Korean players to play in the KBL (Korean Basketball League) when he was drafted by the Seoul SK Knights (서울 SK 나이츠) in 2013. He played three seasons for the Knights from 2013-2016.
David had an exceptional senior season in 2012 at Whitman College when he averaged 20.0 points and earned many accolades including 2012 Northwest Conference Player of the Year and an invitation to the prestigious annual Portsmouth Invitational Tournament where he was the only NCAA Division III player invited that year and the first since 2004.
Upon graduation from Whitman, the 6’7″ forward played professionally in Holland for Aris Leeuwarden before joining the KBL. Although he is not playing professionally at the moment, David hopes to return to the KBL in the near future.
We were able to catch up with David to discuss his background and basketball career and are pleased to present this interview.
Please note that HalfKorean.com comments/questions are in BOLD.
Background: The Basics on David
Where were you born, raised and currently reside?
I was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan and raised in Las Vegas for the last 16-17 years. I lived over half my life in Vegas and grew up there. Vegas is home but I went to school out of state and haven’t been home home for the last eight years. It’s been awhile since I’ve been living in Vegas, but I call it home.
My son and his mother live in Holland and we had met out here when I first played out here my first year. I split time between Holland, Vegas and Korea. Over there the way training is set up I was training most of the summer in Korea and after the season I was in Vegas or Korea.
How did your parents meet?
My mom was born in Korea and was adopted to the States when she was around 11 or 12. So left Korea and was adopted by a family in Detroit. She met my dad there and moved to Ann Arbor when I was born.
Has your mom tried looking for her birth family?
We tried but it was tough because the company that was part of her adoption wouldn’t allow her adopted family to find her birth family. Now, it’s been over 40-50 years so all those records are probably torn up and burned up somewhere from the wars and tough times out there.
She has a younger brother that’s like six years younger than her and the cool thing about when they both got adopted was that the two families that adopted them really wanted to keep the kids in contact and didn’t want to isolate them because they had heard stories. They got to visit pretty frequently and my uncle’s adopted parents are like my other grandparents. I knew them very well and grew up with them my whole life. We were lucky that it worked out like that.
Do you have any siblings?
I’m an only child. I recently found out that I have half-sisters on my dad’s side. I don’t really know or speak to that side of my family but one of my sisters recently reached out to me. But I grew up as an only child.
How much Korean can you speak?
I can read fluently. When someone is talking to me about basketball, it’s really repetitive and I can understand. As far as conversational Korean it’s not really there but I am still studying it. It’s decent but the grammar is pretty tough for me. I’m still learning.
What is your favorite Korean food?
Honestly, when I was in Korea they made a lot of Korean food but I didn’t really eat too much of it. It is because that when I play games my stomach gets kind of sensitive so I only eat the things I know will keep my stomach settled. I didn’t eat a crazy amount of Korean food but I really like any kind of Korean BBQ. When we go to a Korean BBQ restaurant I can eat anything there.
Do you like soju?
I really don’t like soju but it’s one of those cultural things. It’s not that I don’t like the taste it’s just that I’m not a big fan of how quickly you can drink a lot. Now they have those fruit flavored ones and those ones are like juice to me.
Did you grow up around other mixed Koreans?
I actually didn’t know that many when I was younger and didn’t meet any other ones until I came to Vegas. Until I came to Vegas I hadn’t really met any Koreans at all. In the area I lived in Michigan it was mostly white, black and Hispanic. There were hardly any Asians.
Did you ever experience any identity issues while growing up?
I think it was kind of tough because my skin was a lot darker than my mom. Us two together look different to people. Back in the 1990s it was kind of odd to see a light-skinned Asian parent with a mixed looking black kid. People didn’t know if I was Asian or not. It was definitely strange at first but my mom never let it bother me. She would talk to me about it and make me aware. She would talk to me like a grown up when I was young and I had to grow up a lot faster than other kids because of it. She made sure I was prepared for anything like that. I was pretty confident as a kid and I didn’t let bullying or anything like that affect me.
Had you been to Korea prior to joining the KBL?
No, I had not been to Korea until three years ago.
Do you plan to visit Korea anytime soon?
Yeah, I actually visited Korea this summer to update my visa. So now that I actually finished that, I’m hoping I can return to Korea. That way I can begin to work on my passport and hopefully end up back in the KBL.
What do people who meet you think your ethnicity is?
When I was younger I would get Filipino like everyday. I still have Filipino friends to this day who ask me if I’m sure that I’m not part Filipino. After last season, one of my friends went to play in the Philippines and I went to visit him for a couple days. When I was there, I realized how much I looked Filipino and when I went around talking to people they even thought I was half Filipino.
At what age did you start playing basketball?
I started playing when I was 14 my freshman year of high school. I had played baseball from when I was five all the way almost through high school. I was looking to go pro out of high school for baseball. I was looking at baseball as a career before basketball.
What made you decide to change your focus to basketball?
It was more of a challenge for me. I was a lot better at baseball than basketball at the time. Baseball kind of got repetitive and out in Vegas we played under the sun and it’s like 100 degrees. Being under the sun and getting dirty and doing it every single day, it started to lose its appeal to me. When I found basketball and I found a gym I could go play basketball inside, indoors with air conditioning all day. I had no way of competing with that. I was 16 when I decided I wanted to start playing basketball and wanted to go to college for basketball.
What was your height back then?
When I was 16, I was like 6’3” or 6’4”. By the time I graduated high school I had grown to 6’5”-6’6” and now I’m 6’6”/6’7”.
Other than baseball, did you play any other youth sports?
I tried football when I was 11 and I was decent but it was just too physical for me. So was basketball too and that was the reason I never played. I wasn’t really an aggressive contact seeking child so I played baseball and also soccer. That was basically it and I didn’t really care for any other sports.
How supportive were your parents towards playing basketball and then your eventual pursuit of playing professionally?
I don’t really speak to or know my father but my mom has been supportive. She was the one who wanted me to put all of my energy into something. She didn’t care what. It was positive and kept me healthy and safe. I wasn’t out doing dumb stuff outside and running with the wrong people. It kept me focused on a goal and also got me thinking about college. It made me want to play basketball in college and my mom wanted me to go to college. It was like anything that would help me get there she was supportive of it and she helped me the best that she could.
Who was your favorite player and team growing up?
I’m a huge sports fan in general and I watch almost everything. One of my first loves was hockey and I played it as well. I’m a Detroit everything fan. I was a Detroit Red Wings fan in the 1990s and my favorite players back then were Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Federov. For baseball, I was a Detroit Tigers fan but my favorite player was Kenny Lofton. For basketball, I was a Detroit Pistons fan and my favorite player was Kobe Bryant and later it was Carmelo Anthony. For football, I was a Detroit Lions fan. Vegas didn’t have any pro sports teams so I supported my teams from back home.
How did you end up choosing to attend Whitman College?
When I was coming out of high school I had multiple offers. I wasn’t as developed as I should have been out of high school because I had started playing late and didn’t have the right people training me. I wasn’t ready. I had a spot on UNLV’s team and I was either going to walk on or get a back end scholarship. That was my initial goal and plan was to go to UNLV. It would have been good for me to stay home but I started playing AAU basketball that summer and played with a new team. My coach on that team had a connection with a guy who had just got a new job at Whitman. He called me up and said he didn’t know what I was doing now but he could guarantee that I would play over there and have an opportunity. He gave me the chance to play. If I had stayed with UNLV it wouldn’t have been as fun and wouldn’t have gotten better playing there. Whitman is a really good school academically and my family told me to go. It was kind of luck to stumble upon the opportunity.
After your senior season at Whitman in 2012 you were invited to the Portsmouth Invitational. How was that experience?
I went to the Portsmouth Invitational tournament and that was set up by an alumni that had a connection with the president of that organization. They selected all these guys for the tournament. I played in the Division III All Star game and they kind of saw these things and they thought I could play so they invited me. It was a multiple day event and we played three games. We ended up coming in at 3rd place and lost to the champions so I didn’t feel too bad. I thought we had one of the better teams in the camp but we just didn’t have as much talent as the other team. For me it was like a new experience playing with a whole bunch of guys who got drafted. I think about five of them are still in the league now. It was a real cool experience and we did those tests like the combine. Not all of them but a lot of them. There was a bunch of scouts from all over the place.
What made you decide to pursue playing professionally in Korea?
I met two Korean coaches at that tournament and that was how I heard about basketball in Korea. I had finished a game and I was walking and some Asian guys just jumps out at me and asked me if I was Asian. I told him I was and he then asked me what kind of Asian so I told him half Korean. He then told me to not move and that he would be right back. He took off and then comes back five minutes later with the KBL Mobus and KBL Orions coach. They had watched me play and had sent this guy to find out who I was. So we talked for a couple minutes and then they left. When I signed my agent, they were one of the first people calling. So, that was how I found out about Korea.
We know that you went and played in Holland prior to playing in the KBL. How did that happen?
I was supposed to go to KBL straight out of college but they have this draft process that all of the new Korean players go through coming out of college. It is a camp kind of like the NBA draft camp. The half Koreans are included in this camp and are supposed to be there to play in it. That week that I was supposed to be there was actually my finals week in college. So, I had to make a decision to go to Korea and play in this tournament or get my degree. They were okay with that so I had to wait until the next year.
When I was in Holland, my team went to the league championship for the first time in the team’s history. So it was the second year in a row that I couldn’t make it to the draft camp so we had to petition to the KBL to make an exception for me that I was allowed to miss it.
Were you drafted in the KBL’s “ethnic” draft?
I was the last one to be a part of the ethnic draft. Now all Koreans, mixed or not, are all together in one draft.
How would you describe your overall experience in the KBL after three seasons?
It was just different. The style of play, the culture it was a learning experience. My first couple years I was shocked by everything and it took me a long time to adjust. It also took my team a long to adjust to me as well. I was the first mixed player, as far as mixed from America, that the team had ever had. I’m not fluent in Korean and some of these other half Koreans are fluent and knew the culture and was easier for them. Now, I’m acclimated to the lifestyle and the people and how they treat me and how I was supposed to act. It was just a learning experience for sure.
How were you received/accepted in the KBL?
As the years went on, the team let me play a little bit more and trust me. More and more people would gravitate towards me and accept me. The longer I’ve been there the better the relationships have been with teammates and coaches. The fans have always been friendly and nice. It’s been good from the start but the last two years were better than the first.
How would you compare playing in the KBL to other pro leagues such as the one in Holland?
The Korean league has way more money so with having more money you attract more import players and can pay the players way better than the ones in Holland. The import players in the KBL are much better. But, if you take the imports out of it and just look at the Korean players and match them against Dutch players they are fairly similar. Korea has much better shooters and it is one of their keys and required to be regarded a good player. In Holland, they play more universal basketball so it is about executing plays and being physical in trying to win games. In Korea, it’s more about the mental game and trying to outsmart each other and be calculated in their approach. It’s not the typical basketball you would see in the world. That’s why they kind of struggled a little bit in the FIBA championships last summer. It’s because the style of play is so much different and it is hard for them to match up when they are not as big, fast or strong as their opponents. But between the leagues, they are competitively fairly similar.
In the 2015-16 season, you played with three other mixed Koreans on the SK Knights (Eric Sandrin, Daniel Sandrin & Julian Fernandez). What was that like?
Julian was there when I first got there and I had known him for a long time. He was always good to me and would look out for me. I met the Sandrin brothers even before I came to Korea. I met Dan about three years before I came to Korea. I was working out at this gym in Vegas and we had a mutual friend who worked at the gym. He was in there working out and he was one of the first people to let me know about the KBL. I met his brother Eric the first summer I came to Korea. I kind of knew them all since from my first days in Korea. It was cool with them being around. They are older guys, close to 40, and they have a lot of knowledge and information that I needed. Nobody else would tell me anything and always kept it real and straight with me about stuff they had to go through. It was really cool that I could have someone who had been in my situation and could explain it to me. The Sandrins are from America and speak fluent English and I could ask them any question and they could translate for me. They were very helpful.
Last season didn’t really go as you would have expected right?
We had a lot of problems. There was a really big gambling scandal last summer (2015) and in Korea that is like sin number one to get caught gambling. There was like 10 guys who got caught and one of the kids actually lost his job and in turn he then went to the police and ratted out another 70 players who had also gambled with him. He had ratted out on our point guard who was one of our best players and got suspended for 20 games. That wasn’t actually that bad because we found out a way to play without him but had a bunch of big injuries to key players early. Once we got everyone back healthy it was hard to adjust when the point guard came back because he was forced in halfway through the season and we only play 54 games total.
Have you been able to talk with the other mixed Koreans while playing in the KBL?
Greg Stevenson was one of the first ones I met in Korea as well the first summer. I didn’t get to talk to him too much but I’ve talked to him off and on over the three seasons. His brother Jared is a little more laid back so I haven’t really seen him outside of a game scenario. Tony is good friends with one of my American teammates from my first season and they hung out a lot so I know Tony a little better than the Stevensons. They all have given me advice. I was the youngest half Korean there and I think I was the youngest one in KBL’s history. I was like the little brother to the half Koreans in the league.
Now that your contract with the Knights is over, would you want to go back to the Knights if you return to the KBL?
As far as comfort level, I really liked being with that group. I liked the situation as far as the ability to have the coaches understand me. It took a long time for them to figure me out and I had to earn respect in their eyes too. I put in a lot of work over the three seasons to that point so if I went to another team I wouldn’t be upset about it but I would have to start that whole process over again. In Korea, you have to tell them multiple times where you are from and how old you are. It’s all about your age over there. I had to tell them my birthday like 2000 times in three years. Now they know me so I don’t have to keep answering certain questions but if I go somewhere else it will be different. I really enjoyed my time there and they treated my family well too.
After three seasons in the KBL, do you feel that you have been able to accomplish the goals you had set for yourself prior to joining the league?
Honestly, my goals for playing professional basketball was just that, to play basketball professionally. Originally I tried to see if I could even do it and that was my driving force. Now, it is obviously championships and proving to myself how good I can be. It is kind of difficult because in my eyes I see the NBA as being the ultimate league for any basketball player to get to. Being able to compete with NBA players is my new goal. The NBA thing kind of doesn’t work for guys my age trying to come back in. It is a lot harder to make it the D-League route than it is by them taking a chance on you out of college. They might take a chance on you and if you work hard enough you might be able to stick. Now, you have to fight your way back through the training camps and summer leagues. It’s a whole lot of effort. I have a mouth to feed now and I can’t be taking guesses and gambling on my future when I know if I stay in Korea I could probably play there for another 10 years and make a good amount of money there. It’s hard for me to gamble over here in the States.
Did you consider pursuing the NBA D-League straight out of college?
I thought about it when I came out of college because I needed somewhere to play for a year. I was thinking I’d be in the States and be playing the best competition in the world. It’s still a good league with good players and have NBA players that come to play too. It’s a really good league but the money is just terrible. You are making like $20-30 grand a year and you are lucky to have some sort of income before that. You have to pay for all your living expenses. It’s not as easy to do as if you go overseas to play. They give you a car and an apartment. You just have to take care of your food, laundry, movies, etc. Your money can stretch further overseas than it can at home. I was thinking that if I go overseas I’ll be able to experience the world and travel so that just trumped it. And, once I found out the salaries and how little I would actually play due to the fact that if I land in a bad situation on a team with two or three draft picks, I’m not playing. They will play the draft picks over you always. I had thought about it but now looking back I’m glad that I never tried because it is something that if you don’t have hype behind your name, you are not going to get the shine or opportunities that you would if played somewhere else.
Is Park your mother’s birth surname and how did you come up with your Korean name, Park Seung-ri (박승리)?
Yes, it was my mom’s birth surname. For the name, it was actually something my team came up with. The front office of my team were in charge of finding a name for me. What they did was is they gave my teammates a list of names and then they chose the five names they liked the most. Out of those five names, I chose what I wanted. We had a fan meeting event where you hang out with the fans overnight that was a park or resort type thing with like 200-300 fans. They all voted as well and then they had this big reveal of my name. Some guy won a computer and some other shit. It was really funny how everything happened because I didn’t know what was going on. So it was a mixture of fans and my team. And that was actually the name I liked the most out of the ones we were choosing from.
Would you ever consider trying to play for the Korean National Team?
It is something that I’m interested in and it is also something that the league has to approve. Some journalists, teammates and coaches have asked me if I would play for the National Team. One of the Stevenson brothers, Greg, is currently playing for the team. They are currently not really looking for another guy right now because they can only have one but I’m also 10 years younger. So, by the time he retired, I’d be the next half Korean that could play. That’s probably something they’d ask me to do if I was to get a passport and stay. If they were to give me a passport, I would definitely want to play.
Once you retire from playing professionally, do you plan to pursue something else in basketball or sports?
I’ve always had an interest in sports psychology. I actually got my degree in psychology. I’d have to go back to school to specialize in sports psychology but I have a personal friend who has been my psychologist for the last eight years and throughout college and I’ve watched him just take off. Now he represents multiple MLB, NBA and NHL players. He is building this huge network and brand and program to a level that I never thought his field could go to. I really attribute all of my success came from working with him. I really enjoyed the mental training. I would personally like to do something more along the lines of that and training athletes. I don’t think I would be that great of leader as a coach and I don’t know if I can command as much respect as a coach in my mindset right now. Maybe if I retired down the line when I’m a lot older I could see myself doing that. For right now, whenever I stopped playing basketball, I would go back to school and finish my Masters, start some training programs for athletes in areas that don’t really have the ability to access people like that.
How did you find out about HalfKorean.com?
My mom actually was a part of the Facebook group for a long time and she had told me about it when I was in college around 2010-2011. I had also seen the interview you did with Daniel Sandrin and he had mentioned meeting me in Vegas and that was how I heard about the website.
Any words that you would like to pass on to the mixed Korean community?
It’s really cool what you guys have been doing with the website and the Facebook group. To see all the different things that you guys are sharing with the culture. I really had no clue that there was this many people that were half Korean and didn’t know how big of a community it was. I was always under the impression that I was one of a few. To see this many people in this many areas of the world is really cool to see. It’s just awesome and I hope to meet more mixed Koreans in the future.
We want to thank David for spending his time with us for this interview and wish him much continued success and hope to see him back on the basketball court in the KBL or elsewhere soon!
Make sure to follow David’s Twitter, Instagram and you can check out his KBL stats on the KBL website.
Interview by: David Lee Sanders