One of the Greats
Long before Linsanity, crowds in Louisiana were chanting “EJ! EJ!” for a 5-foot-6 basketball talent from South Korea. E.J. Ok would become one of the greatest point guards ever to play college basketball, yet her name and repute hardly make the radar outside of her adopted home state, where she is revered. This is the untold story of a woman—and phenomenal athlete—ahead of her time, but whose dream of winning a national title is still in play. (And don’t forget to check out Ok’s player highlights video after the story!)
by STEVE HAN
photograph by TERRANCE ARMSTARD
With three hours to go before tipoff, the line outside Ewing Coliseum on the campus of Northeast Louisiana University circled around the arena. An antsy crowd of 7,000 eagerly waited to enter for the biggest and most anticipated game of March Madness basketball in the school’s history.
The Lady Indians were about to take on their longtime rivals, Louisiana Tech, in the NCAA Midwest Regional championship game for a berth in the nation’s Final Four.
As the game got underway, fervent chants of “EJ! EJ!” from the crowd reverberated inside the arena at eardrum-splitting levels, as fans showed their appreciation for NLU’s star player, E.J., short for Eun Jung, Lee. The junior point guard, who only came to the U.S. from Gimje, South Korea, three years earlier, had already earned a special place in the hearts of these fans.
“Every day on campus, E.J. was the talk,” described Gene Ponti, the radio play-by-play man for NLU’s basketball games in the 1980s. “The fans couldn’t get enough of her.”
And, that day in 1985, before the packed sports arena, Lee rewarded her fans mightily. Time and time again, she fought her way through traffic, feeding her post players, with no-look lob passes to Lisa Ingram from the top of the key, and wrap-around passes to Chana Perry inside the paint. When the towering Louisiana Tech defense took away her passing lanes, Lee pulled up for her notoriously deceptive midrange jumper—a double-clutched, overhead shot—leaving defenders to second guess whether she was shooting or passing. Defensively, she held Teresa Weatherspoon, the Lady Techsters’ standout point guard who later became a four-time WNBA All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist, to just three points.
By game’s end, Lee posted 18 points and 11 assists for the night, while Ingram and Perry combined for 54 points, to lead NLU to a 85-76 victory and to a spot in the Final Four. Leon Barmore, Louisiana Tech’s head coach at the time, told Lee after the game: “I’ll be the happiest person when you graduate. Expect my flowers at your graduation.”
“It was unbelievable,” said the star NLU point guard, now 51 and now E.J. Ok (her married name), recalling that momentous game 29 years ago. “Everybody was pulling for me. Our fans really loved the way I played basketball. I was always ready to play against Louisiana Tech, so that I can make our fans happy. When we beat them, it meant so much for them.”
Yet, almost 30 years after that game, it’s mindboggling to realize that Ok, quite arguably a living legend when it comes to college basketball, is hardly recognized outside of Louisiana. She won the Southland Conference Player of the Year every year at NLU between 1983 to 1986, a feat no other male or female basketball player has ever accomplished. The Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame inducted her in 2004. She is also the Southland Conference Hall of Honor’s first female athlete inductee.
With Ok on its roster, NLU held one of the best overall win-loss records in the nation at 102-15 and went undefeated in the Southland Conference for four years with a 43-0 record. Although unranked in Ok’s freshman year in 1983, NLU went on to become No. 13 in the nation in 1984, No. 2 in 1985 and No. 3 in 1986 in the Associated Press rankings. Ok, who averaged 18.8 points and 8.4 assists per game in four years, is still NLU’s all-time leader in assists (978 total) and second in scoring with 2,208 points. In just her sophomore year in 1984, the Philadelphia Inquirer selected Ok as one of its top 10 players in women’s college basketball. Sports Illustrated dubbed her the “Korean Magic Johnson” and the Los Angeles Times wrote in 1985 that she was “one of the nation’s most exciting female players.”
Dale Brown, a legendary college basketball coach who sent 32 players to the NBA as the Louisiana State University men’s head coach, said Ok was to women’s basketball what Pete Maravich was to the men’s game, referencing the former LSU point guard and Hall of Famer known as one the greatest creative offensive talents in history.
“E.J. is the best female point guard I’ve seen,” said Brown, who coached Shaquille O’Neal at LSU in the early ’90s. “I don’t mean to embellish this, but she’s a female Pete Maravich. They had eyes all around their head. Great players perceive things that aren’t there. They diagram plays and know it in their head, and make that pass two seconds later. She was a phenom, I tell you. She had it all.”
Earlier this year, Ok, who works as an associate head coach for her alma mater’s women’s basketball team, became only the second basketball player at NLU to have her jersey retired in the rafters of Ewing Coliseum.
That jersey retirement ceremony is what put Ok on this magazine’s radar. And the process of discovery after that—including reviewing highlight videos of Ok’s playing days on YouTube (uploaded by her eldest son) and talking to those who played with her and followed her career—has been nothing short of remarkable. Yet, it also begged the question: Why didn’t we hear about her earlier?
“Unfortunately for E.J., she played during a time when there was very little TV exposure,” said Ponti, who now works for NBC-affiliate KTVE in El Dorado, Arkansas, and Monroe, Louisiana. “There was no such thing as ESPN. So she probably doesn’t get the credit she deserves, but she was one of the greatest guards to have ever played the game.
“Kim Mulkey (a former Louisiana Tech guard who played against Ok) later became the face of women’s basketball,” Ponti added.“But she met her match when she went one-on-one with E.J. If E.J. played today, or the last 15 years, because of how the media has changed women’s basketball, the country would know and remember E.J.”
Photo courtesy of Bill Smith
Even back in her native South Korea, from where Ok departed in 1982, she was an unknown commodity, although she may just have been the best South Korean women’s basketball player to have ever played. Ok wanted desperately to play for her mother country at the 1984 Summer Olympic Games in L.A., where South Korea miraculously won the silver medal, but couldn’t because she said she didn’t know whom to contact.
Luck didn’t seem to be on Ok’s side, or perhaps, it’s more accurate to say she was simply ahead of her time.
After beating Louisiana Tech on that special night in March of 1985, Ok had to play with a bruised thigh in the following Final Four game versus Old Dominion. Perhaps that explains why the electric point guard only had eight points and two assists for the game. Her team also succumbed in a disappointing 57-47 loss before 1,000 travelling fans who drove seven hours from Monroe to Austin, Texas, for the game.
In Ok’s last season, the NCAA hit NLU with sanctions for illegally recruiting Perry before the previous season. The ban shattered NLU’s dream of winning its first-ever national title, as the program became ineligible for the 1986 NCAA Tournament. NLU still finished the season in style, beating No. 5 Western Kentucky and No. 3 USC to win the Northern Lights Invite in Anchorage, Alaska, but that was still another opportunity missed for Ok and her team to garner the nationwide recognition that many felt they deserved.
When Ok graduated from NLU in 1986, there was no professional women’s basketball league; the WNBA wouldn’t get off the ground for another 10 years. So when Ok left NLU, the only way for her to prolong her career was to play in Europe, which she did for two years in Sweden and Italy—at Sweden’s Club Visby AIK in 1986-87 and Ferrara of Italy in the following season. She was the Most Valuable Player for both teams in each of the two seasons.
“Women’s basketball in the U.S. wasn’t much at that time,” Dale Brown said. “Europe was the better program than the United States. E.J. kind of got caught during that transition.”
Even Ok’s professional career in European basketball was cut short when, well, life happened. She got married and returned home to Louisiana, where she and her husband settled into family life. Her first child, Peter, was born in 1991. She maintained her relationship with basketball by becoming the assistant coach of her alma mater when many felt she should’ve been playing the game herself. This past March Ok just finished her 23rd season as a member of the women’s basketball coaching staff at the University of Louisiana at Monroe (NLU changed its name in 1999).
Photo courtesy of Bill Smith
By the time Ok joined the coaching staff, ULM was no longer the powerhouse it once was, but the loyal fans of the program still remembered the days when Ok graced their home court. In 1997, the WNBA’s inaugural season, Ok was then 35 and often played in pickup games with men, many of whom were former football players at the high school and collegiate level. She would often leave them in the dust with her undiminished ball-handling skills.
The fans in Monroe were confident that Ok could still make it in professional basketball and urged her to play one last time. Finally, friends were able to convince Ok to try out for the Houston Comets, the WNBA team that was geographically closest to Monroe, telling her that they would babysit her two children, Peter and Kristina. Ok, who missed playing the game herself, started preparing for the tryout by doing conditioning work, running and weightlifting.
“I was ready to go to Houston for the tryout,” Ok said. “But not too long before the tryout, I found out I was pregnant with my third child, Gabrielle. My priority had to change.”
Despite missing her last chance to play professionally, Ok insists she has no regrets.
“I have three beautiful children, so it’s OK,” said Ok, whose son and two daughters live with her. She is divorced. Her eldest two, Peter and Kristina, attend ULM, and her youngest is still in high school.
“I just really appreciate people who recognize my accomplishments,” Ok added. “It’s unbelievable that my jersey is up on the rafters here.”
But Ok’s former teammates can’t help but wonder for her “what could have been.”
“Even by today’s standard of basketball, with the talent she had then, she would be at the top of the WNBA, easily. No doubt. I wish she continued to play,” said Chrissa Hailey, Ok’s former ULM teammate and now the athletic director and the head coach of the girls basketball team at Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans.
Rene Johnston, another former teammate, said to watch old footage of E.J. on YouTube is to witness “the true sport of basketball. Nowadays, it’s just run, shoot, run, shoot, run, shoot. E.J. had such a finesse. She was a little general on the floor.”
“There’s no question in my mind that, had E.J. played in the WNBA, she would’ve changed the game,” said Ponti. “Teresa Weatherspoon was one of the WNBA’s greatest at the point guard position, but she didn’t shoot the rock like E.J. did.”
From the 1985-86 media guide of the NLU’s “Dream Team”: Lisa Ingram (No. 33), E.J. (Lee) Ok, Chana Perry (No. 23); back row from left, Chrissa Hailey and Jocelyn Hill. They were the starting lineup from the previous year that reached the Final Four.
Born on June 10, 1962, in Gimje, a small city in South Korea’s North Jeolla Province, Ok was the youngest of five children, three girls and two boys, born to Park Chun Kee and Lee Hee Nam. Before age 10, she didn’t even know what basketball was. One day Ok’s P.E. teacher visited her family’s house to speak to her mother. The school was getting ready to start a basketball team and was desperate for new players.
Park, a short-distance runner back in her day, agreed to give her full support, but it took a long time until her husband, who owned a construction business, gave his blessing to allow their daughter to play basketball.
“Let me tell you what my daddy did,” Ok said, laughing hysterically. “My daddy is old-school. He didn’t believe that girls should play sports. He said, ‘You should play piano. You’ll never be successful playing basketball.’”
Ok, who believes she got her athletic ability from her mother, began playing basketball anyway. Every time Ok went to basketball practice, her mother told her husband that their daughter was going to a piano lesson.
It wasn’t until Ok became one of Korea’s best basketball players at the high school level that mother and daughter revealed their secret to Ok’s father. The first time he watched her play was when Ok was playing in a nationally televised championship game for her school, Soongeui Girls High School, her senior year.
“I heard my daddy was so happy because everybody was talking about me,” Ok said. “They told him that he has a famous daughter who’ll be a great player.”
When Ok came home that night after the game, he told her: “I was wrong. You’re good.”
It was also during Ok’s senior year at Soongeui High School that college basketball recruiters in the U.S. spotted what a talent she was. In 1980, she came to the U.S. with her high school team to play some exhibition games against American schools in L.A. and Jacksonville, Florida. With Ok running the offense, the high school team from Korea was beating junior college teams.
“I remember doing the behind-the back pass and the step back shot,” Ok said. “I pretended like I was shooting, and then did the behind-the-back pass. Not many people are doing that still, but I don’t know if anybody was doing that when I was playing.”
E.J. Ok executing one of her no-look passes in a game against USC. Photo courtesy of Bill Smith
Ok attracted recruiters at NLU, as well as Florida State, but she was soon drafted out of high school by Cheil Bank of South Korea’s semiprofessional basketball league and played there for a year. But a year later, when she received a scholarship offer to pursue college education while playing basketball at NLU, taking that chance was a no-brainer for her.
Korea’s conservative basketball officials at the time weren’t happy with Ok’s decision to move abroad. They told her to choose between representing her country at international tournaments and playing for a college team in the U.S.
Ok chose the latter.
“I’m so glad I came to America,” Ok said. “If I stayed in Korea, I would’ve never gotten a college diploma. Even in basketball, I travelled around Europe after college, because I played in Italy and Sweden. Because of basketball, I was able to do that.”
With all the stories in the media about how Chinese American NBA player Jeremy Lin encountered racism during his years playing at Harvard before finally making it in the NBA, one would assume that it must have been much worse for Ok. After all, Lin was a male athlete who was born and raised in the U.S., and lived most of his life in ethnically diverse cities. Ok, on the other hand, was a woman living in the South without her family. She also didn’t speak a word of English when she first came.
E.J. Ok with her three children, at her jersey retirement ceremony this past January.
But Ok said she has nothing but great memories with her coaches, teammates, opponents and even the crowd at the games.
“I’ve never really had that experience,” Ok said. “That wasn’t a problem at all.”
In fact, she was one of the most popular students on the NLU campus.
“E.J. was a superstar on campus,” Ponti said. “She was so approachable. Her being Korean or Asian was never an issue. I remember her not understanding why students made such a big deal out of being around her and watching her play. She was always so focused on basketball.”
Ok’s only focus outside of basketball was to learn English to overcome the language barrier.
“I had about five, six dictionaries I carried everywhere,” Ok said. “Besides basketball, I didn’t do anything else but stay in the library until they closed, every day for four years.”
Her former coach, Linda Harper, who recently passed away, quickly became a mother figure to her and even drove her to ESL classes in the summer before she began her first semester at NLU in the fall of 1982. The two were so close that, years later, Ok’s three children called Harper “Grandma.”
And even though Ok was a year older than her classmates and teammates, she said they took such great care of her that she felt as if she was their little sister.
“She couldn’t speak any English, but we taught her English,” Johnston said. “Over four, five months, she opened up. It was like a flower blooming. You could just see her blossom. The girls on our team, all we had was each other. That’s just the nature of how we were and still are. She was someone you just couldn’t help but love. Coming to America, she was so innocent. A very sweet, loving person. And she never changed. She’s the same way today.”
Ok adopted the American lifestyle so well that it later became difficult to tell whether it was her teammates who adopted Ok or Ok who adopted her teammates. Fried chicken soon became her favorite food. She also fell in love with American actor John Travolta after watching Saturday Night Fever.
“That was a great movie,” said Ok, who speaks with a Southern accent. “He can dance!”
It was the support and love shown by those around her at NLU that prompted Ok to return to her alma mater to join the coaching staff. And because she remembers how valuable it was for her to have such a close bond with coaches and teammates, she feels that the most rewarding part of her job is the opportunity to help her players, and not just with basketball.
“I try to give them guidance and tell them how important education is,” said Ok. “Now, my players graduate, and I see them in pharmacy, medical schools, business, marketing and accounting. I help them get ready, so that they can be successful even when they stop playing basketball. That’s my goal. I want them to be successful even after they stop playing.”
Ok is in charge of recruiting players for the university. So like Harper did for her, she acts as a nurturing mother figure to players that she brings to the school from various regions of the South, including Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Alabama.
“She is the reason I chose to go to NLU,” said Niela Gray, who attended and played for the college from 1995 to 1999, before becoming the head coach of the boys junior varsity basketball team at Crowley High School in Texas. “She convinced my mom that she would watch out for me and I would graduate with a degree. She showed interest in me as a person, not just a player. She genuinely cares about her players as people and not just as basketball players.”
Coach Brown, who now works as a motivational speaker, first met Ok in person last year at the annual Louisiana Hall of Fame reception. He said he offered to be her mentor because he was fascinated by her approach to coaching.
“Athletes don’t care how much the coach knows until they know how much the coach cares,” said Brown. “She loves kids and knows how to play the game herself. Many people, they haven’t played the game, and they don’t have good fundamentals. She’s really got a good brain on her, but she’s been held back because she has not been a head coach.”
Ok also feels that it’s unfortunate that too many coaches in basketball nowadays are reliant on players with raw power, speed and athleticism. Her ultimate goal is to become a head coach at the college level to promote the importance of helping players improve their fundamental basketball skills, such as footwork, shooting and passing.
Her goal in coaching is to revive the type of basketball she once played at the college, the kind of game that allowed a 5-foot-6 point guard weighing 140 pounds to thrive.
“I’m big on fundamentals, really big,” Ok said. “When I played, we played with skills, but now, coaches don’t emphasize footwork as much. I get upset sometimes. When I become a head coach, that’s what I’m gonna do. I’ll teach them basketball, you know? How to play together, penetrate, pass, that kind of basketball.”
Ok said that she’s just starting to feel that there could be an invisible barrier for her as she tries to move up in the basketball coaching hierarchy. There’s still a paucity of Asian American basketball coaches in both the men and women’s game, but Ok said she will never stop trying and that she has a big goal in mind once she gets there: she wants to win it all in March.
“I don’t know if I’ll have the chance soon, but I’m gonna keep going,” Ok said. “We went to the Final Four when I played, but we didn’t win. I want to go to the Final Four and win the whole thing. As head coach, absolutely, that’s what I want.”
Highlights from E.J. (Lee) Ok’s playing days.
This article was published in the April 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the April issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).