The Legacy of Coach John Han

A beloved basketball coach touched the lives of many around him.


Though nearly a month had passed since John Han, a beloved youth and adult basketball coach in Orange County, Calif., was killed in a tragic car crash, Gary Kim, Han’s longtime friend, was still receiving handwritten letters, emails and pictures from those who knew him.

Han, who worked as a salesman for Dunn Edwards Paints in Anaheim and was also a husband and father of three, became quite the local hero to all those who knew him through one of his passions: basketball. He played, coached and recruited for the Korean American Orange County basketball team; helped create the Korean North American Basketball Association (KNABA), which organized annual tournaments; and also led an influential sports ministry for youth at Bethel Korean Church in Irvine.

He had big dreams for the KNABA, which he hoped would eventually draw out all the amateur men’s and women’s Korean American teams from the U.S. and Canada. No doubt, he also had dreams for his family and all the youth he mentored over the past decade. But on the afternoon of June 11, Han’s life was tragically cut short when, after leaving work around 3 p.m., a pick-up truck ran a red light and broadsided his Camry. He had to be extricated from his car and was pronounced dead a short time later at UC Irvine Medical Center.

He was only 42.

Yet, even in that brief span, Han touched many lives in all the special ways only a coach could, as evidenced by the crowd of more than 1,000 who flocked to his June 16 memorial service at Bethel Korean Church.

For Kim, one of the most striking images at the memorial service was seeing 20 junior high and high school students bravely take the stage and share memories of Coach Han. All had known Han through the sports ministry at Bethel, where he quickly established himself as a mentor, confidante and big brother figure. A poster display at the service also featured heartfelt letters from these kids to their late coach.

“Half a year ago, I didn’t know how to play basketball, so I started basketball [at church] and I met you. You were generous and kind to me, and you always encouraged me when I do some mistakes,” wrote a boy named Justin. “You always talked to me while we’re eating dinner in church, and you were my best teacher and coach in my life.”

John Han StudentsHan poses with the youngest kids in the Bethel Korean Church’s sports ministry. 

John Han TeamHan, far right, with the members of the Orange County basketball team, Bluecanvas. Photos courtesy of the Korean North American Basketball Association (KNABA).

Kim, who first met Han when the latter was a free-spirited 19-year-old playing for the Orange County Korean American basketball team, watched as Han became a hyung (big brother) figure to the students he coached through Bethel and the Orange County amateur team. If a kid needed a pair of shoes, Han would gladly buy him a new pair or give away his own. If a shy teen needed encouragement, he would pull him aside and make sure he felt included and valued.

“His bigger purpose was to help them grow as young men,” Kim said. “He taught them how to work hard, to keep trying and never quit.”

Han led young Korean American basketball players from Orange County to consecutive national tournament titles at the biennial Korean American Sports Festival (KASF), also known as the Korean American Olympics.

Behind the scenes, Han would cover much of the travel costs with his own money. “I know he personally spent thousands,” Kim said.

Han was also quite the high-octane, relentless competitor when he took the court. He was all about winning, said Justin Yun, a former teammate who delivered a eulogy at the memorial service. As competitive as he was, though, Han cared deeply about the friendships he made with teammates and even members of opposing teams.

“He had a certain way of speaking—very loving and kind,” said Yun. “He’d always start a conversation, ‘Hey brother, how are you?’ and always end them, ‘I love you brother, I love you, man.’”

Future Korean American basketball players will see Han’s legacy live on through the KNABA championship trophy, which was named the John Han Trophy this year.

Han is survived by his wife, Jin Hee, and their three children, Crystal, Caitlyn and Taylor. Friends of the family have set up a memorial fund for his family. For more information, visit and search for “John Han Memorial Fund.”


This article was published in the August/September 2015 issue of KoreAmSubscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the August/September issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days.)