Benjamin Kil spends six to eight hours a day in the gym, lifting weights, working on his cardio, and doing footwork drills under the supervision of NBA and NCAA trainers. When he finally gets home at night, the training doesn’t stop. In addition to his work in the weight room, Kil spends his evenings learning to speak Korean in hopes of playing in the Korean Basketball League (KBL) — one of the premier overseas leagues and a destination for former college stars and NBA players.
When Kil enters the KBL 2016 foreign player draft in Las Vegas in July, it’ll be his second attempt to revive the dreams he had put on the back burner years ago.
“Basketball didn’t just come back into my life for no reason,” he told NBC News. “I’m truly blessed and ready for the opportunities ahead. Playing basketball in my parent’s home country will be something that I will be very proud of.”
Kil has wanted to be a basketball player his entire life. In 2011, he led his high school team to the best record in school history and was later recruited to play for the Division I NCAA team at the University of Detroit-Mercy as well as at Division III Adrian College. He has also played on a top-five nationally ranked team in the Amateur Athletic Union and was scouted as a prospect by several teams in the NBA Development League.
But when he got to Detroit, Kil was told that he would not play, instead filling the bench behind Ray McCallum, Jr., now a guard in the NBA. Feeling discouraged, Kil decided to leave his spot on the roster his freshman year, focusing instead on studying for a career in business. He said being a target of racial jokes during games in high school and college also played a role in his decision to stop pursuing basketball.
“It honestly made me feel like I wasn’t good enough,” Kil said. “I think I was emotionally worn out from feeling discouraged and feeling like there was no support besides my family. All I wanted to do was play basketball. I just kind of shut down and stopped there.”
After college, Kil worked in sales at Denso, one of Japan’s largest automotive suppliers. But despite his success, Kil said he could not completely remove the sport from his life. He continued to play recreationally, and had support from his former trainers and an agent who wanted to sign Kil to his agency.
“Athletically, Ben tests off the charts,” Randy Young, an assistant strength trainer at Eastern Michigan University, told NBC News. “Having worked with hundreds of Division I athletes and professional athletes, Ben is right near the top in regards to his athletic potential. He would not have and has not had trouble competing at the highest level possible.”
“His athletic ability is a God given gift, and I recognized it in him at an early age,” Will Vance, Kil’s former high school coach and a current NBA trainer, told NBC News. “I have not seen a kid in the eighth grade as athletic as Ben.”
Months after signing with the agency, Kil received news that he may have another shot at his dream. He received an invitation to try out for the early 2015 KBL draft in Seoul, an unprecedented invitation for an athlete with no formal college or professional basketball experience.
“I didn’t know why or how I was given this chance but this is how I knew basketball was my calling,” Kil said. “I was all in.”
He traveled to South Korea with his mother, anxiously thinking about playing professional basketball in a different country.
“I was so nervous and felt out of place,” Kil said. “It was definitely a challenge at first to really relax and be myself out there especially knowing my life was about to change in a blink of an eye.”
Kil’s level of play in the draft exceeded expectations and caught the eyes of scouts and coaches for the ten teams in the KBL, he said. Returning to Detroit after a promising performance, he learned that he was among four players selected for the draft combine. His agency and family were ecstatic to return to Korea in a few days to finally put a cap on his future at the KBL.
But the same day that Kil and his mother returned to Korea in preparation for the next round of the draft, he was notified that the rules of the draft had changed and only naturalized Korean citizens would be eligible.
“The rule that changed was that if you have Korean parents who were born there, you could be considered a naturalized player, meaning that he would not count as a foreign player,” Matt Taylor, Kil’s agent at Glorified Investment Group, told NBC News. “This is a huge advantage because he has the skill like an American player and athletic ability as well. After the change, they stated that he had to be naturalized before the draft.”
Distraught at the sudden rule change, Kil flew back to America.
"It really hurt," Kil said. "I couldn't sleep in Korea for the next couple days. I just was thinking to myself why do I always come up short. But, I realized how much fun and how much I enjoyed the struggle and process of playing pro basketball. I knew from that point that this was the type of career I wanted."
Kil was the only Korean-American player in the draft and while Kil was training with the league’s players, the cultural differences created a gap and led to him being considered a foreigner, he said. Although his parents were born in Korea and he had grown up speaking the language, the country felt unfamiliar and distant.
“I was disappointed not only because I was so close to finally reaching my dream of playing basketball, but also because I felt like my own heritage and culture and the people didn’t want me there,“ he said.
While Kil has never formally played college basketball, his willingness to give up everything for a NBA dream still keeps him going.
In July, Kil will not be competing against Korean-born players, but against players from the United States and pros in European leagues. Former stars, including Ron Howard, former guard at Marquette University; Ira Clark, former star at the University of Texas; Ricardo Ratliffe, former Missouri forward; and former Los Angeles Lakers guard Smush Parker are among some of the American stars who have participated in the KBL draft. Kil is currently looking to become naturalized to be eligible for selection and continuing his pursuit of playing professional basketball.
"I would love to play and represent my heritage, it's something I've learned to be proud of especially being a Korean-American basketball player living in the states,” Kil said. “I hope that one of the teams will take a chance on me that I know they won't regret."