By Rick Assad
Six decades ago, there was a high school basketball player who had 75 college scholarships but chose Princeton, where he was named a two-time consensus first-team All-American and National Player of the Year in 1965.
In 1964, he was a member of the gold-medal winning United States hoops squad at the Tokyo Olympics.
After graduation, he became a Rhodes Scholar, then played a decade in the NBA where he won championships with the New York Knicks in 1970 and 1973.
Later he became a three-term New Jersey senator and also ran for the Presidency in 2000.
That man is Bill Bradley, and though it’s not fair to compare Burbank High senior Sungjoo Yoon to the Hall of Famer who has also written seven non-fiction books, there are some early similarities.
An incomparable student, Yoon, who is on the nationally recognized Burbank debate team and was recently accepted to Stanford where he will major in politics and data science, is no stranger to athletic competition.
Before entering the Bulldogs’ campus, Yoon, a volunteer youth football coach helping David Diamond, the head coach, was a three-sport athlete having played outside linebacker in football, left field in baseball and shooting guard in basketball.
“I’m a first-generation immigrant and in the early years, navigating new grounds both culturally and linguistically was a challenge. As banal as it might sound, youth sports were a rare refuge for both of those,” he admitted. “When you come from a family like mine, where your folks don’t speak English, you’re bound to grow up with an accent. Even after it goes away, the confidence to speak up is non-existent.”
Yoon, who played all three sports as a freshman at Burbank, added: “My time in sports, in my view, changed both of those on its face, and it’s served me quite well in debate,” he said. “I think half the battle with public speaking is confidence, and I strongly doubt that without the self-assurance I learned vis-a-vis my coaches, teammates, and sports experiences, that I’d be able to debate at the level that I do today – especially given my background. Past the baseline confidence, though, sports also teach you how to translate and harness aggression into controlled competition, and it’s something many debaters lack at the highest level. Knowing when to argue with healthy militance is what separates good debaters from great debaters, and I’ve found that debaters with sports backgrounds are ahead in that aspect. It’s like the rhetorical difference between Barack Obama and John Kasich; while both are successful and intelligent, their speaking is like night and day.”
Yoon, who has been accepted at UC Berkeley and Notre Dame, said it’s always about hard work, something Bradley, a small forward, also used to flesh out his game.
“It’s my desire to outwork the competition. I’m no Will Hunting in terms of intelligence, and I’m certainly no George Bush in terms of my background,” he said. “But I’m willing to work harder than the next guy, and I’ll sacrifice as much time as I need to, in order to ensure that is true.”
Yoon is keenly aware of his past and it’s worked as fodder to make him better.
“I think this comes down to the gratitude I have. Knowing all that’s been given to me drives me to give as much as I can to whatever I’m working at,” he said.
Being on the gridiron was self-affirming and helpful in so many ways for Yoon.
“It’s the brotherhood, and it’s not particularly close,” he said of football, which he played for five years. “Men used to fight wars, and now we’re limited to desks at school all day. The ability to go out there, hit somebody, and know that someone else has your back is both physically and spiritually thrilling.”
Diamond, a lawyer, recalls the first time he encountered Yoon.
“I first met Sungjoo when he was five years old in the Burbank Little League T-ball division. He left his bat at the game, and we got it back to him,” he recalled. “He and his family immediately showered us with Korean delicacies as a thank you which was just the beginning of learning about the way both he and his family live life with honor.”
Diamond added: “Since that time, I was able to coach him in football and baseball and mentor him with general aspects of life,” he noted. “When he came to this country, he did not speak English. He learned it by watching television. Since that time, over the last 13 years, we have discussed politics, schooling, future goals and he even would give advice to my younger son about school and commitment to his future.”
Being the nation’s best debater holds a special place for Yoon, who has also applied to Harvard, Yale, UCLA, USC and Cornell.
“I think there are broadly two parts of my debate experience that have made it so great. First is the ability to scale competition,” he pointed out. “High school debate in the United States has a comprehensive, centralized national framework with 130,000 plus students registered under the National Speech & Debate Association. This being set up somewhat fueled my competitive drive, and I’ve been able to scale the system to where I’ve won the Association’s National Championship and also am currently ranked first out of all those 130,000 plus students in the ELO system.”
Yoon continued: “But second would be the ability to pass forward what I’ve learned. There are so many talented students at Burbank High, who, by virtue of going to an under-resourced public school, might never have the chance to partake in this wonderful activity,” he said. “If my hard work can prevent that from becoming reality, I cherish the opportunity – I will coach as many practices as I need to. In turn, I’ve had the ability to see all the underclassmen grow as debaters as humans, which is, for a lack of better words, extremely fulfilling.”
Diamond said that there are not too many young people like Yoon.
“Sungjoo spoke at the Muir [Middle School] graduation, and it was the most amazing speech I ever heard (we laugh because I was the convocation speaker at my college graduation too),” he said.
Diamond said that Yoon handles himself well on the athletic fields.
“He was also a talented basketball player but got mistreated by the coach and his future was cut short in that respect. But he is resilient. He never gave up and found speech and debate,” he said. “Having won the national championship and being basically rated the best in the nation is a tribute to his family, his community and Sungjoo himself. He just does not quit.”
Diamond continued: “In football, he was aggressive and one of the best defensive ends in the game, raising havoc to the opposing quarterbacks. I would get on his case if he made a mistake and he never wavered, he never quit, he just got better,” he said. “I tried for years to bring him to the BHS Mock Trial team (which I coach). He was so involved in school and activities I would never get him to join. I am lucky to consider Sungjoo a friend to my family. His grades are No. 1 in his class, all the while he travels the nation competing in speech and debate. I am so proud of his work ethic, his commitment to excel, and his growth as a leader which I personally saw when he became my assistant coach for flag football. He will accomplish many things in this world. Mark my word. Keep an eye on his future.”
Yoon said that working toward a goal is the key.
“My philosophy is ‘Never say die’ – the motto of tenacity. Above all else, that’s the principle I live by. Tenacity is what got my great-grandparents through the destitution of the Korean War. Tenacity is what drove my grandparents, who lived in Third-World conditions as steelworkers, to strive to give their children the education they never had,” he said. “Tenacity is what moved my parents to immigrate to the greatest country on the planet and give me the chance to do something great. In turn, tenacity is what’s going to take me where I need to be.”
More than anything, Yoon is grateful to his parents who also serve as his inspiration.
“More than anything else, my parents have. Watching them work their bodies away – just to keep us alive in a country they don’t even speak the language of – gives me motivational drive like little else,” he offered. “Anything short of greatness would not be enough.”
Though young, Yoon is also of the mind to help those less fortunate than himself.
“I’ve played Burbank sports for the majority of my life, and the opportunity to do so was huge in being able to navigate a new culture; it’s been a cultural touchstone for me,” he said. “I’ve also had the honor of being coached by so many city sports legends – people like Dave Diamond, Len Leake, Steve Hubbell, William Brooks, Mike Graceffo, John Kukawski, Jim Cafferty, and Brooke Kalama, just to name a few. These are the incredible influences I’ve had in my life, and they made things happen for me in ways that I can only strive to pay forward. In that vein, that’s why I coach youth sports – because despite the time, money, and sometimes-thankless effort that goes into it, I know that people in communities like ours stepping up to the plate and putting those resources in, is what allows our city’s kids to benefit in the same way I did. It’s that ‘behind-the-scenes’ work that permits for the bonding, growth, and memories that tens of thousands of Burbank kids have yearly, and I’m more than glad to play my part.”
Yoon was asked what three people he would like to have dinner with and to no one’s surprise, he chose two politicians and an athlete.
“They would be Bill Clinton, Huey Long, and Colin Kaepernick. I admire former President Clinton because as the old adage goes, he has the ‘charisma of distortion’. I’d love to also master the ability to charm people like that, especially given how dominant that trait is in politics. I have a list of questions for if I ever get to meet him, and they all surround how he affects people like that,” he said. “Huey Long is another figure I’d love to meet, both because of his unparalleled charisma but also because the literature surrounding him is quite unclear. Whether ‘the Kingfish’ was a demagogue, the people’s champion, or both is something I’d like to decode. Colin Kaepernick is the last person, and it’s just because I admire his ability and willingness to sacrifice everything to stand for something.”
It can be said that Yoon, while still in high school, stands out from the crowd, both as a person and as a student.