BEYOND THE REVOLVING DOOR
BY STEVE CAREY-WALTON
2020/11/27 · Steve Carey-Walton
I greet Hindson Her, the CEO of Project Ball, outside a Kebab stand. I'm here for an interview, but Hindson looks ready to hoop. He wears a jersey, gym shorts, Nike slides with socks up to his shins. Even his man bun bounces like a basketball.
The heat from the spit bathes us as we wait for our food. Hindson is an amicable host, introducing me to the people who share his co-working space. This diverse group includes a developer from France, a woman running a cosmetic export empire, and a Korean American buddy hanging out until his flight back to the States. From Monday through Friday, this group works long hours at the Seoul Global Startup Center, but on nights and weekends they dodge, spike, shoot, dive, and score as members of Project Ball, South Korea's largest social sports community.
Founded by Hindson Her in 2019, Project Ball is a global community bringing people together from all over the world to share in their love of sports. To date, Project Ball has over 3,000 members from 73 countries.
“Diversity is one of our strengths,” Hindson tells me. “Every event feels like a mini Olympics.”
Project Ball offers pickup and league games for basketball, indoor and beach volleyball, futsal, dodgeball, ultimate frisbee, kickball, and handball. After the games, members are encouraged to grab a drink or some grub and hang out.
“We want people to play sports and make friends,” Hindson says.
As we enter the office, Hindson asks if I have any respiratory symptoms and takes my temperature.
“It’s a little high,” he says.
“What? Let me see.”
36 point something.
As two Americans who have lived in Korea for 17 combined years, we struggle with the Fahrenheit conversion. I look it up. It’s low.
Hindson passes around hand sanitizer, gets me extra napkins, and auctions off his ketchup packets. As he takes his first bite, I tease him, “Would your sponsors approve of this?”
Hindson lowers his doner and replies, “I still ride or die Halal Guys.”
After we eat, it’s my turn to take the temperature of Project Ball.
“As of now,” Hindson says, “I’m the only official employee, but we have interns and a team of directors running operations, public relations, and the Project Ball Academy, which teaches basketball in international schools.”
Basketball, the company’s flagship sport, is still the most popular with three six-team leagues and weekly pick-up games. But the other groups are growing, making up half of all Project Ball members.
“I encourage basketball guys to come out to the other events and meet the other groups. It’s a different vibe—basketball has its own culture,” Hindson says. “We have some players that think they’re Michael Jordan. The other sports are much more chill. Plus, the male-female ratio is better.”
That intense basketball culture has helped legitimize Project Ball and given the company nation-wide exposure. Last winter, a representative from Handsome Tigers, a reality TV show where celebrities play for Korean basketball legend Seo Jang-Hoon, contacted Hindson to see if he could field a team to take on the Tigers. An article described the Project Ball all-stars as ‘a mediocre elbow-swinging expat squad,’ but Hindson talks about the experience like a proud father. “They stopped showing the score in the second half.”
“Sports is one aspect of what we offer,” Hindson continues. “We want to get the community events going again once COVID passes.” The post-game parties and activities are where the friendships that sprouted on the court can start to grow.
Speaking of growth, Hindson says Project Ball is sowing their own seeds for expansion. “We have the business plan, we have the ideas, but we have to put it in a way where we can pitch it to investors and start executing.”
“The good thing and the bad thing about Project Ball is that we have a revolving door of players coming in and out.” Exchange students are going back and forth to their home countries; English teaching foreigners, a bulk of the members of Project Ball, work on yearly contracts. “The good thing is we get to meet a lot of people. Bad thing is that people are always leaving. It’s not a solid base to pitch to investors.”
To combat this, Hindson and his team of interns, who embody the “ball is life” edict, are setting their sights on the local market.
“We want to get more Koreans involved. Of course to help the business, but also because social sports can do what English did for Korea—provide exposure to new cultures and other ways of thinking.”
“But why Korea?” I ask. “How did this all get started?”
Hindson pauses, peeks at my phone, at the voice recorder counting the seconds of our conversation. “You want the long story or the short story?"
The Long Story
“You know I’m Hmong, right?”
The Hmong people, an ethnic group originating from China and South East Asia, helped the US military during the Vietnam War. After the fighting, Hindson’s parents were part of the first generation to immigrate to the States.
“They got married young and had little money. They didn’t know the language really well. What are they going to do, you know?”
His father became a mechanic for Honda, whose work transferred his wife, his three daughters, and Hindson around the country. They lived in California, Texas, Georgia, and Wisconsin all before Hindson’s tenth birthday. But from the third grade to his junior year of high school, they didn’t move at all. Milwaukee became their home.
“My parents encouraged us to assimilate, but they were also still learning about what American culture was,” Hindson says. “But they tried. So for dinner we’re having pizza one night and boiled pork and rice the next. I loved it.”
In his father’s own quest to assimilate, he fell in love with the Green Bay Packers. On Sunday mornings the family attended Hmong mass and reverently recited their Hail Marys. After the service, they rushed home to cheer with the Lambeau faithful as Brett Favre ignored the check down receiver to launch his own Hail Marys. Hindson remembers celebrating with his dad at the culmination of the 1997 season. “That crazy gunslinger won us the Super Bowl.”
At school, Hindson and his sisters made friends, got good grades, and earned school bucks for participating in class.
“My oldest sister got enough school bucks to buy a chessboard. So she brings it home—and remember, this is a Hmong family.”
There are 18 different clans in the Hmong culture, each with a different last name. Members of the same clan—those with the same last name—consider themselves family.
“We’re living in a duplex home with our cousins and we’re all trying to figure out how to play this game. We read the directions and play, and it's pretty fun. So we keep playing, and we get better. And when we go to middle school, what do you know? They have a chess club.”
Hindson and his sisters attended Milwaukee School of Languages, a school with metal detectors, see-through backpacks, and a high-level of security on site.
“It’s one of those schools with very little in the trophy case. But chess caught on. We played during class. At lunch, we gambled—which we shouldn't have done—playing speed chess with a crowd because they knew we were playing with the little money we had."
The chess team participated in sanctioned events too, and it turned out: “We’re pretty good. We start filling out the trophy case with city championships and state championships. We go to national competitions—all expenses paid.”
In his junior year, Hindson competed in the nationally known Pan-American Open chess tournament in his home state of Wisconsin.
“It's Christmas. It’s Milwaukee, the Midwest. Snow is everywhere. I’m in the fourth or fifth round. And this isn’t cafeteria chess—each game is a couple of hours long. It’s already dark outside.”
Hindson matched up with a girl from New York who was nationally ranked.
“At this point, I’m tired. I don’t think I can win, so I offer her a draw, and she accepts.”
Next thing he knew, his teammates mobbed him, not to congratulate him but to accost him.
“They were calling me names, calling me silly.”
If Hindson had won that match, he could have had an opportunity for a full-ride scholarship to the University of Texas to play chess.
“I’m feeling so dumb. I blew that chance because I was tired.”
The coach, trying to cheer Hindson up, reminded him there was always next year.
But the next year Hindson’s father decided to go back to school to become a pastor. The family moved to Minnesota, which has the largest Hmong population in the States.
“We weren’t in the Twin Cities though—we’re in the boonies. I went from durags, bandanas, FUBU, Ralph Lauren, and Nike to farmland, Abercrombie, and pickup trucks. Our school had a skate park.” He was also leaving his older brothers, a group of Hmong boys who let the younger Hindson tag along and play sports with them. “It was a terrible senior year. My best friend—in the whole school—was my sister Joyce.”
There was no chess club either, and though Hindson tried to start one up, he couldn’t commit five hours to play on the weekends. He had to apply for university.
He attended Crown College in Minnesota. Hindson majored in pastoral studies. He took Gospel classes, preaching classes, and he took a mission trip to Chiangmai. “It was my first time overseas, and I loved it.”
In order to graduate, he completed a six-month internship at a small Hmong church in Omaha, working for the director and with the parish youth group.
To the congregation, he tried speaking Hmong but struggled. “I can’t speak Hmong anymore,” Hindson says. “My parents talked to us in English. They even talk to each other in English because it works for everyone; Hmong only works for them and older Hmong people.”
The overall internship, with its ups and downs, was positive. “I was a uni student, so I didn’t really know what was going on.”
When he returned home, things became clearer.
“I came back and knew being a pastor wasn’t for me.”
Like Brett Favre, he had to abandon the play he’d drawn up, call an audible, and look downfield for openings.
“I weighed my options.” Remembering his positive experience in Thailand, he started researching English teaching positions.
“At that time, Korea was taking anyone who had a four-year degree. It was sweet. Free flights, free housing, a living allowance.”
In 2010, after passing a criminal background check—no charges were ever filed for his lunchtime shenanigans—Hindson set out for the Land of the Morning Calm.
On the 13 hour flight, Hindson became best friends with the lavatory. “I was so nervous,” he says. “I only knew two people in Korea.”
It would soon be three. A man, holding a sign that read “Mr. Her,” stood outside customs. He took Hindson’s bags and, with his decent English, explained that he was driving him to the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education (SMOE) training headquarters.
The foggy February weather reminded him of the Midwest, if warmer. On the ride from Incheon to Seoul, the realization was settling in. “Wow, I’m really here,” he says. “As an Asian-American, it was exciting to be in Asia.” By then, the Korean Wave had reached the West. “K-pop and K-dramas were getting big back home; it was fun to be in the same country as all that.”
Before the training officially began, Hindson received a medical examination. He was bussed to a clinic and awaited his fate. Nurses, clipboards in hand, hair pulled back in buns, scarves around their necks, escorted him to examination rooms to read progressively shrinking letters, pee in a cup, and test for heart maladies. Doctors pricked his arms, poked around his gums, and discussed the dangers of drinking and smoking.
Deemed healthy, Hindson studied pedagogy, did mock teaching, and practiced shutting down problematic children.
After two arduous weeks, Hindson was qualified to mold young Korean minds.
Most foreign English teachers in Korea start out working at hagwons, for-profit learning institutions. Though hagwons usually offer better pay and a larger staff of Native English speakers to meet and befriend, they are apt to change hours and responsibilities on short notice.
Hindson landed a cushier gig at a public school with winter and summer vacations, a consistent class schedule, and co-teachers who translated when necessary and disciplined the rowdy students, the task he had trained so diligently for.
He liked his job, and he loved Korea: the nightlife, the food, the culture. Assimilation wasn’t seamless however; there were casualties. “I broke up with my girlfriend,” Hindson says. “Long-distance wasn’t working. We would talk for 15 minutes in the morning and then for another 15 minutes at night.”
Newly single and with a manageable workload, Hindson found himself with a lot of free time. “I wanted to get back to what I loved. At home, I met a lot of good friends through sports. Even if we’re not the best athletes, there are always good people involved in sports.”
After some digging, Hindson and a group of expat friends were able to join a church league, traveling around Seoul to compete at different gyms.
“The two girls running the group didn’t know too much about basketball, so they asked me to help.”
Through that experience, Hindson not only developed his spin move and lefty lay-up, but he also learned how to book venues in Korea.
“At that time,” Hindson says, “if you wanted to play basketball, you had three options: you had to be Korean; you could play outdoors; or you had to be invited onto a military base. So I’m thinking: Let’s try to start something. I know how to rent gyms now.”
“So I took the guys, and we started GOAT Basketball."
Basketball, The Birthplace of My Dreams
The first days of GOAT Basketball were far from great. “Sometimes no one would show up,” Hindson says. “It was just me and Francois Harris (one of the first members) shooting jumpers under a bridge near Sindaebang station.”
Despite the spotty attendance, Hindson remained hopeful. "I knew there was interest,” he says. “No one was trying to put something together like this in Korea. We had an opportunity."
Basketball is a language of action: screens, fouls, rebounds. Regional differences do exist but are easily understood like accents in one's native tongue. The few words—stay, switch, good shot—are unnecessary to communicate. In basketball, trust is an extra pass. Respect is a double-team away from the ball. And shame is throwing up a brick after your defender dared you to shoot.
In time, the same players started popping up every weekend for the exact reason English speakers flocked to the same foreign-friendly bars every weekend: to communicate in a common language.
GOAT’s core group was made up of English teachers, corporate employees, Koreans wanting to learn English, musicians, randos at the park, and soldiers.
“We were turning a corner.”
Social media and word of mouth were powerful in promoting GOAT’s simple mission of playing sports and having fun.
“You never knew who would show up,” Hindson says. “One week, an ex-pro would be throwing down dunks, and the next, a guy who could barely dribble."
In 2014, Hindson was able to secure a gym for the winter. This provided a haven for hoopers, who were in basketball hibernation, binging on NBA and NCAA games and cursing the snow-covered courts, with a place to play during the coldest time of the year.
“The people who played outdoors had nowhere to go. We had signups and we had to cap it off; there was a waitlist.”
But Hindson wasn’t content with run-of-the-mill pickup games. They kept stats on spreadsheets so players could chase double-doubles and brag about their shooting percentage. To save time and to keep things fair, they pre-selected teams. GOAT’s social media feeds showcased the action on the court and of the nights out afterward.
The winter games were so popular that by the next spring, when GOAT returned outdoors, they had enough players for a four-team league.
“The first season took place over four weekends in the park,” Hindson says.
But interest continued to rise.
The league expanded to six teams, then eight teams, with round-robin seasons and playoff tournaments. Champions raised the Hindson Her Cup, the league’s coveted trophy, team names and players of past winners scrawled on the sides.
Eventually, they had enough members for two six-team divisions. Without naming names, Hindson explains, “Players preferred to play with similar talent.”
The product continued to improve. Hindson hired referees. They moved indoors full time and held pre-draft combines to scout rookie players.
The draft process is similar to online dating. Over pints at Sam Ryan’s, captains scroll through Facebook photos of players and swipe right on promising matches.
The social aspect of the community grew in tandem with the sports scene.
“After the games, we have men and women that want to go out,” Hindson says.
Between them, the members of GOAT Basketball knew managers at the different clubs, lounges, and bars around Seoul.
“We got to the point where we were throwing legitimate club events,” Hindson says. “Once we went to Costco and fill up carts and carts with alcohol. Then we’d roll up to a venue with tons of people which the managers loved.”
They threw birthday parties, rooftop parties, and bromance nights on Tuesdays. They even hosted a rock-scissor-paper tournament.
“Groups came in, and we paired them off with strangers, got them a little drunk, put their names on a bracket, and had them duke it out in rock-scissor-paper. People loved it.” Hindson laughs. “It got intense.”
“Those nights were heavy,” Hindson says. “But we built friendships on those nights.”
Eventually, they slowed down on the drinking. Some due to age, others to responsibilities—spouses or kids. Some of the earliest members moved back home. As they introduced new sports, GOAT Basketball was rebranded as Project Ball.
Hindson began the formidable process of obtaining a start-up visa. With the visa, he could quit his teaching job and work full-time for Project Ball. It was the dream. But if he failed, he would have no choice but to return to Minnesota, older, wiser, and broke.
Was he scared? Was he ready?
“My mentality was: What’s the worst that could happen?”
Making The Jump
At the start of 2018, Hindson joined OASIS, a government program designed to help foreigners gain start-up business visas in Korea. To qualify for the visa, individuals need to accrue a certain number of points. Points are given based on education, Korean language ability, years spent in the country, intellectual property ownership, and participation in OASIS courses and networking opportunities.
Hindson attended talks, took weekly classes, and received mentorship training from other start-up business owners. He did this all while working at the elementary school and running Project Ball activities on the weekends.
It took eight months to get the visa and a year and a half to establish Project Ball as a corporation. In April 2019, Hindson retired from teaching, forever tying his future in Korea to the future of Project Ball.
“I was happy, nervous, and proud of myself for fully committing to something I’ve always wanted to do,” Hindson says. “Up till then, Project Ball was more of a side gig, so it felt good to get to the point where it was full time. Plus, I knew we could accomplish so much more now that I could dedicate all my available time to Project Ball.”
Transitioning from a recreational league to a full-fledged business is like making the jump from high school to the NBA.
“There's a lot of issues we have to solve at the same time, but which one do we tackle first?” Hindson says.
The first challenge was getting literal buy-in from long time members who were used to how things were being run. “Receiving payments was an issue,” Hindson says. “I couldn’t give the homie discount anymore.”
He invested in a card reader so members could pay in cash, by bank transfer, or with plastic. Easing the payment process has helped. “People understand they need to pay full price because the money is going somewhere.”
Another issue is apparel. Project Ball has dabbled in uniforms and casual wear, working with local suppliers, but never invested the time to develop it to scale. Going forward, apparel will be a greater point of emphasis.
“We want to get to the point where it's mandatory for players to wear a uniform or jersey.” Cut-off white tees with numbers scribbled in Sharpie still roam courts and fields like an endangered species Hindson wishes would go extinct. “But people share or lose their jerseys. Shipments take too long. And we don’t have the funds to buy in bulk.”
Securing the office at the Seoul Global Startup Center provides enough space for storage. “The next step is to talk to an investor,” Hindson says. “So we're slowly getting to where we want to go. Imagine being able to buy gear at the court?”
Issues with scaling the apparel line were expected, but starting other sports leagues proved surprisingly difficult as well.
“The first volleyball league flopped,” Hindson says. “It’s the second biggest group, but people stopped showing up.”
“I learned each sport has to be run differently,” Hindson says. “Volleyball has specialized positions. In basketball, if you’re shooting guard doesn’t show up, everyone else can shoot. But in volleyball, if you're setter doesn’t show up then your team can’t play.”
The next volleyball season allowed two teams to bypass the draft. “We had a team of Korean university students and a group from the military base in Osan,” Hindson says. The six-team league worked because the four drafted teams had enough players to combat any attendance issues, while the students and military members, being from the same communities, held each other accountable.
“Recruiting for a new sport is always difficult. But once you get in the groove, build up the culture, and have a good enough product and service, then it'll run by itself.”
Hindson, however, doesn’t run Project Ball by himself.
Kevin Wang helps with operations and works the most with the interns. The whole team, including Hindson, leans on him when tasks need to get done.
Jason Kim, a founder of two start-ups and a member of Forbes 30 under 30 Asia, has been in Hindson’s ear since day one, encouraging and challenging him to turn Project Ball into a business. He does B2B marketing, helps with legal advice, and has set up several potential collaboration meetings.
Steve Rubio is loud and good with people; he does public relations.
JJ Kim is in charge of special events. He is a big teddy bear, loved by all, and leverages that charm as lead contact for Korean ventures.
Robbie Pollard, a beast on the court, has helped bring the Project Ball Academy from ideation to fruition. Under his purview, the Academy works with three international schools and hosts regular clinics around the city.
"We started as friends through the game of basketball and were organically drawn to each other at different points in time. Each director brings something that makes the team better. There have been both good and challenging moments throughout our time together, but I love these brothers. I have so much respect for them."
Despite their different backgrounds, they fulfill the same prerequisites. They love sports. They’ve been with Hindson since the GOAT Basketball days. Work-wise, they are competent. And most importantly, they are committed to living in Korea.
“It’s hard to rely on someone,” Hindson says, “if you don’t know if they’re going to be here.” Relationships are fragile with most people working on one-year contracts. “We need people on F visas.”
F visa holders can stay in the country long-term without job sponsorship. Each member of Project Ball’s leadership has attained the visa through their Korean heritage or their Korean spouse.
The nine interns (some of which will have completed their internship by the time this article comes out), ethnic Koreans who grew up all over from El Salvador to Iraq, have their F visas as well. Their main mission is to infiltrate college campuses and recruit Koreans students to Project Ball.
“Koreans have their groups already,” Hindson says, discussing the company’s greatest challenge. And the groups are serious. Amateur pelotons pedaling along the Han River often wear matching latex shirts, the most enthusiastic sporting Tour-de-France grade aerodynamic helmets. Pickup basketball games begin with group stretches. Weekend hikers wield walking sticks no matter how short their jaunt, their packs filled with bottles of makgeolli and Tupperwared banchan. “They aren’t going to leave something that’s established.”
The interns are spearheading a Global Culture Program where students from local universities play sports with members of Project Ball. Students get the benefit of interacting with foreigners, exercising on campus facilities, and receiving points towards their community service requirements. “Right now we’re in Hansung University,” Hindson says. “But the goal is to showcase the program and get into other colleges.”
Delegating tasks to his growing staff hasn’t been easy because they either have full-time jobs or are full-time students. “It’s a balancing act,” Hindson says, ”between schedules, availability, and commitment. Give someone too much and they get overwhelmed. Give them too little and you’re not utilizing them enough.”
But there’s one task he can’t delegate. “As the only son in a Hmong family, there is the expectation to go home and take care of my parents,” Hindson says. “They understand that it’s a traditional mindset, and they want me to be my own person, but it’s been ten years and every time I’m home, the biggest question is still: When are you coming back?”
“What do you tell them?” I ask.
“The truth,” Hindson says, “I’m most likely won’t be going back to live there anymore."
Run It Back
When I ask about the future, Hindson spreads his arms wide, a technique learned in preaching class. “We want to be the hub of social sports in Korea, and eventually Asia.”
Once the Seoul social sports scene is running seamlessly, it will be used as a model for the other major cities in Korea. When they're ready to expand, Hindson plans to move to Busan, the country's second-largest city, to establish the Project Ball community there.
“The idea is to get to the point where we can build our own sports facility,” Hindson says. “Imagine going to Busan, Daegu, or Daejeon and having a Project Ball facility. No more Googling or Facebooking where to play. You don’t have to get plugged in. When you’re a part of Project Ball, you can go to any city and play sports.”
The facilities would house a basketball court, swimming pool, weight room, and an academy for classes. “I'm going to sleep on the court that first night,” Hindson says. “Maybe for the first week."
Hindson has tech ambitions as well. Project Ball has had consultations on an app that would host member registration, the events calendar, and the team store, among other features. “We grew up on ESPN. We already keep stats. Why can’t we upload it to an app, and you can check out the stats and highlights of the other games? Brag to your friends. People in the community can talk about sports all day.”
We chat for a bit about those people in the community. Former members message Hindson to tell him how much they miss Project Ball. The saltier ones leave comments under Instagram photos, talking trash about the new crop of players. “It’s such an honor to hear that people want to come back.”
Hindson tells me about a player named Sunny, who had booked a flight to China on the same day as the playoffs. He ended up pushing his trip back so he could make the games. “His team won the championship, which was pretty cool. All for a plastic trophy.”
“As foreigners, we come from different places, and we're put in a situation where we have to make something happen,” Hindson says. “And ultimately, we get to build memories. You build relationships with great people. But then their contracts are up and they’re gone.”
“What makes it kind of beautiful is that there’s a start and an end. Everyone you meet, they’re not going to be there for your whole life. Some people, it’s a season. Others, a few years.”
There’s a Korean proverb: 옷깃만 스쳐도 인연이다, which roughly translates to “Even if you only graze collars with someone, they will become part of your destiny,” meaning every person you come in contact with, no matter how brief, can impact your life. Hindson's comments may acknowledge this sentiment, but his aspirations rebel against the proverb's truth. Project Ball facilities would give members a place to return to, a place where they can meet, play, and graze collars again.
Project Ball’s immediate goals are to provide an extraordinary experience for everyday athletes. “From the management, the media, the apparel, the sporting events, the social events, I want people to be impressed,” Hindson says. “We want to get into every major sport and offer health and fitness classes too.”
It’s been a good year, COVID considered. Steve Rubio, JJ Kim, and Robbie Pollard got married. They signed six interns and launched their third basketball league. In August, Project Ball secured a partnership with the Decathlon Goyang branch, a major step towards scaling the apparel line. Francois Harris was in the meeting, assisting Hindson as he did under the bridge seven years earlier.
Hindson even hooped for the “first time in forever.” He played for four hours. “Most exercise I’ve gotten this year,” he says. “I miss playing. It's fun to manage, but sometimes you just want to play.”
After the interview, Hindson lends me a desk in the Project Ball office where I can transcribe our talk. While we work, he blasts movie soundtracks and quizzes me on the titles. He bobs his head to a song from The Karate Kid as he sends messages to team captains, staff, and his family. The latter asks him the same question he's been hearing for ten years. He'll be back, he tells them, for a visit. He can't leave now though. Project Ball's got next.