Back in elementary school my nickname was Big Bird. All my friends called me Big Bird because I was rail thin and I was always one of the tallest kids in my class. Although I didn’t really love my own nickname, I was always fascinated by them. I always thought it was cool to have another name that was not your given name. Nicknames are awesome because there’s usually a story behind them or deep meaning that makes sense once you start explaining.
For people who grew up in the 90’s you might remember a cartoon TV show called “Rocket Power” where a group of kids living by the beach had wild nicknames like Twister, Reg, and Squid. I loved that show and I especially loved the weird nicknames they had and how they called tourists, “Shoobies”. Growing up I would’ve gone for Shoobie over Big Bird, but that’s the thing about nicknames, once you get one, it just sticks.
Of all the nicknames of the players on the KNT, the one that stood out the most to me was Monster. It’s always cool to have a powerful, intimidating nickname like Monster. Monster is the kind of nickname that sends a message, anyone named Monster probably shouldn’t be messed with. In the case of Kim Min Jae, his nickname is totally warranted. Since making his international debut back in 2017, he’s been nothing short of a Monster.
In the world of modern football where teams are looking to build from the back, every team needs a reliable Center Back that can put in a no nonsense shift on the backline while also having the skill to pass and at times jump start the attack. Kim Min Jae has been able to do all the above for the KNT and we saw that on full display during the team’s run through the 2018 Asian Games. One of the biggest moments of the tournament was when his header put the KNT ahead 1-0 against Kyrgyzstan and punched their ticket to the knockout stage of the tournament. The intensity, timeliness, and power behind that header was the perfect embodiment of who KMJ is as a player and what he means to the squad.
In terms of his objective ability, KMJ is easily one of the most exciting prospects in all of Asia and should be catching the eyes of scouts all over Europe as well. In the last two transfer windows there have been some whispers of Watford F.C. from the English Premier League showing some interest in him, but he’s still stuck in the CSL playing for Beijing Sinobo Guoan. Not to hate on the CSL but Europe is where you want to be.
When we look at some of the best Center Backs in the world like Virjil Van Dijk, Sergio Ramos, Georgio Chiellini, or Kalidou Koulibaly, they all have a wealth of ability. They’re not just lumbering giants that simply make tackles all over the field. The absolute elite Center Backs in the world are elite because they’re physical, reliable, and can read the game. At the tender age of 22 we can see a lot of those skills blossoming in KMJ. Standing at 6’2” and weighing 190 pounds, he’s an intimidating presence just by his sheer physical attributes. He has a wide frame and knows how to use it, he has great pace for a man his size, and he’s skilled with the ball at his feet. He can dribble pretty well for his size and can ping a long ball all around the pitch.
During a golden age of highly touted Korean players like Son Heung Min (debatable), Lee Kang in, and Paik Seung Ho, KMJ can sometimes be overshadowed and overlooked. Many times we look to KNT matches excited to see the names of our attacking players, hoping to see a dynamic front that will produce a ton of excitement and hopefully goals. But I think players like KMJ are just as vital to the KNT as a team and I think it’s unfortunate that he gets overlooked at times. But like KMJ there have been many athletes who may not be the stars of their teams but are absolutely essential to the success of the team. When I look at KMJ there is a player from another sport and another time that reminds me a lot of him.
Growing up in New York in the 90’s was a completely different experience from what people growing up in NY today might experience. Kevin Durant just did an interview on local radio station Hot 97 in NY and said that the Knicks aren’t cool anymore. I get it, the Knicks have been bad and young players were too young to remember when the Knicks were actually good, but I’d argue that having a ghost twitter account to defend yourself is pretty uncool too, but that’s just me.
In the 90’s there was only one basketball team in the city and they were actually pretty good. In 1994, my father owned a car wash in Riverdale which is in the Bronx and he eventually sold his business to Charles Oakley who was a player for the Knicks. On the official day that my father sold his business over to Charles, the whole Knicks team actually showed up to celebrate. Talking to my dad about that day, he would always mention how it was surreal how he got to meet the team, but it was most exciting because he got to meet his favorite player, Anthony Mason.
Before his untimely passing back in February of 2015, Anthony Mason was one of the most beloved New York athletes ever. Anthony Mason was not the most heralded, flashiest, well known name on the team. He was not a perennial All-Star or leading the league in any categories, except maybe intimidation points. At that time, the Knicks were not known so much for their star power, but much more for their scrappiness. There was an attitude to the team, a culture of hard work and toughness that they believed would always be more valuable than talent alone. My Father always believed that Anthony Mason was the perfect embodiment of toughness, grit, and talent all in one.
He saw him as the perfect 90’s Knick. Mason was only 6’7” which was a little short for a Power Forward back in those days, but what he lacked in height, he made up for with his massive shoulders. I will always remember watching Knick games with my Father and he’d spend the whole game just gushing over the sheer size of Mason’s shoulders and how they looked like bowling balls to him. He’d always talk about how Mason was able to use his size to box people away from rebounds and loose balls and how his intimidating figure helped him so much as a defender. He never backed down from anyone, was always in the middle of any fight or scuffle on the floor, and made it a point to protect the stars on the team and more importantly, protect his home court.
Mason wasn’t just size and power though, he had an incredible handle, he could easily glide past defenders with his dribbling and was also an incredible passer of the ball. As much as he was known for his defense and rebounding, those were just a couple aspects of his overall game. Even with his size he could grab rebounds all day and push the ball up the floor and initiate the offense on his own. That wasn’t a skill that was very common for guys his size and that played his position during those days. Combining his size, tough mentality, and skill was what made him such an endearing player to all Knick fans.
I think the parallels between KMJ and Anthony Mason are why I’m so drawn to KMJ as a player. Like Mason, KMJ also has incredible physical attributes that he can rely on and are different from the rest of his team. KMJ also brings toughness to the squad, a mean streak that adds to his defending and team morale. Sometimes our attacking players need an enforcer to come and back them up once in a while, KMJ is the perfect guy to do that. And although KMJ is not known for his skill and talent, like Mason, he has loads of it and adds much more to the squad than just a scowl. Casual NBA fans may not remember but Anthony Mason actually made All NBA Third team and NBA All-Defensive second team in 1997 and was an Eastern Conference All Star later on as a member of the Miami Heat in 2001. KMJ may have not received such accolades yet, but that’s exactly my point, it feels like he’s right on the cusp of reaching Mason-like levels.
For the 90’s Knicks, most fans from that time will remember Patrick Ewing and how he was the star of the team and yet the Knicks would have never made the 94 finals without the support of invaluable players like Anthony Mason. Although they didn’t win the championship, Knick fans who remember that team will never forget them. That team and those players will always hold a special place in our hearts. That’s exactly how we should view players like KMJ. Although we may not be the best squad in the world, players like KMJ provide so much support and value to our best players and elevate their games. Ultimately those are the characteristics any team looks for in a quintessential role player.
With us now heading into another international break, I’d challenge KNT fans to stop drooling over our attacking talent and take a moment to acknowledge and appreciate one of the back bones of our current squad, the Monster, the Anthony Mason of our time, Kim Min Jae.