November 2008 Joshua Cooley Special K Kyle Korver Utah Jazz
There comes a time in a man’s life when he must decide about spiritual matters—what to believe and who to follow. For Kyle Korver, that decision came in the shower.
While the scene wasn’t exactly Hitchcockian in nature, it did produce some dramatic results. There, in the bathroom of his Philadelphia apartment five years ago, Korver wrestled with deep, longstanding spiritual questions. He realized that his family’s strong heritage of faith did not pass on to him simply by bloodlines. He realized he had been treating Christianity like a faucet, turning it on or off as needed.
It was a long shower.
Kyle Korver #26
Team: Utah Jazz
Height/Weight: 6-6/211 lbs.
Birthdate: May 17, 1981
College: Creighton University
Drafted: 2nd round, New Jersey Nets
Parents: Kevin and Laine
Siblings: Kaleb, Klayton and Kirk
•2-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year (2002, 2003)
•2004-05 NBA co-leader in three- point field goals made (226)
•2006-07 NBA leader in free-throw percentage (91.4%)
Eventually, the hot water turned lukewarm, then cold, like his prior spiritual commitment. The irony was unmistakable. With chilly beads trickling off him like the burdens of spiritual tepidity, Korver decided not to toe the unfulfilling waters of the world anymore. He wanted what his family had modeled so well—but not like some ethereal heirloom that had been passed down through generations. He wanted it for himself.
“I was just pouring my heart out,” said Korver, now a six-year NBA veteran. “I was saying, ‘God, I want more than this. There is more than this, and I know that. Show me.’”
Bibles, Basketballs and Bloodlines
Harold Korver did not enjoy the benefits of a multi-million-dollar contract like his grandson does today. In fact, he didn’t have “multi” anything, except concerns.
Harold grew up as one of eight kids on an Iowa farm during the Great Depression. Food on the dinner table was a gift, not a given. There was no heat or running water in the house. His Christmas gift was an orange…given the following July.
Harold survived the Dust Bowl and eventually began farming a different soil, serving from 1971 to 2001 as the senior pastor of Emmanuel Church in Paramount, Calif. He also started a trend as three of his six sons became pastors.
Kyle spent the first 12 years of his life in Paramount, where his father, Kevin, and his uncle Ken were assistant pastors at Emmanuel. Despite its location near the Southern California coast, Paramount was no paradise. In the early 1980s, it ranked as one of the worst U.S. cities to live in with a population of less than 40,000.
But Korvers don’t need paradise. They just need sunup to sundown and a mission. If the land’s no good, work it until it is. So, the Korvers went to work. Partnering with city officials, Emmanuel helped transform Paramount into an All-American city and won a presidential service award. Now, the church is working on neighboring Compton.
“Paramount was a rough city,” Kyle said. “The church would give the city supplies, paint over graffiti and pick up trees. The city now is so different.”
In 1993, Kevin and Laine Korver moved Kyle and his three younger brothers to Pella, Iowa, to pastor at Third Reformed Church.
One would be hard-pressed to find two more disparate towns than Paramount and Pella. During the Korvers’ last year in Paramount, there were 26 drive-by homicides. Pella, with its strong Dutch heritage, holds a tulip festival every year.
In spite of his positive surroundings, Kyle struggled with living out the faith that was being modeled to him, focusing on rules instead of a relationship with Christ.
“Being a preacher’s kid in a small town, I kind of lived life not to screw it up” Kyle said.
Basketball, though, was a different story. While the Korver family tree might have an entire limb dedicated to pastoral ministry, its basketball pedigree merits an arboretum. Five of Harold’s sons played college ball in Iowa, and Kris, the youngest, currently coaches at Northwestern College (Iowa), where he has won two NAIA national championships (2001, 2003). All four of Kevin’s sons have followed the roundball (Kyle and Kaleb at Creighton University, Klayton at Drake, and Kirk at Pella High School), and so have several of their cousins. Even Laine was in on the game, once scoring 74 points in a game at Montezuma (Iowa) High School.
The Korvers: Kyle, Kirk, Klayton, Kaleb, Laine and Kevin
The Korvers could easily be called the first family of Iowa basketball.
“Basketball was just a game that was fun and about learning about life. That’s how my dad encouraged us to play,” Kyle said. “The NBA was the ultimate goal, not for the money, but just to prove I could make it.”
After an All-American career at Creighton, Kyle was drafted in 2003 by the New Jersey Nets, who immediately traded him to Philadelphia. The 6’6” sharpshooter became the first Sixer to lead the NBA in three-point field goals made (226 in 2004-05), and, in 2006-07, he led the league in free-throw percentage (91.4).
Last December, Korver was traded to Utah, where he helped the Jazz win their second straight Western Conference Northwest Division title. Overall, he averaged 9.9 points per game last season and 7.8 in the playoffs. Entering this season, his career average was 10.4.
“This is a really good fit,” said Korver, now 27. “It’s a good system. We’ve got a lot of good, young players who should be around a long time. Hopefully, we’ll keep it going for years to come.”
Long Way from Home
This was not an NBA-approved excursion. There were no film crews, publicists or P.R. reps with I.D. badges swinging from their necks. According to Adam Bruckner, one of Korver’s closest friends and current assistant coach for the MISL’s Philadelphia Kixx, this would probably not have pleased the NBA staff.
A few days before arriving in New Delhi, India, last July on his fourth NBA-sponsored “Basketball Without Borders” humanitarian trip, Korver detoured with Bruckner and a couple of other friends to Calcutta, a poverty-stricken city of 16 million. The group visited various outreaches of the late Mother Teresa, including a small mission that cleaned, clothed and fed the dying homeless, providing dignity to their final days. They saw impoverished children running naked through the street and grown men brushing their teeth with sand on their finger. And the stench was unforgettable.
“It smelled so bad, you didn’t know what was raw sewage and what wasn’t,” Bruckner said.
In this trip lies the real Kyle Korver—the soul behind the three-point marksmanship, trademark high socks and tussled hair. His heart hurts for those who are hurting. It’s a compassion he acquired on the needy streets of Paramount.
“It was neat to see Kyle in the Home for the Dying literally feeding a man who didn’t speak any English, couldn’t thank him, and nobody was taking pictures,” Bruckner said. “You’re supposed to feed the hungry and give the thirsty a cup of water. It comes naturally if you love people.”
In 2006, Korver launched the Kyle Korver Foundation. Few have heard of it, though, as its work doesn’t happen before rolling cameras. It happens in the rougher areas of Philadelphia in places like the Helping Hand Rescue Mission, a rundown homeless shelter on North 6th Street. It happens at Gen. Philip Kearny School on Fairmount Avenue, where rickety hoops have now been replaced with shiny new rims. It happens in neighborhoods where drugs and crime siphon hope, where 16-year-old boys get shot in the back and few tears are shed.
“We just offer a little love,” Korver downplayed.
Don’t let his modesty fool you. Korver’s foundation has affected hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives. He has collected 2,200 winter coats for the needy through Kyle’s Coat Drive. He has made tutors, speech therapists and medical supplies available to Philadelphia schools and has helped renovate a recreational center. Many of the inner-city kids know Korver’s cell phone number and have visited his house. He has taken some of them to 76ers games and eaten Thanksgiving meals with them. And when he is in town in the off-season, he attends a Tuesday-night youth Bible study that he and Bruckner started at the mission.
He has crossed a great social divide with remarkable grace.
“Part of the reason he felt like God called him to Philly for five years was to make an impact,” said FCA’s South New Jersey Area Director Kevin Harvey, who has utilized Korver as a speaker at many FCA events. “He still loves the area and feels connected to it. Part of that connection is building a legacy in the area and impacting youth.”
With all his Philadelphia ties, it has been difficult for Korver to transition to Utah. But he is learning. His brother Klayton recently moved into his Salt Lake City apartment to help raise money for the foundation. And Kyle has plugged into an upbeat church, K2, in the city.
“I’m really focusing on just being still and understanding His love and direction better and better,” Korver said.
And to see his eldest son assume the venerable Korver serving mantle has thrilled Kevin.
“It brings me a lot of joy because that’s been our hope and prayer,” Kevin said. “We want our boys to be rooted in Christ, and then, out of that rootedness, to bear fruit for Him.”
Grow Where You’re Planted
Korver knows this is an important season. After holding a starting position much of the 2004-06 seasons, he has been a backup since, despite scoring a career-high 14.4 points per game for the 76ers in 2006-07. The 21.5 minutes per game he averaged in 50 games with Utah last season was the lowest since his rookie year.
Still, it helps when you play for one of the NBA’s best teams and one of its most respected coaches. Under 21-year veteran Jerry Sloan, who owns the fourth-most wins in NBA history, the Jazz has made the playoffs 16 of the last 19 seasons.
Korver has never been a “me-first” player. If stars Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams attract most of the attention, so be it. Korver is a silent watchman, content to quietly roam the perimeter and wait for a kick-out. And if it comes, a career 40.6 three-point percentage says there’s a good chance it’s going in.
At this point in his career, Kyle Korver knows his job. He must take that family work ethic—born of Midwestern grit, Great Depression resiliency and a servant’s heart—and execute his task well, whatever it might be. The result, ultimately, rests with a sovereign God who meets His children wherever they’re at.
Even in cold showers.
“I’m just trying to continue to work hard and improve my overall game,” he said. “The goal is to win a championship, and I’m excited about our team’s chances. But I also can find peace in knowing that I get to be a part of His plan, whatever that may be.”
--For more stories about faith and sport, visit www.sharingthevictory.com, the official magazine of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. To subscribe to STV, click here.
Photos courtesy of NBAE/Getty Images, Kevin and Laine Korver.