04/23/08 - 09:00pm
They couldn't just have the hoop in the backyard. If Kyle Korver's father was going to bring in that dirt, lay down that concrete slab and put up that basket, his effort was going to provide a lesson for his four sons.
There was no way Kevin Korver was going to spend $2,000 just on basketball. If a court cost that much, his family was going to have to come up with $2,000 to give to charity, too, even if it meant borrowing from the bank.
'It's kind of a tradition in our family,' Kevin Korver said. 'We do the same thing every year at Christmas. Whatever we spend on ourselves . . . we try to give the same amount away.'
'I was brought up with that mind-set,' Kyle added. 'That's all about just trusting God in your future.'
It's safe to say the hoop has paid for itself in the 15 years Kevin and Laine Korver have lived in their house on Monroe Street, where a Ford Taurus waits in the driveway and a sign supporting the Pella High Dutch adorns the lawn.
The Korvers are the first family of Iowa basketball. Three of the boys - Kyle, Klayton and Kaleb - have played Division I basketball and the fourth - Kirk - is likely to follow.
Kyle, though, is the son Jazz fans have come to know since his Dec. 29 arrival from Philadelphia. The Jazz finished the regular season 38-12 after the Korver trade as No. 26 jerseys multiplied in the stands.
What Jazz fans may not know is that Kyle is the living, breathing, high-sock-wearing, three-point-shooting embodiment of Pella and its Third Reformed Church, where his father has been senior pastor for 15 years.
The megachurch occupies a $20 million, 133,000-square-foot building with a coffee bar and cafe downstairs. Just as with his sons' hoop, Kevin Korver directed the church to give away $2.5 million on top of what it borrowed to build its newest addition in 2007.
Laine Korver marvels at what the church has become.
'It's a God thing,' she said. 'It's something beyond us . . . and I guess that's kind of how we feel about what's happening with our kids, too. Who could have planned this out?'
The answer, of course, is no one. On an average Sunday, the church attracts 2,500 worshippers in a town of barely 10,000. Its mission is simple: to send 'servant-hearted disciples with a passion for Jesus into the world.' The words define how Kyle Korver lives his life in the NBA.
He is the former second-round draft pick from small-town Iowa who has quietly given away hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars in recent years.
He is the professional basketball star who found the time to befriend a group of inner-city kids during his years in Philadelphia.
He is the kid who didn't start on his freshman team in high school and couldn't draw recruiting interest from nearby Drake as a junior who now takes the court at EnergySolutions Arena with 'Proverbs 3:5-6 ' on the back of his Converse.
What is he doing here? Kyle wrestled with that question recently. 'God definitely blessed me with some abilities and a strong work ethic,' Kyle said, 'but His hand has been all over my life, this entire journey.'
'That in itself keeps me humbled because I know on my own this would not be happening.'
Someday the purpose will be revealed, Kyle added, 'but until that time, I'm just trying to be a good steward of what's been put in front of me and given to me.'
A hometown with a story
Just 40 miles southeast of Des Moines, Pella is a town that charted its future by looking to the Old World. Founded by 800 Dutch settlers in 1847, it returned to its roots in the 1960s by transforming itself into a 19th century Dutch village that greets visitors with tulip-shaped signs promising 'a touch of Holland.'
The Vermeer Mill grinds flour with wind power while the Klokkenspel clock puts on a figurine show four times a day. Competing bakeries - Jaarsma and Vander Ploeg - serve up almond-filled Dutch letter treats. As one local says, Pella might be the only place around where 'V' is the largest section in the phone book.
Kevin and Laine met as students at Pella's Central College in the 1970s, but Kyle spent his first 12 years in Paramount, Calif., where Kevin ran an inner-city ministry alongside his father.
Kyle remembers watching buildings burn out his bedroom window during the Los Angeles riots. His family lived one town over from Compton, but it was a place where Kevin and Laine said their faith felt alive.
The congregation expected Kevin to one day succeed his father. So did Kevin, until he said he felt 'divinely inspired' to return his family to Pella during Kyle's sixth-grade year.
Pella offered a ministry for Kevin in a town where Laine didn't have to worry when her boys rode bikes, but Kyle was devastated. He asked if he could stay behind and live with friends. He had worn shorts every day of his life. It snowed the first day of school in Iowa.
'Moving to Iowa at first was like crushing to me,'' Kyle said. 'I was so depressed and I was so angry.'
Basketball helped. Kyle's first coach in Pella was his uncle Karl, who took the kid whose game was all scoop shots and behind-the-back passes and taught him fundamentals.
Kyle made the Pella High varsity as a sophomore. Longtime assistant coach Mike Ballenger remembers the day he saw Kyle shooting left handed in the gym and realized the player he had.
'I'm thinking, 'Oh my gosh, that kid shoots better left handed than most guys do right,' '' Ballenger said, adding, 'Of all the years I've coached, there has never been a better shooter, and I knew that pretty quick.'
The rest of the basketball world took longer to catch on. Korver wasn't even a blip on the college basketball radar until he went to a national AAU tournament as a junior.
Before the tournament, he couldn't even draw interest from Drake. After the tournament, calls from coaches suddenly flooded the Korvers.
He committed to Creighton the same day Iowa State called, Pella coach Mark Core remembers. Kyle went on to twice earn Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year honors and was selected in the second round of the 2003 NBA draft.
Three years later, Kyle returned to Pella to have his No. 24 retired during a crosstown rivalry game between Pella and Pella Christian. Phil Hemming, owner of the Sports Page sporting goods store, remembers the ovation Kyle heard from fans on both sides.
'People just really feel like the character of this community is revealed through him to the NBA,' he said.
From the top floor of the newest addition to the Third Reformed Church, you can see for 25 miles on a clear day, Kevin Korver says. He invites worshippers to pray for the world as they gaze out across the cornfields. Every day, he also prays here for his son.
Kevin Korver took over a five-generation Protestant church with ties to Pella's original Dutch settlers. Fifteen years later, Third Reformed has grown so large it holds nine services a week and five on Sundays. He can only marvel at how a church so big could grow in a town so small. 'There have got to be purposes here that are beyond this little town,'' he said.
'It's just a testament,' Kyle added, 'to what can happen when you believe and when you put your faith where it should be.'
Kevin says that over the years, he has been careful not to force the church on Kyle or his brothers.
'My dad's philosophy is faith is caught, not taught, so we tried not to ram things down our children's throats,' Kevin said, 'but rather live it out, and then as they watched us live, when they want to have conversations about it, we were ready to talk.'
Kevin, who played basketball at Central College, also came to appreciate how the adversity of the game fit in with the lessons of the Bible.
The lessons clearly resonated with Kyle. In a basketball league where humility is rare, it might be Kyle's defining trait. He credits his friends and family for keeping him that way.
'You only have so much willpower and strength inside you to stay who you want to be,' Kyle said, 'but whoever you surround yourself with, eventually that's who you become, no matter how strong you think you are.'
Spirit of giving
There's a rumor going around Pella about Kyle worth traveling 1,100 miles to hear: He's believed to be giving away a third of his NBA salary to the church and various causes.
Kyle won't confirm the rumor but won't deny it, either. The amount has varied each year he has been in the NBA, and as Kyle said, 'I don't really keep track, to be honest.'
He tithes 10 percent to the church but also contributes his own offerings. 'I give to whoever I feel God is leading me to give to,' he said, 'and if I don't feel that, then I don't give to it.'
'There's a story in the Bible that talks about how people would give for people to see, but how God would reward you when just He knows,' Kyle added. 'When I give people money, I tell them not to tell anybody. I don't want people to know.'
He signed a five-year, $22 million contract with Philadelphia in the summer of 2005 and is making $4.4 million this season.
'I'm a single guy,' Kyle said. 'I'm 27 now. I was blessed with more money than I've ever dreamed of. I don't need all that money.'
His parents, who remember Kyle eating Subway sandwiches to save money his first two years in the league, couldn't be prouder. Laine once told Kyle with tears in her eyes that if the money and fame of the NBA ruined him, she wished he would not have it at all.
Kyle's monetary contributions are just the start of the work he has done. He was setting up his own ministry in Philadelphia before the trade and had worked with a group of inner-city kids for nearly three years.
He met them one day while visiting the Helping Hand Rescue Mission along with his friend Adam Bruckner, an assistant coach for the Philadelphia Kixx indoor soccer team. They returned the next week to see if the kids were still there. Sure enough, they were.
Kyle organized a weekly Bible study, but he also became the kids' friend. He gave them his phone number, invited them to swim at his house, took them to Phillies games and hosted barbecues. Just from the looks on their faces, Kyle could see the kids softening. In what would turn out to be his last game in Philadelphia on Dec. 26, Kyle bought tickets not just for a group of 30 boys from the neighborhood, but for their fathers as well. They had to spend time tracking down some of the men, but all of them made it to the game.
The Sixers flew out for a Western Conference road trip the next day. They beat Sacramento and arrived in Portland, Ore., after midnight. Early the next morning, Kyle's phone rang. He knew immediately he'd been traded.
'I really felt like I was supposed to be in Philly,' Kyle said, 'and I felt like stuff that was happening, it was God being like, 'This is right, this is what's going on, this is where you're going to be' and then all of a sudden, 'Wham.' ''
New team, new future
His last Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, Kyle shared dinner with a family in the neighborhood. One of their boys had a stuttering problem and Kyle had paid to send him to the city's best speech therapist.
Dinner was the family's way of saying thank you. They piled turkey, collard greens and macaroni and cheese in front of him. 'I remember that I was going to eat whatever she put on my plate regardless of whether I liked it,'' Kyle said, laughing.
As they left the apartment that evening, Kyle and Adam looked at each other. 'We both said, 'I wouldn't have rather been anywhere else,' '' Bruckner said.
But Kyle wasn't prepared to say goodbye to the only NBA team he had known.
The weeks before the trade, he had been a sleepless wreck. The Sixers had fired Billy King as general manager Dec. 4 and replaced him with Ed Stefanski. Kyle was so worried about leaving Philadelphia that he finally called his father to talk through his anxiety.
'I felt like that conversation was God working that out,' Kyle said. 'Ever since then, I had peace about it. I had a peace that it was right. I can't explain it.'
When the phone finally rang, Kyle learned the Jazz had traded Gordon Giricek and a first-round draft pick for Kyle.
He received a standing ovation on New Year's Eve the first time he checked into a game for the Jazz.
Kyle averaged 9.8 points a game off the bench and is getting a taste of the NBA playoffs for just the second time in his career.
After arriving in Salt Lake City, Kyle told his parents the Jazz felt almost like a college team in how much the players hung out.
He has become such a fan favorite, the Jazz have sold more jerseys with his number than for any player except Deron Williams.
The crowd still hangs on his every three-point shot and packs up to head home whenever the 91.5 percent foul shooter steps to the line to close out a victory. Two girls brought a sign to a recent game: 'Hey Korver, Show Us Some Leg' in tribute to his high socks.
'I feel very comfortable,' Kyle said of life in Utah. He has found a place to live, a church in his new city and is glad to be finished with the Philadelphia traffic, for one thing.
Back in Philadelphia, the Bible study continues every Tuesday.
Some of the kids have started to sponsor a child in Africa, Bruckner said, saving their change to help pay for her medical care.
Bruckner said the men who hang out on the corner in the Helping Hand neighborhood have made their opinion of the trade clear.
'The dads called me over,' Bruckner said. 'They were just mad, going off, 'How the f--- could they trade this guy?' ''
Matthew Gallashaw, the director of Philadelphia's rescue mission, is asking the same question. 'We want to get him back,'' he said, 'but we don't know how to do it.''