Kyle Korver

Kyle Korver, once a fresh-faced star at Creighton, is now an NBA veteran who's finding a voice that extends well past the basketball court.

Professor Korver, I presume. Or is it senator?

Kyle Korver is still a veteran sharpshooter for the Utah Jazz, but my, he’s come a long way from the polite and shy kid with the mop-top at Creighton.

Sixteen years after leaving the Hilltop, Korver returns on Saturday. He jokes that he can’t remember who gave the commencement speech at his graduation, but he won’t forget this one. He’s giving it.

He was stunned when Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen called him a few weeks ago to ask him to replace Bob Kerrey. He gladly accepted.

These are interesting times for Korver, who just completed his 16th year in the NBA and ranks fourth all time on the league’s 3-pointers list. Last month, he wrote an article titled “Privileged” for the Players’ Tribune — an online media site that provides stories written by athletes.

The subject of Korver’s article was race relations in the United States. He admitted to being closed-minded in the past, but needed to listen to the problems and issues faced by black people and  other people of color.

It was a powerful message and garnered a lot of reaction nationally, from inside and outside the NBA.

Korver is becoming somewhat of an elder statesman. After the Utah Jazz fell behind three games to none to Houston in the playoffs last month, Korver called the media over to his locker and gave a moving speech defending teammate Donovan Mitchell.

I caught up with Korver via phone from his home in California, where he and his wife and three kids were preparing to fly to Iowa and then drive over to Omaha for Saturday’s graduation ceremonies.

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Q: Were you surprised Creighton asked you to give a commencement speech?

A: “I’m not one who typically gives speeches. It’s an incredible, incredible honor. I said, ‘Sure, yes,’ right away. ‘I would love to do that.’

“I’ve thought a good bit about it. I’ve watched many commencement speeches in the last week or so, trying to get a feel. I think I have what I want to say put together in my head. I probably worked harder on this than anything I did while I was in school there (laughs). I probably shouldn’t say that.”

Q: Do you think your article in the “Players’ Tribune” had something to do with it?

A: “I think so. I read the latest Creighton magazine and I was really proud of how willing they were to walk into these types of conversations, about race and understanding and privilege that we have. That was about the same time as the article, so there might have been a connection there.”

Q: Where did the passion for “Privileged” come from?

A: “I kind of had it on my heart for a couple of years. As I was learning about this and having conversations about it, it was pretty clear to me that we need some white people to step up into this conversation. It’s a missing piece to me.

“It’s a hard one to walk into, because you’re afraid of saying something wrong. I kind of sat on it for a couple of years, really, and let things come together in my head. What would I say? What would it sound like?

“I’ve kind of been writing on my own for a year or so. Then something happened and I said it was time. There was a sign. There was an incident with our (Utah) crowd and Russell (Westbrook). I called the Players’ Tribune and said I want to put this together. We spent about a month on it.”

I’ve always thought of Korver as being from Pella, Iowa, a rural small town south of Des Moines. So did the NBA shape Korver’s beliefs?

Korver was quick to point out that he was born in Paramount, California, a small Los Angeles suburb between Long Beach and Compton. He lived there until he was 12 and  said most of his friends were African-American.

“I was one of the few white guys in my neighborhood,” Korver said. “I actually spent the majority of my life (including NBA) being the minority. I went to high school in Pella — that’s 99.9% white. I came to Creighton, which has more diversity, then the NBA.”

Q: Was Paramount a tough place?

A: “Yes, it was tough. When I was younger, it was ranked one of the most dangerous cities with a population less than 40,000. My grandfather and dad and uncle were pastors at a church there. They did a great job through the church trying to transform the community. That was a big part of my education growing up, looking at that example.

“I remember watching smoke from the buildings during the Rodney King riots. That’s where I lived — we were right in the middle of it. I could only go a block or two from my house on my bike. There were some pretty firm boundaries. There was a lot of stuff going on, for sure.”

Q: I always remembered Dana Altman’s teams being diverse and having good chemistry. Did your Creighton experience shape your attitudes?

A: “Growing up, I didn’t see color. Most of my friends weren’t white. But I really didn’t understand what was going on in the world. You get older and start getting into deeper relationships, and that’s when things certainly started. You start to see how things are.

“For me, as I tried to understand if I had a voice or a role in this, it became: ‘How do I get the message to an audience that is mostly white?’ Most people don’t feel affected by race. I feel like there are so many good people who want to do what’s right, who want to help be good in the world. How can we get all those people who want to be that way to step forward?”

Korver said reaction to his article came from everywhere, including many of his NBA peers.

“A couple of older gentlemen who had been in the NBA (years ago) reached out and said a couple of nice messages,” Korver said. “That really meant the most.”

Was one of them Bill Russell? Korver wouldn’t say.

We touched on some other quick topics:

Korver, 38, hinted after the season that he might retire from playing. He said he was “weighing the cost” of balancing being a husband and father of three. He had a solid season with Utah, taking more shots than any previous season, and his contributions off the bench helped lead the Jazz to the playoffs. But a late-season knee injury took the edge off it.

“I think we’re going year-by-year,” Korver told me. “Team has an option on my contract this summer. And I’ll sit down and figure out how much juice I have left.”

When he was back in Omaha for the Creighton Hall of Fame induction last August, Korver told me he might like to be a coach after he finished playing.

Is he still leaning that way?

“I don’t know,” Korver said. “Whether I want to stay in basketball or not is kind of the question I think about the most. Do I want to get into coaching or stay with the (Jazz) in some capacity? Keep going (in basketball), or is there something different out there?”

Q: You’re becoming something of an elder statesman late in your career. Have you ever thought about politics?

A: “(Laughs) I haven’t given that a whole lot of thought. There seems to be a lot of opportunity to do good, but that’s kind of swampy water, right?”

Q: What do you think about the way the 3-point shot has taken over the game? It wasn’t like this when you came into the NBA in 2004.

A: “The game has changed so much. It has evolved two or three times since I started. When I came in, you had to shoot a 2-point shot first, just to get yourself going. Now, it’s like, how fast can you get your 3 up? The game has gotten smarter that way, maximizing each possession, how many points can we get? Pretty good timing for me.”

Q: The NCAA is considering moving the 3-point line back 2 feet. What do you think?

A: “I don’t think it’s going to be much of an adjustment for them. I think it’s going to help a ton with spacing. When I watch college basketball, it feels like there’s no room to do anything in the paint.”

Q: Who do you like of the final four in the NBA playoffs?

A: “Mike Budenholzer (Milwaukee Bucks coach) was my coach in Atlanta. He really had a strong influence on me. I’m really cheering for him and the Bucks.”

Q: Finally, do you feel like an elder statesman? Have you noticed a need to speak out as you’ve grown older?

A: “I still feel really young. I have a lot more responsibilities than I did at Creighton, wife and three kids. When I’m on the court, I still feel like I’m a guy on a team.

“But there are definitely moments when I’m in conversation (with younger teammates), you walk into a locker room or training room, and you say, ‘Wow, I’m the older guy now.’ But you know what? It’s good. I love it.”

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