Kyle Korver's Everest

In early September, with his 13th NBA season on the horizon, the Atlanta Hawks' Kyle Korver developed an obsession. It had nothing to do with the upcoming season, and yet everything to do with it.

He wanted to climb Mount Everest. Or close.

To clarify, Korver and three of his closest friends schemed to ascend the steel-lined emergency stairwell of the tallest building in Los Angeles -- the 73-story U.S. Bank Tower -- enough times to equal Everest's soul-crushing 29,000 feet.

"Climb the stairs, take the elevator down, climb the stairs, take the elevator down and climb the height of the Mount Everest in a day," Korver says at a recent shootaround. "That was the thought."

This was going to be the third year of Korver's annual misogi (pronounced mih-soe-gee), a centuries-old Japanese spirit-finding ritual that requires undertaking a physical endurance challenge to push your mind and body beyond its known limits.

Last offseason, Korver and his friends came up with the idea to "run" a 5K relay, holding an 85-pound boulder, on the ocean floor. They took turns: dive down, find the rock, pick it up, and run weighted to the bottom, then surface for the next guy to take his turn. Blacking out was a constant concern, but they did it. The previous year, Korver traveled 25 miles uninterrupted on a stand-up paddleboard across the rough waters between the Channel Islands to Santa Barbara.

The natural extension was to climb Everest on West Fifth Street in downtown L.A.

"It was gonna be gnarly," Korver says.

Estimates varied, but the misogi group thought it'd take anywhere from 12 to 24 hours to complete. A business manager at the US Bank Tower said there was recently a separate event in which a team of fundraisers climbed the stairs once; Korver's crew wanted to do it about 50 times.

Exhilarated by the sheer lunacy of the idea, the friends started narrowing down a date. Late September, maybe. Korver prepared in stairwells when he could, and felt confident.

"It's a little safer," points out Korver, "than actually climbing Mount Everest."

The 34-year-old Korver is by some measures the very best of the NBA's explosive class of 3-point specialists. More than any other NBA player, Korver shakes opposing defenses so effectively they tend to give up entirely on leaving him alone in the half court. Using SportVU's player-tracking data from STATS LLC provided to ESPN.com, Korver's gravity and distraction scores -- metrics tracking literally how closely defenders stayed magnetized to him -- yielded the top "respect" rating in the NBA last season, besting even MVP Stephen Curry. When Korver is blanketed like that, his teammates benefit from enough easy buckets that some suggested Korver should be considered as an MVP candidate.

But Korver's age-defying season ended in the third quarter of the second game of the Eastern Conference finals, when overzealous Cleveland Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova barreled into Korver's right ankle. The play ignited cries that Dellavedova played dirty -- and ruptured most of the soft tissue holding Korver's ankle together.

That was on top of an issue with Korver's shooting elbow -- his bread and butter -- that he says had been increasingly painful all season. Both required offseason surgery and months of rest and rehab.

Workout maniac though Korver may be, "Everest" would be the culmination of an offseason spent largely on the couch.

Harvard-educated Marcus Elliott, M.D., runs a sports science company in Santa Barbara called P3. Korver met Elliott in 2008, when both had roles with the Utah Jazz, Korver as a shooting guard coming off knee surgery, and Elliott as a cross-sport pioneer of injury prevention.

Korver moves his wife and two kids to Santa Barbara every summer so he can be near Elliott and his staff. He is one of more than 140 pro-ballers who attended P3 over the past year. The Memphis Grizzlies spent training camp at UC Santa Barbara in part to utilize the company's state-of-the-art injury prevention tools.

Korver's ankle surgery was on May 27, his elbow surgery to clean up bone spurs a month later.

"We basically had to put him back together," Elliott says. "He had a significant ankle injury, completely ruptured ligaments. Guys don't always come back from these things. They can certainly walk again and run again and jump at some point, but in the NBA, if you lose 20 percent of what you had, there are very few guys who can keep playing. I was really worried about him."

In early July, weeks from his most recent surgery, Korver limped through the doors of P3 and attempted the dozens of diagnostic mini-workouts that constitute an annual assessment. He wasn't able to complete them all because of his lingering issues. Elliott told him to come back in a month.

Korver returned in three weeks.

"You could see his ankle injury all over the place [on the diagnostics]," Elliott says. "Almost any type of performance metric, how much force he creates off his injured side, all those metrics were way down."

Among other things, P3's metrics showed that Korver could generate 25 percent more power with his left leg than his right. Such an imbalance would be noticeably uncomfortable for anyone, but for a professional athlete, that kind of asymmetry, sports science says, is an injury waiting to happen.

The first order of business was strengthening Korver's ankle to make his overall frame symmetrical, and a month of foot exercises geared toward mobility and functionality.

Then there was the matter of his career-defining shooting stroke. Coming off his first All-Star season in which he shot a league-leading 49.2 percent from 3-point land, Korver now had a body recovering from two surgeries on his shooting side.

"We basically had to put him back together." Marcus Elliott, founder and director of P3, on Korver

When Korver finally got back into the gym to start shooting, he missed almost every shot. Elliott remembers bracing himself for the perfectionist's self-critique as Korver walked off the court that first time.

But Korver, ever process-oriented, was thrilled.

"'The results weren't good,'" Elliott remembers Korver saying that day. "'But who cares, my elbow felt great.'"

Korver says his elbow had begun barking two-thirds of the way through the season. He made 54 more 3s than any other player in the Eastern Conference last season, and shot 46.5 percent from downtown in March and April. In the playoffs, that rate dipped to 35.5 percent, which was still above league norms, but was pedestrian for a player who has thrice finished the season with the league's best 3-point percentage.

But now Korver feels healthy. "I feel like, in a lot of ways, I'm re-learning how to shoot, which makes it fun because shooting gets boring sometimes, right?"

Korver kept pushing. He tinkered with his shot mechanics, which might sound greedy for someone who has improved his 3-point percentage each of the previous four seasons.

"I'm able to shoot so much more differently now," Korver says. "There's so much more freedom now in my elbow. I don't have that pain anymore that I felt before. To the average fan it may not look that different, but to me, man, it feels so different."

Watch Korver closely and you may notice the change. With his bum elbow, Korver caught the ball and then dipped it slightly, getting the ball low to generate momentum for launch. Imagine a frayed sling shot, needing to be pulled back a little farther before release. That extra dip took time, though. A few milliseconds is not much in an empty gym, but with a long-armed defender determined to cloud the airspace, it is an eternity.

Nowadays, Korver fires off a jumper with a sharper economy of movement. The dip has dwindled.

"Now I'm able to shoot higher, if that makes sense," Korver says. "Just getting to that pocket a little faster."

By the end of September, Korver's offseason at P3 had come to an end. The ankle, elbow and shooting form were all feeling better, but now there was another challenge: learning to work with an all-new Hawks training staff.

Last summer, Hawks head coach and president of basketball operations Mike Budenholzer knew that, like it or not, his team was betting the season on the powers of recovery. Both Korver and key defender Thabo Sefolosha were coming off major injuries, to say nothing of the health records of Al Horford and Paul Millsap. Budenholzer fired longtime trainer Wally Blasé as well as stretch and conditioning coach Pete Radulovic.

Budenholzer knew the man he wanted to head up his new staff: Keke Lyles. Lyles had helped the Golden State Warriors dramatically reduce injuries (remember when Stephen Curry had recurrent ankle problems?) and a title resulted.

Budenholzer was able to lure Lyles by promising he could have a free hand in building his staff, and Lyles went to town, assembling what Korver calls "by far the biggest staff I've ever seen in the NBA" featuring the Warriors' former strength and conditioning coach Michael Roncarati and longtime Lyles confidante Art Horne, who worked with Lyles at Northeastern.

"I feel like in a lot of ways, I'm re-learning how to shoot which makes it fun because shooting gets boring sometimes, right?"
Kyle Korver

Here's where things are tricky, however. Sports science has come to the league in a hurry, and through a dozen different front doors. Companies like P3 do detailed offseason assessments. Data company SportVU tracks on-court player movement from in-arena cameras. Australian start-up Catapult processes performance data by outfitting players with sensors worn in practice and summer league. There are dozens more tools and startups besides.

Put that in a stew with the convictions of all the trainers and doctors around the NBA, and you have nothing close to accepted wisdom from all the medical data. Companies like P3 often disagree with team staffs on how to best take care of players.

But Budenholzer is trying to be a leader in making a symphony out of that cacophony. The Lyles hire comes not just with proven training programs, but also a strong framework to build trust among all involved. The championship does wonders to help players buy in, but in addition -- and this was key to Budenholzer -- Lyles and P3 have great mutual respect. That relationship was instantly useful: When Lyles arrived, Elliott handed over six years' worth of Korver's data to the team, to help keep him healthy. That doesn't happen everywhere.

"It was a challenge for all of us," Budenholzer said. "Kyle's such a diligent worker. He puts in a lot of work in the summer in P3 and then comes and works with the new group. The energy and the feeling everybody has I think there's complete buy-in and they're appreciative of all the work the training staff has put in."

And when the data calls for Korver to rest, Budenholzer can deliver it in his role as coach. To that end, like the Warriors did under Lyles a season ago, the Hawks are now using Catapult monitors to track every player's workload in training camp and practice. The data helped inform Lyles to recommend sitting Curry and Klay Thompson when fatigue began to set in last season. The same thing will be happening for Korver this season.

"That more than anything, to get these guys to feel good," says Lyles. "My philosophy is how we incorporate Catapult and SportVU and use subjective stuff together to help guide our decision and explain why we do what we do. The players are smart. They want to learn."

Lyles points out that Korver, who incessantly slaloms around off-ball screens like an Olympic skier, is already averaging the same speed on the court that he did last season (4.3 miles per hour). Korver ran 175 miles last regular season on the court, 13 more than any other Hawk, according to NBA.com SportVU data.

Korver is literally back up to speed.

"They're all excellent at their craft," Korver says of Lyles' team. "Everyone's trying to find that edge and everything with analytics and how to get a little smarter and how to get better in the training room. They're great, man."

Together with Budenholzer, Lyles outlined a plan to rest Korver on back-to-backs to begin the season, when Korver was still finding his legs. Korver started the season missing 15 of his first 20 3s, and was frustrated.

Last Friday in New Orleans, however, a breakthrough: Korver took 10 shots -- four 3s, four 2s and two free throws, and made them all. Not a single miss the entire night. According to Basketball Reference, no player in the past 30 years had registered a missless game with that many 3s, 2s and free throws attempted.

The brutal offseason is starting to show signs of paying off.

"It was hard, man," Korver says. "It was interesting going from fully engaged in the playoffs and then in a flash not just being done, but being on the couch for months. I spent a lot of time with my kids and my relationship grew with them. And only time could help that grow. But all I was thinking about was going forward and how do you get better, faster? How do you rehab and get back on the court?"

The idea of the misogi came from Elliott, who has been doing them for years. Korver caught wind of them three years ago and quickly became obsessed, which is how Korver and his friends found themselves, last summer, working the phones to get access to L.A.'s longest stairway.

"We have these gene sets that really like to get challenged," Elliott says. "It's been essential for our evolution. We used to just have to do some hard-ass stuff, things we didn't know if we could do. We have to climb over the top of that mountain to get down to the meadow for the winter season. That's what we have to do. Or we're going to take down this mammoth because the tribe needs to eat and that's how it's going to go down.

"Now all of our lives are so measured and we're worried about our IRA accounts when we're in our 20s and it's such bulls---. That's not how we're put together. It's good to challenge ourselves to do things we don't know if we can do. We've been selected to do this very thing. And Kyle absolutely thrives in it."

Korver felt the "Everest" effort was the catharsis he needed. In the planning phases, it made sense.

"We penciled one in this summer," Elliott says. "We thought Kyle could do it because his rehab was going so well and he knows how valuable it is to find that mental competitive edge."

Korver did one hard stair session during his rehab, as a test.

"He didn't feel too bad, but that's not enough," Elliott says. "There's just no way that this physical challenge could jeopardize him physically."

In the end, Korver & Co. simply ran out of offseason. At the last minute, they realized Kyle's body hadn't recovered enough, and scrapped this year's misogi.

"I was super disappointed for him, because I know he'd love the adventure of it all," Elliott says. "He's a cowboy out there, man. We just didn't have enough of a margin to work with. We felt like it was too dangerous."

Korver's wife, Juliet, jokes that Kyle's actual misogi this summer was the mental grind of watching the kids all offseason.

"Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to partake in the one we had planned," Korver says. "Just not healthy enough."

The 29,000-foot ascent would have to wait until next summer. It's still on his mind as he wraps ice packs onto his knees after an early November shootaround, another workout spent polishing his shot mechanics.

"I'm getting closer to finding that rhythm," Korver says. "I'm feeling better every week.

"I feel like I'm on the way up."

This story was updated to correct the location of the U.S. Bank Tower.