Korver succeeds in season of sorrow

PELLA, IOWA -- ON a mid-March day in Central Iowa, Kyle Korver and his three brothers were watching the NCAA tournament together in the same room. Despite his alma mater, Creighton, losing, it was a good day and a good memory.

Korver has hung on to that moment and others like it over the past two months as he has struggled with sorrow. At times he has cried himself to sleep in the afternoons before games and woken feeling something he can only describe as his insides trembling. He has relied on prayer to give him the strength to get up and go to work.

A 15-year veteran, Korver prides himself on his consistency and levelheadedness. These are cornerstones of what has made him one of the greatest 3-point shooters in NBA history. His mother, Laine, who once scored 73 points in a high school game, taught him that you're not great until you're consistent. He'd always taken it to heart.

But since a terrible week in March, his balance, that fragile component for all shooters, has been off.

Korver's youngest brother, Kirk, died on March 20 after a brief illness that caught the family and the doctors by surprise. It was devastating for the close-knit family and for the town of Pella, where Kyle's father, Kevin, has been the senior pastor of one of the community's largest churches for 25 years, and the Korver brothers are treated as ambassadors and heroes.

In Pella, though, in the days and weeks after Kirk's death, there has been an element beyond grief, an unexpected uplifting. It started at the funeral, attended by more than 1,500 people at the Third Reformed Church of Pella, when Kyle and his parents spoke with such purpose that it left those in attendance in awe. And it has carried on as each Korver 3-pointer splashes through the net in the Cleveland Cavaliers' playoff run as he plays for more than himself.

"You know it's hard to hold death in one hand," Kyle said. "Your brother passing. Everything you feel about that and you get playoffs. Nothing else gives you different eyes for what's going on in the world and what's important and what matters."

TO UNDERSTAND THE Korver family, it helps to know the story of the concrete basketball court in their backyard. It cost $2,000 to build and, as the family of a pastor, they had to borrow against their home to pay for it. But they didn't borrow $2,000; they borrowed $4,000 and gave away the extra money.

"At the time it made no sense to me at all," Kyle said. "You're 13 or 14 years old and you're like, 'Why would you do that? Why would you go into more debt?' But that example to this day, that is like one of the things that I remember about just how you live and how you try to live generously."

Basketball has been a deep part of Kyle's family forever. His parents both played at Central College in Pella, a picturesque small town 40 miles outside of Des Moines that is dotted with churches, parks and basketball hoops.

Kyle and his three younger brothers were all born in Los Angeles. Kyle grew up a Lakers fan and loved going to the beach. When his father accepted the senior pastor job back in the town where he went to college, Kyle, who was 12 at the time, cried for two days on the move across the country.

When the boys played on the court after school, they rarely played 2-on-2. But when they did play a game, Kyle and Kirk would be on a team together. Kyle was almost 10 years older than Kirk, the youngest. Often they'd play shooting games to test one another's skills.

"We had one real epic 3-on-3 game where one brother lost a tooth, and it got real intense," Klayton Korver, Kyle's brother, said. "But we had a good time."

Their father would step out onto the porch and watch. His instruction often was "higher, shoot it higher." And shoot they did. The four brothers -- Kyle, Klayton, Kaleb and Kirk -- all rank in the top 10 in Pella High's all-time scoring and rebounding lists. Kyle and Kaleb went on to play at Creighton, Klayton at Drake and Kirk at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

"We all shot so many baskets on that hoop. My parents didn't pay for college because we all got scholarships," Kyle said. "It was a good investment, and it's a good lesson."

THE FAMILY WAS in a good place. Last summer, at age 36, Kyle signed a three-year contract with the Cavs, which backed up many summers of hard work at P3, a cutting-edge training center in Santa Barbara that has helped extend his career. It also would enable him to give more to charity; he has quietly given away millions through his foundation over the years.

Kaleb is married and working at Nike in the NBA uniform division. Klayton had become a pastor in Knoxville, Iowa, and is married with a child and another on the way this summer. Laine had just finished her master's degree. Kevin had overseen massive expansion of his church, the debt from several additions finally paid. Kirk had recently moved home to Pella and gotten a job.

Then in early March, Laine and Kevin returned from a trip to Los Angeles, where they'd watched Kyle play the Lakers and Clippers. They found Kirk ill. He didn't get better, and they took him to the hospital, where they learned some of his internal organs were failing. Eventually, he was taken to the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City.

"We thought maybe he was a little depressed or something," Laine said. "But no one would have suspected that he was that sick."

Kyle scored 19 points in a game in Portland on March 15, but when he heard how sick his brother was, he chartered a plane that night and brought Kaleb and his wife, who live in Portland, with him to Iowa City. The family felt fortunate that Kyle had been in Portland so he could travel with Kaleb. They felt there was even more luck when the flight crew on the jet happened to be based in Iowa City and gave the Korvers a ride to the hospital.

The family gathered around Kirk. They watched basketball and talked to him. "It was probably his best day in the hospital, and we were able to talk and joke, and the NCAA tournament was on," Kyle said. "It was a really important day for us."

Doctors put Kirk at No. 1 in the Midwest on the liver transplant list, and a donor was soon found in Colorado. There was optimism that he would be OK.

"Just all these things were happening to where we all got to be together to where I thought, 'Oh, this has to have a good ending,'" Klayton said.

The plan was for the liver to be flown to Iowa and for Kirk to undergo surgery on the morning of March 20.

"At 4 a.m., they intubated him. At 10 o'clock, he coded for the first time. About 11, 11:30, he coded the second time. And we pulled all the machines off at 1 o'clock," Kevin said. "So we went from 'He's going to get a liver. He was the No. 1 option' to 'Your son is dead.' And that was in 15 hours. I mean, you talk about roller coaster. ... That is as intimate and raw as you can be as a family."

The family surrounded Kirk as he died. He was 27. His father gave him last rites. The family still doesn't know what made Kirk so sick, and they have to live with the knowledge that they might never know.

"I think getting to be together in that last moment, getting to sit around his bed together as he passed was, I think, really healthy and really good," Klayton said. "And we just got to sit around and say that we love you. We're proud of you. You're a good brother. You're a good man. And you can go. And so I think that was why it all happened that way."

In the days after Kirk's death, there was an outpouring in Pella and across the NBA. The community where the Korver family is a pillar was devastated. For decades, the Korvers had been there for families in distress. Kevin had visited so many people in the hospital, presided over so many funerals, offered so much support. Now the roles had been reversed.

"Kirk was very beloved in his own right here," said Wade Van Vark, who taught the Korver boys math at Pella High School. "Like the other brothers, he was a role model, a hero to a generation of young kids. The Korvers have done so much for so many here and touched so many lives that to know they were hurting in that way, to see them go through that, it was crushing to our community."

Five years ago, Van Vark lost his 16-year-old son in a car accident, and the Korvers came to support him in his grief. Returning the gesture was another example of how the tragedy brought the town together.

At the funeral, Kyle gave a moving eulogy at the church his family helped build, the oldest brother speaking about the youngest.

"Today is a day of harvest where we see the seed you have planted all these years," Kyle said to his parents, fighting through tears. "You will always have four sons; there will always be four."

THE CAVS GAVE Kyle as much time off as he wanted after his brother's death. When he returned to the team after a week, he also had to deal with a nagging foot injury and ended up taking another week off to manage the issue.

He would end up playing in only four games before the start of the playoffs. In the first round, he went scoreless in two of the first three games against the Indiana Pacers. Then in Game 4, he broke out with 18 points and made two vital 3-pointers that helped win the game and turn the series for the Cavs.

"It's interesting to go from that world to this world, probably really good for me in a lot of ways," Kyle said. "But hard to play, I think, especially the first round against Indiana. ... It was just a crazy series in itself, and I felt like it was really dramatic."

Kyle continues to play well. He shot 56 percent from 3-point range in the second round against the Toronto Raptors and is averaging 11 points and shooting 47 percent on 3s in the conference finals against the Boston Celtics.

He's still struggling with Kirk's death. Last Sunday marked two months since the date. Kyle relies on his wife, Juliet, and the rest of the family for support. The grieving process is still ongoing, but basketball has enabled him to smile a little, just as it did all those afternoons in the backyard with his brothers.

"You know the world gives you a little bit of time. They're very sad for you. And they still are," Kyle said. "But sometimes it's like, 'OK, we'd like you to take the shots and make every one, please.'"