Utah Jazz: Heartthrob status doesn't suit 'Thinker' Korver

Published: Friday, May 2 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Kyle Korver (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News) Kyle Korver (Scott G. Winterton, Deseret News)
Oh, no, here it comes, and Kyle Korver knows it. He's been warned. He's bracing himself for the question he dreads worse than a hand in his face at the three-point line, the question he's been hearing for years.
How does he feel about being an NBA heartthrob?
His eyes almost roll back into his head. He pauses and sighs, his shoulders slumping in surrender, and then he plows ahead, offering the same practiced answer he's repeated a thousand times.
"I just don't know how to answer that question," he says. "I don't know how I'm supposed to respond. It's very awkward."
Touche. The reporter hates asking the question, and Korver hates answering it — but there's no ignoring it, either. Korver, the string-bean swingman for the Jazz, enjoys a rare level of popularity, even by NBA standards, especially by females.
On any night in EnergySolutions Arena, there are enough signs to fill the Republican Convention, most of them held aloft by women. Kyle, we love you. Kyle, will you marry me? From two young girls: Kyle, will you wait for me? From two older women: Why go for two when you can go for three?
Local souvenir stores are running out of children's size XL No. 26 jerseys — the size women buy because there are no jerseys made in their sizes.
At a recent charity event, Jazz players were enlisted to sign autographs and have their photos taken with fans. Korver's was the longest line, snaking its way back from the bowels of the ESA out onto the court, and many female fans asked to sit on Korver's lap.
Korver's female fans are different than what you might expect from the NBA arena. For the most part, these are not groupies in provocative, come-hither clothing. These are grandmas, housewives, grade-school kids and teens, ranging in age from 7 to 60 (to wit, the sign in the ESA: My grandma thinks you're hot.").
TV stations and newspapers have already produced several in-depth profiles about Korver, and he's only been with the team for four months. The media honeymoon is on for Korver. Veteran TV newscasters like Shauna Lake are reduced to asking fawning questions like this one: "What did your mom do to raise a guy like you?"
"There have been a lot of articles lately," Korver says. "It's embarrassing."
There also are dozens of Kyle Korver Web sites, none of which belong to Korver himself. Some of them have such accurate information about him that he calls it "creepy."
His charm is not limited to women. As Korver warmed up on the court before a game one day, a man showed up holding a sign with a photo of a baby on it — whom he had named Korver, after the player. When Jazz vice president of communications Linda Luchetti pointed this out to Korver, he made a beeline to the man and signed his sign.
"Wow," he said to Luchetti as they walked off the court. "I've had dogs named after me, but never a person."
Go figure. All this attention and adulation for a player who averages less than 10 points and plays less than half the game.
Yet NBC/NBA shill Ahmad Rashad wants to talk to him before a game, and TNT pulls him aside before practice for a one-on-one interview. He receives almost as much fan mail as Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, the undisputed superstars of the team. When someone asked Williams about the "MVP chants" he generates from fans, he smiled and noted they weren't as loud as the cheers that Korver gets.
No player since Jeff Hornacek has been so immediately embraced by Jazz fans, and Hornacek arrived as a bonafide star. Korver was given a standing ovation the first time he took the court for the Jazz.
"It's gone to another level with the fans and the amount of love and offers he's receiving from 7-year-old girls," says teammate Jarron Collins.
"You can't help but notice it," says another teammate, Ronnie Price. "At first we messed with him about it, but you could see he gets tired of it."
It's not just Utah fans who have fallen for the 27-year-old Korver. He was widely considered the second most popular player during his four-plus seasons with the Philadelphia 76ers behind superstar Allen Iverson, and he earned heartthrob status when he played in the collegiate ranks for Creighton.
His mother, Laine, sat in the stands at Creighton, taking in the signs addressed to her son — Kyle, will you marry my daughter? — and was aghast. "I wondered, 'Is this really happening?"' says Laine.
Observers offer all sorts of explanations for Korver's popularity. There is his pure shooting stroke from three-point range (40 percent), the NBA's version of the home run. Kevin O'Connor, the vice president of basketball operations, says Korver's popularity is due in part to the team's record — "The team has done very well," he says, "and fans recognize that he loves to play." Connor was so smitten with Korver — as a player, not a heartthrob — that he tried to trade for him more than a year ago, but the Sixers wouldn't let him go.
A couple of observers attribute Korver's immense popularity to skin color. "Look at Utah's demographics," says one team official, but that ignores Korver's popularity in Philadelphia.
Of course the other factor in Korver's popularity is his rock-star look, with his long hair carefully combed down to the eyebrows, where it takes a sharp left turn to his ears and then another decline to his earlobe .... In college, he wearied of questions about his looks and frequent comparisons to actor Ashton Kutcher, and he probably regretted that he ever revealed that he streaked blond highlights into his 'do ("Do we have to talk about the hair?" he would say).
"He hated the comparisons to Ashton Kutcher," says his mother. "That wasn't him."
None of it is, really. When Korver fielded a question about his popularity while walking to his car after a practice last week, he stopped and leaned against a wall in a dark hallway. He paused momentarily before he answered. He is, by nature, a deep, introspective type, which is why his brothers gave him a replica statue of Rodin's famous "The Thinker" last Christmas. Rather than toss off answers by rote, he often thinks out careful replies.
"As you become successful, it happens more," he says. "Lots of it comes with the territory. I've seen a lot of teammates who were not pretty leave a game with a pretty girl.
"The first time you experience some of that stuff it feels good," he continues. "Everyone wants to be liked. It's easy to get caught up in it. Pretty soon, you have to step back. Not to sound ungrateful — a lot of people do really care about you. Others want to put your picture in MySpace and say they know you.
"It makes you very cautious. It takes a lot to win me over. I feel like I'm a pretty good judge of character because I've had to judge a lot of characters."
Korver, the deeply religious son of an Iowa pastor, experienced an epiphany during his rookie year. After dreaming of playing in the NBA for most of his life, he found it empty and surprisingly unsatisfying. Was he getting caught up in the NBA lifestyle? Would it change him?
"I grew up with certain values," he says. "I had to find common ground. I was hanging with this group and then that group. I felt lost. Who am I? It wasn't like I thought it would be. There was no joy. It can wear on you. The people you end up hanging out with are the people you become. I didn't feel fulfilled. All the attention and the money — it doesn't bring joy. There's always something more. I woke up one morning my rookie year and thought, this isn't doing it for me."
Korver pulled back. He surrounded himself with friends who had no connection with basketball and used his celebrity to aid charities (coat drives, Habitat for Humanity, etc.) and to help inner-city kids in Philadelphia — in secret, as much as possible — and paid a tithe to his church and then some.
Korver handles his celebrity with grace and patience. He signs autographs — he has never understood why players wouldn't do this — and tries to be appreciative of the attention, even though he finds it disconcerting.
"I feel sorry for him," says Luchetti. "The attention is constant. But he's handled it extremely well. He's always nice and polite. He's just a good person. The players have different attitudes about being in the NBA. For some, they love their job, but it is still a job. Their family and their core values are more important. That's how he is."
The answer to your question, ladies, is, no, he does not have a girlfriend. "I just broke up with" — he begins to say, but his voice trails off, and it's clear he doesn't want to go there. Like Steve Young and others in his position, Korver finds it ironic that all that fame and female adulation make it difficult to find a wife.
"They certainly have to be understanding of the situation," he says.
The attention "can be so over the top," Laine says. "Do they like him for who he is or because he's a basketball player? Are they jersey chasers? You wonder. You question sincerity. People get lost in that world. You want to be glad for who you are when it's done and you're 60."

E-mail: drob@desnews.com

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