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BYU remains very close to former basketball star Jonathan Tavernari's heart

Published: Thursday, Aug. 27 2015 6:22 p.m. MDT

Former BYU star Jonathan Tavernari shoots a jumper last year with Esporte Clube Pinheiros in Brazil. (COURTESY OF TAVERNARI FAMILY) Former BYU star Jonathan Tavernari shoots a jumper last year with Esporte Clube Pinheiros in Brazil. (COURTESY OF TAVERNARI FAMILY)

Editor's note: This is the first of an occasional series spotlighting former athletes with ties to the state of Utah.

Jonathan Tavernari is still a gunner.

Since leaving BYU four years ago, Tavernari, also known as “JT,” has been firing up 3-pointers in Europe and South America with pro teams on both continents, most recently with Esporte Clube Pinheiros in Brazil, where he was a teammate of former Cougar center Rafael Araujo.

During his four years at BYU, from 2006-10, the Brazilian Bomber hoisted up 698 3-pointers, second only to Jimmer Fredette in school history. He’s also No. 2 all time, behind Fredette, in 3-pointers made with 265.

During his pro career, Tavernari has shot over 40 percent from 3-point territory and 60 percent from 2-point range, and he’s been a consistent double-figures scorer.

Jonathan Tavernari and his wife Kiri give Xander a sandwich kiss. (Ivan Silva, Ivan Silva Fotografia) Jonathan Tavernari and his wife Kiri give Xander a sandwich kiss. (Ivan Silva, Ivan Silva Fotografia)

This past season, for the first time in his career, Tavernari suffered a major injury, a torn calf muscle while playing for Pinheiros. He’s contemplating a return to Europe next season after spending his first three seasons playing in Italy — his father is Italian and Tavernari has dual citizenship.

But he’s never far from his BYU roots.

Though he’s been playing thousands of miles away from Provo, he keeps close tabs on Cougar basketball. He’s passionate about it. He catches games via the Internet, and offers strong opinions on Twitter (@For3JT).

And during the offseason, he returns to Utah, spending plenty of time in Provo playing pickup games.

“Every time I come back to campus,” Tavernari said, “they welcome me back with arms open.”

Jonathan Tavernari plays some one-on-one with his son, Xander. (Ivan Silva, Ivan Silva Fotografia) Jonathan Tavernari plays some one-on-one with his son, Xander. (Ivan Silva, Ivan Silva Fotografia)

During his time at BYU, he was known for being a streaky shooter, hitting clutch 3-pointers, and for helping his team win three consecutive Mountain West Conference championships. As a senior, Tavernari asked coach Dave Rose to let him relinquish his starting job and come off the bench for the benefit of the team. At one time, Tavernari had been a part of more Cougar basketball wins than any other player in school history.

How would he like BYU fans to remember him?

“They kind of remember me as a gunner,” said Tavernari, who turns 27 this month. “And you know what? The funny thing is, as much as they thought that I was a gunner and took bad shots, I actually get paid to do that now. I did take some bad shots (at BYU), but that’s the way I played. When it got to be too much, Coach Rose took me out. That’s the way I play the game. I hope everyone remembers me for being a guy that loves BYU, that put BYU ahead of everything. I never quit on my team or my university. I put BYU first. It’s hard for me to separate BYU from the (LDS) Church.”

Jonathan Tavernari with his son, Xander, and wife, Kiri. (Ivan Silva, Ivan Silva Fotografia) Jonathan Tavernari with his son, Xander, and wife, Kiri. (Ivan Silva, Ivan Silva Fotografia)

Tavernari, who grew up in Brazil, joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints while attending high school in Las Vegas, just months before enrolling at BYU. He credits BYU for helping him in countless ways. It was at BYU that he met his wife, Kiri.

“I needed to strengthen my testimony and find a wife, and establish myself as someone with core values that my parents will be proud of and my children will be proud of,” he said. “I knew I needed to go to BYU to do those things.”

Kiri had been a student at BYU for five years before she met Tavernari, who likes to joke that they met when she asked him for an autograph.

“But that’s not true,” Kiri said. “I had never been to a basketball game and I didn’t know who was on the team before we met. We’d see each other going to classes and he would say hi all semester.”

When she finally attended a game, at EnergySolutions Arena — BYU was playing Utah State — she recognized Tavernari.

“I said hi to him that Monday and he asked for my number,” Kiri said. “By Friday, he had asked me to marry him. It was love at first sight, I guess. It was quick, but it was the best decision either of us has made.”

The couple wed in 2009, and after graduating from BYU, they went to Italy as Tavernari pursued a professional basketball career. He played for three teams — Scafati, Giorgio Tesi PT and Angelica BI — before returning to his homeland of Brazil to play for Pinheiros, the same team he played on before coming to the United States.

Tavernari is grateful to his wife, who hails from South Jordan, for being so willing to move around to foreign countries as he has pursued his dreams.

“I couldn’t have asked for a better partner, a better eternal companion,” he said. “She has picked up every language of every country that we’ve lived. At BYU she studied Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. She speaks Arabic and French. She learned Italian while we were in Italy. She learned how to speak Italian by reading the Book of Mormon. She picked up Portuguese super quick. She loves the culture. She learned to cook all of the Brazilian food.”

Tavernari said when he looks at opportunities to play for certain teams, “the No. 1 thing we check for is, how far away are we going to be from an LDS chapel so we can go to church. Then we find out how far we are from an army base to grocery shop once a month and get some Mountain Dew, and Reese’s Pieces, since they don’t have that stuff overseas.”

Kiri said it’s been an “eye-opening experience” living abroad. Initially, she was a little nervous about moving to Brazil.

“People told me how dangerous the country was and I had heard all these horror stories from returned missionaries about how dangerous the country was,” she said. “It is dangerous, but there were so many beautiful things. Brazil was so different than I expected. The people are incredible. The food was delicious. I had a lot of fun. Jonathan kept us in really safe areas. I never felt unsafe.”

Tavernari’s pro journey began with him attending the equivalent of the Chicago pre-draft camp for European players in Treviso, Italy, in 2010. He went on to be named all-league and the sixth man of the year. After three years in Italy, he opted to play in Brazil in a league that is considered the second-highest level, just below the NBA, in the Western Hemisphere.

However, Tavernari’s recent injury truncated his experience with Pinheiros.

“Now, I'm working out, staying in shape, weighing our options, seeing where I’m going to go next,” he said.

Nearly two years ago, Kiri gave birth to a son, Xander, who seems to be following in his dad’s footsteps already.

“Xander’s favorite toy is a basketball and a hoop. We try to buy him other toys, but nothing works,” Tavernari said. “The only thing that he focuses on for more than a few minutes is his basketball and hoop. Most of my games are televised. He hears the commentator saying, ‘Tavernari has the ball,’ and they’re showing me. Now he wants us to commentate while he dribbles the ball. On my Facebook page, you can see him shoot with a follow through, believe it or not. He likes to play with other toys, but nothing holds his attention for more than three or four minutes except for his basketball. It’s awesome.”

“It’s inevitable that he would love basketball,” Kiri said of Xander. “His favorite thing is to put on a jersey and listen to the songs played during warm-ups. He runs around and shoots hoops. It’s pretty cute.”

Tavernari doesn't know how long he plans to play professionally, but he does know what he wants to do when he's finished.

“The No. 1 thing I want to do after basketball is, I either want to work for the church or I want to work for the BYU athletic department," he said. "Speaking four or five languages like I do, having lived outside of America for such a long time, I would love to serve in any position like that for the church or for BYU. I want to give back to the church and to BYU because they have given me so much. BYU gave me an education. Coach Rose helped me become a man. The church gave me stability and a testimony. Although the pay would be extremely different, much less than what I’ve been earning, but for me, giving back to institutions that mean so much to me would be priceless.”

Tavernari said his most memorable moment at BYU was beating Florida in the NCAA tournament, in double overtime, as a senior in 2010. It marked the Cougars’ first NCAA tournament victory in 17 years.

“Coach Rose came into the locker room and he went to a few different players,” Tavernari recalled. “He jumped on me, and we were jumping up and down, saying, ‘We finally did it!’ It was the highlight of my BYU career.”

Tavernari has been a member of the Brazilian national basketball team, and the 2016 Summer Olympics will be held in Rio de Janeiro. He played for the FIBA World Olympic qualifying team in 2008, and helped Brazil claim the gold medal at the FIBA Americas Championship in 2009.

In 2010, he averaged 11 points for Brazil as it won the South American Championships.

But he is realistic about his chances of representing Brazil in 2016, explaining that there are a lot of Brazilians playing in the NBA that will take spots on the roster. He added that he’s content to spend that summer in the United States with his wife and son and not be part of the Olympics.

While living abroad, the Tavernaris have been heavily involved in assisting the missionaries, helping people of all faiths, and serving in their wards wherever they’ve lived.

“The countries and cultures we have been a part of have been so completely different from one another but we love them all so much,” Kiri said. “That’s the thing about this journey our family is on that we weren’t prepared for. We didn’t realize that we would be falling in love with people and places everywhere we went. We didn’t realize that we would both wish to be home and wish to never leave at the same time. And we certainly never entertained the idea that our hearts would end up in a hundred different pieces, scattered across quite a few continents, and sealed up in the hearts of the most diverse groups of people around the world. But they have. And we absolutely love it.”

The Tavernaris hope to end up close to BYU after Jonathan’s playing days are over.

“BYU will always have a special place in his heart,” Kiri said. “It’s one of the places that we go when we come home. It’s special to Jonathan and me as well because I went to school there. It’s where he really found himself as a person and as a man. Being at BYU solidified in his heart all that he loves the most.”

His experiences at BYU, Tavernari said, helped prepare him for his professional career.

“My coaches know I can be a sixth man, I can be a starter, I can bring the ball up the floor, I can play the four,” he said. “I can shoot. I’m a versatile guy. The way I played at BYU was exactly what Coach Rose needed. That’s why I say I’m so blessed. I was able to do what I loved at BYU, a place where I could be successful. I hope people can remember me for that.”

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company