The Story of Tyrone Kennedy Corbin

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The Story of Tyrone Kennedy Corbin

Early on, as an impressionable teen, Ty Corbin hatched a plan that would get his mother out of the projects and spare her from the arduous hours spent working pressing shirts at the laundromat.

Four years after graduating from high school, he would attend college, earning a degree in computer science. From there, Corbin would matriculate into the corporate world, settling into a career that would provide enough money to buy Mary a house.

In this case, mother and son loved it when a plan only partially came together.

As he’s done almost always through his 49 years, Corbin followed through on the goal to purchase the new house. But rather than work in his anticipated field, he traded an office for a floor, the hardwood variety on which he spent 15 years as an NBA player.

The tri-level home in which his mother resides symbolizes the essence of the current Utah Jazz head coach. The plan seems so simple: set a goal and then work tirelessly, in an understated manner, to achieve it.

Welcome to the story that is Tyrone Kennedy Corbin.

It started, and never really has ventured far from, in Columbia, South Carolina. The middle of five children, not including the three children his mother had with his father, Corbin grew up in government housing with meager means.

Despite his father - who battled demons associated with alcohol most of his adult life – leaving home when Corbin was age 5, he never lacked for love and direction. By the time Corbin left for DePaul University in 1981, the foundation for his life had long been established by his mother, older brothers Larry and Terry, Sunday School teachers and high school basketball coach.

“We didn’t have much, but we didn’t miss much either,” Corbin said.

Able to draw from numerous basketball coaches, Boy Scout leaders, teachers, teammates and countless others, Corbin doesn’t hesitate to name the most dominant influence in his life. Her name is Mom.

During an hour-long interview inside EnergySolutions Arena, Corbin discussed his core values. Each was inherited from the woman who gave him life.

“My mom was a really, really hard worker,” he said. “She really knew how to manage money and manage resources. She was really good at instilling in us family values and looking out for each other, being responsible for your own actions after a certain age and being able to make a good living for yourself.”

Depending on the topic, Corbin recites his mother’s philosophy. A sampling:

  • “You can achieve anything you want in life, but you have to count on yourself.”
  • “She always said if you take anybody’s job and they’re paying you money to have a job, try to give them more than the money that they pay you to do the job.”
  • “She never gave much stock to people who, if you gave them something to do you had to stand over them and watch them do it. She gave you a job to do and she counted on you to do it.”
  • “My mom always taught me that you need the best education you can get to have a chance to be successful in life.”
  • “My mom always said take care of what you can control. You can control school and your grades and graduate. And the other stuff along the way you set yourself up to be in place to take advantage of it.”

The mantra of hard work began early in his life.

Not surprisingly, Corbin began drawing a salary as a seventh-grader at Crayton Middle School. He entered the workforce as a paperboy, delivering The State newspaper each morning, and later spent summers cutting the grass at the housing project.

During his junior year at A.C. Flora High, Corbin became a bus driver, with two routes shuttling the younger kids to middle school and then going back out to round up the high school students. The older group included high school teammate and future NBA player Xavier McDaniel.

Until the sixth grade, organized sports weren’t even a part of his life. For all the neighborhood boys, the primary outlet for sports came after the Sunday service at Bethlehem Baptist, at which Corbin attended regularly.

“I understood the values it taught,” he said. “I liked hearing stories in the Bible.”

And he also liked displaying his athletic talent, which ran in the family. His two older brothers earned athletic scholarships to college.

The housing project had a natural divide, with an office acting as the unofficial boundaries. The battle lines were drawn, the upper part of the project against the lower level in whichever sport that coincided with its professional season.

Corbin dabbled in football - fancying himself as a quarterback even though the coaches viewed him as an offensive lineman - during the early part of high school. When his mother and basketball coach, Carl Williams, short-circuited his football career, Corbin concentrated on the sport that would provide a college scholarship.

Midway through high school, Corbin had set himself apart, although it wasn’t necessarily as a player. Williams counted on him to keep the other players in line.

“Even when he was a junior he showed leadership ability. He had a lot of integrity and character,” said Williams, who coached at various levels for 37 years and has been retired for 10 years. “He was a clear definition of a student athlete.”

In stark contrast to this era of entitlement, a sense that even seems prevalent with elementary school athletes, Corbin never game much thought to sports beyond playing them. Even if there was a national ranking system, Corbin and McDaniel, who did win a high school state championship together, had no clue where they fit on the list.

Living a sheltered existence by current standards, Corbin and friends thought the whole point was to simply play the game.

“It was just a different time,” Corbin said. “We just played. I never got into rankings. I was never aware of any publications [ranking him as a player].”

Corbin rarely thought much about college basketball until recruiting letters began arriving at his school. As his senior year progressed, the gifted small forward began attracting the attention of DePaul in addition to the interest he already had from Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, Memphis State and Virginia Tech, among others.

Williams was somewhat leery of DePaul at first, recognizing the coaches latched on to Corbin after bringing in another player fell through. But he was hooked after a visit, which included being hosted by All-American Mark Aguirre, who would go on to play 13 years in the NBA.

At the time, the Blue Demons were a national power, coached by the legendary Ray Meyer, who would serve as a significant mentor in Corbin’s life. The allure of having DePaul games shown on the WGN superstation added to the decision to choose the Chicago school. As a sidelight, Corbin still possessed the typical attributes of an 18-year-old – DePaul’s cutting edge uniforms, which didn’t include tucking in the jerseys, excited him.

“It was the best decision I could have made,” Corbin said.

In typical fashion, which included taking on a construction job in the Chicago area before enrolling in school, Corbin eventually flourished in the new environment. But not before he endured a bout of homesickness, suddenly away from the only place he had known and the girl who would later become his wife.

On the court, Corbin was hit. Over the four years he played in 120 games for DePaul, increasing most numbers in each succeeding season.

More importantly, he appreciated the wisdom of Meyer, who coached at DePaul for 37 seasons – the exact number as Corbin’s high school coach. The pupil was particularly impressed with Meyer’s ability to relate to all groups of people, a trait that Corbin has clearly mastered.

Try to name another NBA head coach who would dare to hit a bucket of balls with a line of duffers at the packed driving range at Glendale Golf Course, as Corbin did when he had a few spare minutes last spring. It’s not like the coach can’t afford to isolate himself at a country club.

“As accomplished as [Meyer] was, he could talk to anybody,” Corbin said. “He could be in any circle of people and function and not be uncomfortable. I found that astonishing about him.”

As he did in high school, Corbin focused on schoolwork in college and let the basketball play itself out. Even as the likes of Aguirre and Terry Cummings bowed out of school early to pursue riches, the Southerner never gave the NBA much thought.

At that point, his innocence extended to the point of charming.

In 1984, at the Olympic trials, a reporter asked if Corbin was considering skipping his senior season to declare for the NBA draft. Corbin’s response: “Excuse me?”

As his mother and high school coach said, the point of school is to graduate.

“Getting a degree is something that’s going to be with you for the long haul,” Williams said.

Corbin earned the diploma right on schedule, setting the stage for a long and winding career. Not too shabby for a second-round pick.

Other than to say he would use any slight – particularly when the latest hotshot rookie would try to take his spot - as motivation, Corbin turns modest in recalling his professional career. The most you’ll get is that he tried to fit in and never bothered about numbers.

Here’s where his high school coach fills in the pieces.

Williams proudly recalls hearing Magic Johnson say “Every team in the NBA needs a Ty Corbin.” He also pointed out longtime coach Cotton Fitzsimmons said his worst coaching mistake was not protecting Corbin in the 1989 expansion draft.

“I figured if it took effort and determination to play in the NBA, he would make it,” Williams said. “He was very coachable.”

And yet, nothing came easy. Corbin played for nine teams, including twice with the Atlanta Hawks and Sacramento Kings.

Playing two years for the San Antonio Spurs, Corbin signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers in 1987. One year later, he was part of a huge trade with Phoenix that included Kevin Johnson and sent Larry Nance and Mike Sanders to Cleveland. Sanders joined Corbin’s staff before this season.

As a member of the Suns, Corbin’s teammate was current Jazz assistant coach Jeff Hornacek. Sidney Lowe, who played with Corbin for the Minnesota Timberwolves, also is a Jazz assistant coach.

“Right off the bat you could tell he was a good player,” Hornacek recalled.

In the time before Corbin arrived in the desert, the Phoenix franchise was mired in a drug-plagued scandal. Management desperately needed character to mesh with talent.

Talk about a perfect match.

The party scene never attracted Corbin, who rarely indulged in alcohol. A good time usually consisted of dinners with his wife, Dante, along with teammates and their wives. And he never bothered to comprehend the notion of downing an alcoholic beverage that tasted awful and “make you wacky.”

“That was his upbringing,” Williams said. “He just didn’t stray.”

Exhausting his talent, Corbin retired as a player in 2000 and returned home. Planning ahead through deferring some of his NBA salary, he had put away enough money to afford to coach his son, Tyrell, in youth sports for two years (the Corbins also have a daughter, Tyjha).

Corbin caught the coaching bug while working two seasons as a player mentor for the Charleston Lowgaters in the developmental league. As general manager for the New York Knicks, Scott Layden, now a Jazz assistant coach, hired Corbin as manager of player development for the 2003-04 season.

The following year he joined Jerry Sloan’s staff as an assistant. Now that he’s the head coach don’t expect any big changes from the guy who has still has a Smith’s fresh values card dangling from his key chain.

“He hasn’t changed,” Hornacek said. “If you put him back 25 years ago when we were in Phoenix, he’s the same guy.”

Just like Mom taught him.