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Milwaukee's Korver takes leadership role in promoting racial justice

Veteran guard fully committed to being an ally in struggle for equality

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

ORLANDO, Fla. — The boy was born and raised among people who were mostly dark, and with music that was mainly soulful, and where the quality of life was hopelessly humble. That was his world, his ‘hood, the sights and sounds that shaped his view although, as is typical with kids, he didn’t know anything different.

This was a Southern California town called Paramount, a bedroom community that only the naive would define as suburban Los Angeles. Paramount neighbors Compton to the west and Bellflower to the east, sandwiched between two slices of toughness. Forty years ago, just before he was born into it, Paramount was listed in 1981 as one of the most dangerous towns in America with 40,000 or less citizens. Yes, the place truly fit the definition of its name, meaning it was paramount that Paramount feel the urgency to reform.

Anyway, the boy and his family moved when he reached sixth grade … to Iowa, of all places, and not just any Iowa, but a speck called Pella, and you can just imagine cultural seismic shock to his little system.

The heavy snow, which he’d never really seen before, was white. The clouds, now that the sky was free of smog, were white. And here’s where the white of all whiteness really registered and jarred him: The people. Just about every … single … person.

And that, more than anything else, made him feel sorrowful and lonely. He was out of place, out of his element, with no black or brown friends, his comfort zone suddenly and frightfully squeezed.

“He really struggled with that,” said his father.

Now, this might seem strange to anyone who looks at Kyle Korver, a white NBA player. But here in America’s summer of 2020, where the racial divide and climate is under siege, there is perhaps no more important human laboratory rat for the struggle than the 39-year-old shooting guard for the Milwaukee Bucks.

If you wanted to create an NBA logo to symbolize the league’s mandate to promote racial progress and unity, there are strong options. You can choose the silhouette of LeBron James because of his massive social media platform; or Sterling Brown of the Bucks, who was once strong-armed by police on a Milwaukee street; or Jaylen Brown, the studious young forward for the Celtics whose grasp of history and politics seems well beyond his years.

But somewhere on that front line there must be a seat for Korver, someone who has spent his entire adult life and pro career toggling between Paramounts and Pellas, black folks and white folks, and therefore has something to say and a message to spread.

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Here’s what I DON’T know. I don't know a single thing about what it's like to be a black or brown person in a country with an unjust, and often violent, system embedded in its institutions. I don’t know the right words to say all the time. I don’t know many of the books I should read. I don’t know enough of America’s history of oppression that’s often left out of official histories. I don’t know what I don’t know. Those are all forms of privilege. But I just wanted to write a short post about what I DO know. As a white person, and a white man, I want to talk about OUR OWN communities. White communities. Privileged communities. As white people, WE need to start talking to other white people about systemic injustice and racism. This can be done as we’re simultaneously looking to our black and brown friends and co-workers and leaders to guide us. But this part is on us: We need to start having our own versions of "The Talk," where we — at home, at the office, on the basketball court, at church, etc. — struggle in a serious way with our responsibility in this larger conversation about racism. Because even if we are ill-informed, we know enough by looking with our own eyes: people who are struggling against injustice shouldn’t have the burden to explain why that injustice matters to them and to us. They shouldn't have to constantly give us advice about how to help. As people who enjoy privileges, let’s take that initiative on ourselves. Not out of guilt. But out of responsibility. Out of a sense of the true meaning of community and family — that if we say we’re in it together, we can’t only be in it together when we’re called out on it. That starts with me. And you. And it seems to me that it’s the minimum requirement! But I believe we should start there. Please share your comments. #BlackLivesMatter #TheWhiteTalk

A post shared by Kyle Korver (@kkorv26) on

View this post on Instagram

Here’s what I DON’T know. I don't know a single thing about what it's like to be a black or brown person in a country with an unjust, and often violent, system embedded in its institutions. I don’t know the right words to say all the time. I don’t know many of the books I should read. I don’t know enough of America’s history of oppression that’s often left out of official histories. I don’t know what I don’t know. Those are all forms of privilege. But I just wanted to write a short post about what I DO know. As a white person, and a white man, I want to talk about OUR OWN communities. White communities. Privileged communities. As white people, WE need to start talking to other white people about systemic injustice and racism. This can be done as we’re simultaneously looking to our black and brown friends and co-workers and leaders to guide us. But this part is on us: We need to start having our own versions of "The Talk," where we — at home, at the office, on the basketball court, at church, etc. — struggle in a serious way with our responsibility in this larger conversation about racism. Because even if we are ill-informed, we know enough by looking with our own eyes: people who are struggling against injustice shouldn’t have the burden to explain why that injustice matters to them and to us. They shouldn't have to constantly give us advice about how to help. As people who enjoy privileges, let’s take that initiative on ourselves. Not out of guilt. But out of responsibility. Out of a sense of the true meaning of community and family — that if we say we’re in it together, we can’t only be in it together when we’re called out on it. That starts with me. And you. And it seems to me that it’s the minimum requirement! But I believe we should start there. Please share your comments. #BlackLivesMatter #TheWhiteTalk

A post shared by Kyle Korver (@kkorv26) on

“I guess I have an interesting story,” he said, “that has given me a unique perspective.”

Korver is a basketball long-shot in multiple ways. He was the 51st selection in the 2003 draft and those types usually don’t survive, but he’s now in his 17th and perhaps final season. He wasn’t projected as an All-Star, yet he checked that box in 2015. And obviously the long shot has literally served him well; Korver owns the record for highest 3-point percentage (53.6%) in one season, should finish top-10 percentage all-time and is fourth all-time in 3-pointers made.

He’s with his sixth team, each one gifted by his shooting in a game that drastically developed a greater taste for shooters and the space on the floor they create. But Korver also benefitted at each stop with a gift that would expand his view of humanity and race. As a white man in a black man’s game and locker room, he received a level of education and awareness and sensitivity that escapes many who look like him.

“When I went to Philadelphia I was the only white guy on the team my rookie year,” he said. “After a couple years I get traded to Salt Lake City, which is as white as it gets in the NBA. Went from there to Chicago and Atlanta. Then I went to Cleveland, then back to Utah. And now I’m in Milwaukee, a place some say is the most segregated city in America. It seems whenever I go, I move from one side to the other.”

Lots of suitcases and real estate agents. But with all the mileage comes wisdom, which he’s anxious to share.

“My hope is that I can gain information from my black friends and teammates and then take those messages to people on the other side who maybe don’t get the chance to hear them,” he said. “It’s a tricky space for me, to be in the middle, but at the same time it’s important work for me.”

Korver’s father, Kevin Korver, was a pastor in Paramount and rooted the family in that community instead of living a few towns away. The Korvers and their church were recruited to improve the neighborhood and did yeoman volunteer work, clearing enough trash and planting enough trees and painting enough homes to earn a Point Of Light Award from President George H.W. Bush.

“Kyle was with me as we served our community,” said Kevin Korver. “It was really fun because while the white folks were in the minority, we were invited in by the community and together we helped bring change.”

Kevin Korver spent $2,000 to build a basketball court, for Korver and his brothers and also the community kids, as a safe spot. Therefore, the Education Of Kyle Korver simply moved between the baskets, where the ball was shared by black and brown players … and the Korver boys.

“That typified the experience we had with our children in Los Angeles,” said Kevin Korver. “Most of Kyle’s friends were non-white. Then we got a calling to come to an all-white town in Iowa. In California, everyone was of color. In Iowa, there were 10,000 white people and this was tough on him because he gravitated to children who werent white.”

Kevin Korver is still in Pella as the senior pastor of the Third Church. In a town where he estimates less than 100 people are non-white, the challenge to understand the plight of people of color can be daunting for Flyover Country.

“We live in all-white Iowa where sitcoms and what’s on TV and on social media can shape our perceptions and where we get our information from,” Kevin Korver said. “How do you get properly exposed by living in an all white town?”

Kyle Korver isn’t so restricted. His world-view and understanding of a different culture — all helped by his California roots and a collegiate stop at Creighton — launched him well for the NBA. Allen Iverson vouches for him. So does LeBron James, who once said when it comes to race, Korver “gets it” and regularly engaged Korver while they were teammates in Cleveland.

Because Korver is into a second decade in the NBA, the nationwide racial flash points along the way only managed to expand those conversations.

“You’re always learning,” Kyle Korver said. “I want to be educated. I can’t teach my kids things I don’t know. They’re 7, 5 and 3. We’re starting now while they’re young. We went on several marches together as a family. They got to see people who were very hurt and lots of emotions. On the drive home we talked about it, asked questions. Me and my wife are very aware of how we’re going to raise our children, making sure there’s voices instructing them that aren’t just white.”

He laughed and added:

“Kids start learning about race early. My daughter keeps saying she has peach skin. She’s just seven! These are things kids learn. Loving your neighbor was a theme I had growing up. See the humanity in everyone. That’s what we’re teaching them.”

Kyle Korver doesn’t personally witness many examples of racial injustice. His friends outside basketball live in a more centralized society and have stories, or at least heard them. Same for his father.

“What I find strange,” said Kevin Korver, “is that in sports, you can have white fans who root and cheer for their favorite African American players, and then those same fans will turn around and go into a bar after the game and mistreat a waiter who happens to be black. How in the world does that happen? There’s such a disconnect.

“The best thing for Kyle is he’s this white man in a world dominated by people of color who are all very accomplished. His perspective is being shaped by his reality. Hes got a group of black friends he listens to a lot. Theyve said to him, ‘You got to speak to the white folks because theres so few white voices speaking.’ Thats a great challenge. Hes trying to listen and learn.”

Kyle Korver will never know the angst of a race or understand the feeling of systemic racism; he wasn’t born into that segment of society. Yet he does the next best thing by tapping into that group, and into his own past, to shape his beliefs and those of his children and neighbors.

“To watch LeBron use his platform to make a difference was important for me,” he said. “To see him leverage that platform and step into spaces that are confrontational, I haven’t done that in the past. Look, everybody loves to do their part to help out the kids, food banks, hospitals, there’s a lot of ways to give back to communities, but this is a deeper and harder space to step into. My way is going to be different than LeBron’s way, right?

“But just watching him try was really helpful for me. And so I think I can do more.”

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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter .

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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