Thursday’s NBA preseason matchup between the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks in Omaha was no ordinary exhibition game. More than 16,500 basketball fans, the vast majority of them Creighton faithful, packed the CenturyLink Century to watch two of the most celebrated players in Creighton basketball history, Doug McDermott and Kyle Korver, face off in a homecoming game.
Even with superstars like Dwyane Wade, Jimmy Butler and Dwight Howard on the court, eyes were on McDermott of the Bulls and Korver of the Hawks in their return to Omaha. For the fans in attendance, the game was less about the result, a 97-81 victory for the Hawks, and more about showing gratitude to two of the players who have made Creighton the prestigious basketball program it is today.
Korver played for Creighton from 1999-2003 and is the only player in program history to play in four NCAA tournaments. He is first in program history in 3-pointers made (371) and free throw percentage (89.1 percent) and sixth in points scored (1,801).
Korver, a former All-Star, is entering his 14th season in the NBA and fifth with the Hawks. Korver’s lethal 3-point shooting has made him a staple in the NBA and he currently sits at eight in league history in 3-point field goals made with 1,187.
McDermott, who played for the Bluejays from 2010-14, led the Jays to three straight NCAA tournament appearances and is first in program history in points scored (3,150), field goals made (1,141), free throws made (594) and third in rebounds (1,088).
McDermott finished his college career as a three-time consensus first team All-American and the fifth-leading scorer in NCAA Division I history. McDermott was drafted 11th overall in the 2014 NBA Draft and has spent both of his seasons in the league with Bulls.
McDermott and Korver both cherished the opportunity to go out and play in front of Creighton fans once again.
“It was about what I expected: sold out arena, a lot of familiar faces, it felt like a college game, honestly,” said McDermott. “It was fun being out there again. I missed that place a lot. It just felt a little weird sleeping in a hotel instead of on campus. I’m glad me and Kyle could come back and put on somewhat of a show.”
Korver was finally able to play in the CenturyLink Center, which opened a year after he graduated from Creighton. The last time Korver played in Omaha, it was in the recently demolished Civic Center, showing just how much Creighton's basketball program and campus has developed in the 13 years Korver’s been gone.
“There were a lot more faces here than when I was here, which was awesome to see,” said Korver. “ I come back every summer and see people, but just watching how Creighton has grown and how the fan base has grown, it’s just really awesome to see.”
Thirteen years later, Korver still reflects on his time at Creighton as a formative experience.
“Omaha holds a special place in my heart. I feel like so much of who you become as a person is developed in college, and the people at Creighton and the people in Omaha helped create a lot of who I am and who I’m trying to be,” said Korver.
Korver and McDermott, who both hail from Iowa high schools and had extremely successful four-year careers at Creighton, have had a unique relationship throughout the years. McDermott credited Korver as a factor in his decision to stay at Creighton his senior year.
“Kyle's meant a lot to me,” said McDermott. “He's a great mentor. Not for me, but for anyone. He's a great human, with him being an NBA veteran that I can lean on for advice.”
“Doug’s got such a bright future in front of him, he’s already an amazing player, he’s one of those guys you’ve got to game plan for already,” said Korver.
Korver and McDermott, the mentor and the protege, were primarily matched up against each other when the two were on the floor at the same time, much to the delight of the Creighton fans in the building.
Korver started the game for the Hawks, while McDermott entered the game midway through the first quarter to a standing ovation from Creighton fans in the arena.
After the game, Korver joked about McDermott’s massive ovation for his return.
“I think Doug got more cheers than I did, but that’s probably right,” said Korver.
The first encounter between the two former Bluejays was one of the most memorable of the game. McDermott launched up a 3-pointer, contested by Korver. The shot was off, and Hawks guard Dennis Schroder secured the rebound and quickly got out on the break. Schroeder found Korver on the left wing, who rose up and nailed a 3 right in McDermott’s face, prompting a large applause from the CenturyLink crowd.
McDermott would get his revenge on Korver early in the second half. McDermott caught the ball on the high post and proceeded to back down Korver before rising up and hitting his special Dirk Nowitzki-esque fade-away jumper that he had perfected in his time at Creighton. The crowd applauded to show its appreciation, as did Korver, who was smiling as he ran down the court.
“I knew it was coming the whole time,” said Korver, “And he did it, and he made it. I just kind of shook my head. I’ve watched Doug do that, it feels like, hundreds of times.”
It was no secret that the two were enjoying their battle, as both Korver and McDermott talked and laughed as they competed.
“He kind of hit me with what he did in college and I kind of hit him with what I did in college, so that was fun,” said McDermott. “It was a great matchup.”
McDermott delighted the crowd again in the second quarter when he nailed a deep 3-pointer just seconds before the end of the half. The Hawks led 44-39 going into the locker room.
McDermott struggled in the second half, failing to connect plenty of good looks. McDermott was finally able to get going late in the fourth quarter, scoring seven straight points for the Bulls with a pair of free throws, a midrange jumper and a 3-pointer to cap off his night. McDermott finished with 16 points on 5-for-15 shooting and two rebounds.
Korver came alive in the fourth quarter, nailing 3-pointers on back-to-back possessions to extend the Hawks’ lead to 17 and seal the game for Atlanta.
Korver finished with 16 points on 6-for-10 shooting (4-6 from three), 6 assists and 4 rebounds in 30 minutes. Korver was able to display his brand of consistent and efficient basketball — something that has made him a reliable starter in the NBA — in front of his Omaha fans.
It was the first time that an NBA game has been played in Omaha since 2006, when the Minnesota Timberwolves hosted the Detroit Pistons at the Qwest Center.