By John Crumpacker
In the course of his two-year Mormon mission to Vladivostok in far eastern Russia, Kyle Collinsworth had a few encounters with the local Mafia. Positive encounters, it should be said.
“It was a little dangerous being there. You had to be on your toes,’’ the BYU basketball star said. “The Mafia over there always respected us. In some cases, people in the Mafia asked if we needed anything. They respected us. They kind of looked after us.’’
That’s certainly better than the alternative. During his time there, Collinsworth endured temperatures as low as minus-40 degrees, became fluent in Russian and met people with whom he is still in touch with today. Small wonder his Twitter handle is BigRussia5.
“It was awesome,’’ he said. “It was really hard learning the language and adjusting to the culture. I learned a lot of discipline and about giving to others. Every day we prepared to teach the gospel and talk to people who wanted to know more about Christ. We dressed really warm. Big fur hats. It was freezing. It was cold over there.’’
Now a senior at BYU finishing his career as the most versatile player in college basketball, Collinsworth returned home from his mission in 2013 about as rusty as a fit, young athlete could possibly be. While in Vladivostok he played some soccer with local kids but did not so much as touch a basketball.
“It was a problem, for sure,’’ he said. “I was really rusty. To get back in shape is a six-month process. Imagine for two years not doing your job and then two years later getting back into it. You’re out of rhythm, out of synch.’’
Collinsworth is fully in synch now. On a sometimes-underachieving BYU team the man known as the WCC’s Swiss Army knife is averaging 14.7 points, 8.0 rebounds, 7.4 assists, 2.2 steals and 0.7 blocks per game as the Cougars (15-7, 6-3) started the back nine of the conference schedule with a win over Loyola Marymount. Next up for BYU is Pepperdine on Saturday night at the Marriott Center, with third place at stake.
“We had a good week of practice,’’ Collinsworth said. “The energy is high. We’re motivated to take a shot at winning the conference. It’s still possible. We’ve got to rebound better. The game with Pepperdine (a 71-65 loss) we couldn’t rebound and it cost us. We have to rely on our defense. Sometimes your offense isn’t there. That’s the game of basketball.’’
Collinsworth brings special skills to the game of basketball. Though he’s 6-foot-6 and 215 pounds, he was only 5-8 as a high school freshman in Provo, Utah. At that size, he was a guard who handled the ball all the time. Now he’s a guard the size of a small forward who is used to bringing the ball up court while being able to rebound against bigger players.
For that reason, Collinsworth has realistic aspirations to play in the NBA next season. At the WCC’s Tip-Off event in Los Angeles in October, Collinsworth had a chance to talk with former Pepperdine standout and NBA player Doug Christie. The Cougar liked what he heard from the former Wave.
“He told me he really likes my game and that I have a chance to play in the NBA,’’ Collinsworth said. “He gave me advice to keep working on. It’s my goal to get drafted. I’m going to give everything I have to keep playing. The things I’m good at, I’ve got to get better. The things I’m not good at, I’ve got to get better.’’
There’s not much that Collinsworth can’t do on the court. He tied the NCAA career record with six triple-doubles in the 2014-15 season alone and is now up to 10 in that most versatile category. He’s no stats hog, either. The evidence shows that when Collinsworth goes for a trip-dub, good things happen for BYU.
“I almost averaged a triple-double in high school,’’ he said. “I’ve always been a pass-first guy and I’ve always been a rebounder. Looking back, the most important thing is when I’ve had a triple-double, we’re 9-1. Usually when I get one, we win. When I’m playing that way, we’re winning. It’s one of those cool stats that benefits the team. It’s not like I’m trying to score 40 points a night.’’
Collinsworth said the only time he’s had a triple-double and the Cougars lost was to Gonzaga last season, an 87-80 verdict.
“I try to do a little of everything,’’ he said. “When I was growing up, in ninth grade I was only 5-8. That’s when I learned all my guard skills. I even grew on my mission when I was 20, 21. I was a slow grower. That’s why I have these guard skills. Then I grew into a 6-6, 215-pound frame. That helps me guard these post players and rebound.’’
The Cougars will need to have Collinsworth at his best in the second half of the conference season if they want to move past Pepperdine and into a position to challenge Saint Mary’s and Gonzaga at the top of the standings.
Fortunately for coach Dave Rose’s team, every time the Cougars open their toolbox, their Swiss Army knife is there, ready to handle any task.
John Crumpacker spent more than three decades working at the San Francisco Examiner and San Francisco Chronicle. During his career he has covered the full gamut of sports from prep to professionals. Most recently, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for Cal through the end of the 2013-14 season. In addition to covering 10 Olympic Games, Crumpacker served as the beat writer for the San Francisco 49ers. He is a two-time winner of the Track & Field Writers of America annual writing award and has several APSE Top 10 writing awards.