By Blake Baxter
VILA NOVA DE GAIA, Portugal – In his second year of playing professional basketball overseas, Kyler Stork is blossoming into the player he always believed he could be.
Just a couple of years ago, Stork – a 2020 Eureka College graduate – was coming off the bench for the Red Devils.
Now, he's emerging as an impact player for FC Gaia in Vila Nova de Gaia, Portugal, leading the team with 20.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, two steals and a block per game.
"Every team I've been on in my career, I have been a role player and I have been okay with that, because I was never the No. 1 skilled player in high school or college," said Stork, who is shooting 64.5 percent from the field. "With the hard work I have put in, it feels great to be a top option on the team – and help FC Gaia win a lot of Basquetebol games."
FC Gaia is currently 5-2 on the season, going 3-1 in Notre Centre division games and 2-1 in the Portuguese Cup competition. Two of the team's most notable results of the season came when Stork was at his best.
On Oct. 27, he checked into the game against GiCA with 2:34 left in the first quarter and promptly took over.
On his team's first offensive possession, he received an entry pass in the lane, backed down into the post with two dribbles and spun to the basket for an and-one. That gave FC Gaia an 11-9 lead, and the team never looked back. The game turned into a 95-48 rout for FC Gaia, and Stork finished with a career-high 31 points on 12-of-14 shooting. He went 7-of-9 from the free-throw line, tallied four steals and posted three blocks in 22 minutes.
He converted another 3-point play before the end of the first quarter and stayed on the court to strat the second. Stork continued to produce, knocking down a pair of free throws, coming up with a steal and a coast-to-coast finish and getting a bucket in transition.
By the time the third quarter rolled around, Stork's team led by 26. He started the second half, and in the first minute of play, drove to the hoop to draw two free throws, made them both and delivered a big block on the defensive end.
By the fourth quarter, he had already notched a season-high 18 points. He started the final frame off with a steal off an inbounds pass and an easy transition layup. Then, he immediately blocked a 3-pointer away to a teammate and stormed down court for a dunk.
Stork produced two more fast-break slams, with one coming off a well-read steal. He sank another free throw, hit a turnaround jumper in the paint while double-teamed, and finished with an easy lay-in off following an outlet pass from a teammate.
It was his night.
"If felt great to go off and help the team win," Stork said. "I was in the zone, and when I get going, I am very tough to be stopped down low."
A few days after the confidence-boosting blowout win, Stork's squad locked in for a much tougher challenge against SC Vasco da Gama. This time around, it went down to the wire, with FC Gaia coming out on top in an 80-79 overtime victory.
With a double-double of 25 points and 12 rebounds, along with two steals and a block, Stork finished with a 29 efficiency and was named MVP of the game. Once again, Stork was strong on both ends of the court and a menace in transition.
"I thought my performance was solid and I gave my best effort on the court," Stork said. "There are ways I can improve going forward, but so far, I am happy with my performances and the wins, as well as the team coming together and winning close ball games."
Playing over 4,000 miles from home, Stork has come a long way to get to where he is – and not just not in distance.
The 6-foot-6 1/2, 210-pound stretch forward from Normal, Illinois, doesn't shy away from the fact that he's often been overlooked on the basketball court.
The former Eureka College men's basketball player was cut from the team in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. He barely made the freshman B team at Normal West, and even after he grew five inches over three years and was a two-year starter for the Wildcats, he barely got any playing time in two years at Greenville.
But after he transferred to Eureka in 2018, things started trending back in the right direction.
"I wasn't necessarily satisfied after two years, and I wanted to be closer to home," Stork said of his transfer to Eureka. "(EC head coach) Chip (Wilde) made that possible, and I definitely don't regret it at all. One of the best decisions I made in my life was coming to Eureka."
In his first season as a Red Devil, Stork saw limited playing time for a veteran squad that struggled early on but ultimately came together to win the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Tournament for the first time in program history.
He averaged five minutes per game on the season and contributed two points per night while going 11-for-20 from the field.
On paper, the prospect of playing professional basketball in a few years didn't seem like a remote possibility, but Stork believed he was capable of more – and he was determined to prove it.
"He stuck with it, and he just kept getting better," Wilde said. "He didn't lose interest. He didn't lose passion. He bet on himself, and it paid off.
"It's an unbelievable story, from his junior high days to his pro career, and it couldn't have happened to a better person."
After playing for Greenville's run, gun and press-heavy "System," Stork was forced to adapt to playing regular, modern basketball at Eureka. In his second year 'neath the elms, he became a key rotation player for the Red Devils, and over the course of the season, he showed significant improvement both offensively and defensively.
"He had to guard. He had to block shots. He had to show he could do those things. He was always capable of doing it, but he just never had to do it his first two years of college," EC assistant coach Ryan Mulcrone said. "It took maybe a year or year and a half to figure it out, but his last semester, he really figured it out and took off. And he then he just hasn't stopped going since."
Stork contributed five points and 3.7 rebounds per game while shooting 57.3 percent from the field, and notched a career-high 14 points and eight rebounds in the last game of his collegiate career – a 137-129 victory over Greenville.
The season ended just when it felt like Stork was really coming into his own. Down the stretch, he had this tantalizing thought that his best basketball might still be ahead of him.
"There was a point in January where I was like, you know, 'If I really work hard, I could maybe try go and play overseas,'" said Stork, who was named the 2020 E-Tribe "Most Improved Player." "I took that summer personally after I graduated. I worked out like every day, shooting, lifting, all that stuff."
"It's just been my childhood dream to play professional basketball."
The summer after he graduated from Eureka, Stork gave himself a chance to achieve his dream when he tried out at two three-day Eurobasket Summer League Camps in Indianapolis.
At the first camp, he ranked second in efficiency among the top 10 front court players, and in the second, he averaged 15 points per game, going off for 25 points in his best game.
It was enough to garner an invitation to a 10-day tryout in Armenia. He left a lasting impression in the last game of the tryout when he notched a double-double of 19 points and 12 rebounds while adding four assists.
Next thing he knew, Stork was playing in the Armenia A League for SuperSonics BC, realizing a goal few ever thought he could attain.
He says it was nerve-racking, but Stork quickly found that his game fit well with the European style of play and became a dependable role player.
"The nerves, it's natural," Stork said. "You step on the court and everyone is an all-conference player. There is no weak link."
"In Europe, to be successful, you must be a good passer," he added. "My passing game was already elite because that's mainly all I did in college, was setting other guys up to score."
Stork notched 13 points and four rebounds in his first pro game. He went on to average 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds per game that fall, appearing in about half of the team's 17 games before he exited the country early due safety concerns.
Unbeknownst to most of his supporters back home, Stork was playing his first season of professional basketball in a country that had recently plunged into a deadly war with neighboring Azerbaijan over the disputed territory Nagorno-Karabakh.
"I didn't really tell anybody about it because I didn't want to worry people, but Armenia was at war the entire time I was there," Stork said. "It got really, really bad in late November. Someone got killed two miles from my house, so it was like, 'Yeah, it's in my town now; it's time to go.'"
Stork, who majored in business administration and sports management, and received several academic accolades, at Eureka, wasn't sure if he would play overseas again.
When he returned home, he got a job at a company in Bloomington, but he kept training on the side, even playing with his former Eureka teammates Jordan Dehm, Dakota Bennington, Hank Thomas and Alex Wiegand in a Peoria men's league last spring.
Then, in July, he heard about an opportunity to play in Portugal. He arrived on Sept. 14, and if his team makes it to the playoffs, he could be there until May or June.
"This is something that I'm very proud of," Stork said, "because not a lot of other Division III players get the opportunity to play pro, so I'm very lucky to say I play professional basketball. I'm definitely looking forward to telling my kids one day that I followed a dream, and while it was hard, I still did it."
With a year under his belt, Stork wasn't as nervous this time around. He embraced the challenge of testing himself against better competition.
Stork is one of only two Americans on FC Gaia's roster. The team also features a pair of players from Brazil and 10 from Portugal. He's learned how to deal with experiencing culture shock and navigating the challenges of speaking a different language from most other players.
He has relied on Google Translate to get on the same page as his coach off the court, and his multi-lingual teammates when confusion arises on it.
"It's kind of like international business, in a way," Stork said. "You're talking to them in one language, and they're talking to you in another language, but it makes sense.
"It's not as bad as you'd like think, but there are definitely some times at practice where it's like, 'What did he say?' And I have to go to my friend Francisco and say 'What did he say?' and then he'll tell me."
Getting used to the game atmosphere and overseas lifestyle has been tougher. Whereas he was used to having parents and friends cheering him on in the stands at Eureka and Normal West, in Armenia and Portugal, that isn't the case. And when the game is over, he's on his own, too.
It can definitely be lonely. Stork copes by keeping plugged in with what's happening back home and following EC athletics online. When he was in Armenia and living 11 hours ahead, he even stayed up to watch a few Red Devil games live.
It has been particularly difficult for him over the past month, though, because he hasn't been able to be home to mourn the passing of his grandpa with his family. John W. Stork, a U.S. army veteran and lifelong farmer, died at age 84 on Oct. 17. His grandson scored his career-high 31 points in his first game on afterwards.
"He meant a lot to me and my family," said Stork, who writes his initials on his shoes before each game. "This season is dedicated to him. It's been hard to be away from my family, but winning for him gives my family and I some hope."
Stork isn't sure what the future beyond this season will hold for him, but he intends to continue leaning on his faith – and passion for the game.
"God opens doors unexpectedly sometimes," Stork said, "but I plan to play as long as God lets me play. I'm going to play as long as I can."