Utah's Russian Roulette The Jazz's long-shot bet on Andrei Kirilenko is paying off

January 14, 2002

Wanting to escape the serenity of Salt Lake City to celebrate the
end of their first year in the U.S., Russian-born Jazz rookie
Andrei Kirilenko and his wife, Masha, did it in high style:
booking a suite at the Bellagio on the Vegas Strip, dancing to
the sounds of Billy Idol at Mandalay Bay's House of Blues and
testing their luck in the casinos. "Andrei is not a big gambler,
but he does like roulette," Masha says. "Thirteen was his uniform
number in Moscow, so we bet on 13. My birthday is September 26,
so we bet on 26. Then we bet 24 since our baby boy is due the
24th of February, and that's when we finally won."

Twenty-four is turning out to be a lucky number for the Jazz as
well. In June 1999 Utah selected the thin-as-a-wisp forward with
the 24th pick in the draft, making him, at 18, the youngest
European player ever chosen in the first round. The Jazz waited
two years for his contract with CSKA Moscow to expire, and now
the long shot is paying off. Unlike the stereotypically plodding
Russian player, the 6'10", 210-pound Kirilenko runs the floor
with abandon, and although he's not yet quite up to coach Jerry
Sloan's hard-nosed standards for man defense, he ranked third
among rookies in rebounds (5.3 a game) and blocked shots (1.73).
"He's extremely long for a wingman, and he caught me off guard a
couple of times when he drove to the basket," says Celtics
forward Paul Pierce. "I was amazed by his quickness. He's a
talent."

Which is sweet music to the ears of Jazz fans, who know their
team needs fresh legs. "When Andrei's on the floor, it changes
the tempo for us," says center John Amaechi. Normally reluctant
to praise--or even play--rookies, Sloan told reporters before the
season that Kirilenko reminded him of a young John Stockton. "I
like him as coach," Kirilenko says of the stern Sloan in his
spotty though improving English. "My principals in the game are,
The coach must kill me. If he loves me, I just keep relaxing. If
coach loves me every game, we have problems."

Kirilenko was the youngest player to compete in Russia's top pro
league, beginning his pro career at 15 with Spartak St.
Petersburg. Two years later he joined the more highly regarded
CSKA Moscow. He spent two seasons with Moscow and won the
league's slam-dunk contest. "I could be a star in Europe and make
much more money," says Kirilenko, "but NBA is the best in the
world, and I will grow up here."

With five years of pro hoops behind him, Kirilenko has fit in
quickly in Utah, averaging 9.5 points in 23.1 minutes through
Sunday. Off the court he is maturing as well. Last July he
married Masha, eight years his senior and the daughter of Andrei
Lopatov, one of Russia's most famous basketball players. "I'm
trying to help myself be a star," says Kirilenko, "but I don't
want be a star outside game. I want to be a star on my skills and
my game. John Stockton is [like that]. I can take [him as an]
example."

COLOR PHOTO: SAM FORENCICH/NBA ENTERTAINMENT

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