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The Dream Life of Andrei Kirilenko

Dec. 01, 2008
Dec. 01, 2008

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Dec. 1, 2008

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The Dream Life of Andrei Kirilenko

After two nightmarish years in which his numbers fell and his angst level spiked, the Jazz forward found what he needed to jump-start his sagging career: a seat on the bench

LOOK AT AndreiKirilenko's life from afar and you're likely to come to one conclusion: It'sgood to be Andrei Kirilenko. It's good to be a cornerstone of the Utah Jazz,which at week's end was 9--5 and in first place in the Northwest Division. It'sgood to be a max-contract guy, one who has already pocketed $23 million in thefirst two years of a deal that will pay $63 million over the next four. It'sgood to be an icon in Russia, where he is so beloved that he was chosen tocarry the flag in the Opening Ceremonies of the 2008 Olympics. It's good to bemarried to a brainy Russian pop star, aGod-gave-with-both-hands-then-He-gave-again blonde bombshell who has grantedher husband permission to break the bonds of marriage once a season. (Not thathe has any intention of doing so, but still.) Life, as they say, is adream.

This is an article from the Dec. 1, 2008 issue

But it hasn'talways been a sweet one. Really. There has been a seven-year relationship withcoach Jerry Sloan that can be charitably characterized as rocky. There has beena made-for-TV meltdown after a playoff loss in 2007, when Kirilenko wept openlyfor the cameras. There has been controversy after he threatened to walk on hiscontract and return to his motherland. And there have been two years ofdeclining production. "At times, things have been rough," says the27-year-old Kirilenko.

But just when thespindly 6'9" Kirilenko seemed about to snap, he has been rejuvenated by ...a demotion. A preseason ankle injury to sixth man Matt Harpring left Sloanworried about the strength of his second unit, so he gave C.J. Miles thestarting small forward job and made Kirilenko a sub. "We needed someone togive us energy off the bench," says Sloan. "Andrei has done that. Do Ithink he'd like to be a starter? Yes. But he's done a great job for us in thisrole." Now the NBA's highest-paid reserve, Kirilenko is playing some of thebest ball of his career, averaging 13.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.7 stealsthrough Sunday—up from 9.7, 4.7 and 1.1 as a starter over the last twoyears.

Pigeonholed as asmall forward in a first unit that is strong at every position, Kirilenko hasfilled in everywhere but center with the second team, creating mismatches allover the floor. His ball handling allows him to ignite fast breaks, and hissize makes him effective around the basket. Last week he averaged 17.5 pointsand 7.0 boards in victories over the Suns and the Bucks, and he had 10 assistsin a defeat of the Grizzlies. "Coming off the bench, I get to see therhythm of the game," he says. "I've always been more of an analyst. Ilike to watch where players like to go on the floor. And when I get in, theother team is usually tired and I have fresh legs."

While hisoffensive game needed a boost, Kirilenko's D never left him. With his 7'4"wingspan and superior reflexes, he can block a shot even when his hands aredangling by his side when the ball is released. Late in the fourth quarteragainst Phoenix, Kirilenko rejected two shots from Shaquille O'Neal on the samepossession. Both times the ball had already left Shaq's fingertips whenKirilenko made his move. (With 3.3 per game in 2004--05, Kirilenko became theshortest league leader in blocks since it became an official stat in 1972.) Andhe's not just a shot swatter. With Utah clinging to a late four-point leadagainst Milwaukee, Kirilenko poked the ball away from Bucks point guard RamonSessions and took it the length of the court for a game-sealing dunk. What wasspecial about that steal—his fifth of the night—was that it came during adribble handoff. As Sessions gave the ball to Richard Jefferson, Kirilenko slidhis arm between the two and knocked the ball free. "Did he just dothat?" marveled a scout watching the game. "He's Rope Man. He can getthose arms in the smallest of spaces."

By settling intohis new role, Kirilenko has eased any potential tension with Sloan. That's notto say there isn't any tension. After Kirilenko uncharacteristically blew adefensive assignment against the Suns, he and Sloan could be seen shouting ateach other from opposite ends of the court. And after watching Kirilenko launchan ill-advised jumper early in the shot clock later in the game, a visiblyagitated Sloan spun and stormed back to his seat on the bench. "Coachdoesn't like those kinds of mistakes," says Kirilenko, a toothy grincreeping onto his face. "I don't blame him for being mad aboutthat."

Says Sloan,"Andrei and I are fine. I don't need my players to like me. I need them toplay for me."

KIRILENKO SAYS heprefers to bottle up his feelings until they "explode out of him," sohe is quick to downplay any rift with the 66-year-old Sloan, who recentlybecame the first coach to reach 1,000 wins with the same team. "Jerry is alegend," says Kirilenko. "He is the face of the Jazz organization. Hehas his style, and it works. It has worked for me too."

Kirilenko's wife,Masha, though, has her own opinions. A singer (the video for her 2002 hitsingle, Saharniy—which translates loosely to sugary—quickly rocketed to No. 1on MTV Russia) with brains (she holds an undergrad degree in foreign languagesand a masters in art) and ambition (in addition to running her husband'scharitable foundation, she recently opened her own clothing boutique), Mashararely misses a home game. When Andrei is on the bench, she'll mouth—inRussian—anything from I love you to postgame dinner plans. When Andrei is inthe game, he'll often turn to her and shout in Russian after a significantplay. They're not quite ready to replace Doug and Jackie Christie as the NBA'sfirst couple of idiosyncratic communications, but Masha is, safe to say, a fullpartner in Andrei's career.

Relaxing at theKirilenkos' spacious, modern Salt Lake City home, Masha's eyes grow wide whentold that Sloan didn't care whether his players liked him.

"Does he carewhether their wives like him?" she says.

Andrei turns andmutters something to her in Russian.

"He doesn'tlike me to talk about that," says Masha.

"It's notthat I don't like Jerry," says Andrei. "He's a good person. He's justfrom an older generation that treats players like kids. Let's say your bosscomes to you and says, 'Hey, son. Come here'. And you look at him like, Whatdid you call me? It doesn't hurt your feelings, but it doesn't feelcomfortable."

Says Masha,"The guy remembers a time when he was driving a '65 Chevy. To him, Andreiwill always be a kid."

A first-roundpick in 1999, Kirilenko arrived in the U.S. two years later, fresh from CSKAMoscow. Despite his seemingly fragile 220-pound frame he quickly became one ofUtah's most consistent and versatile players. The anti--Karl Malone—the Mailmanmade his living running the pick-and-roll and banging in the low post—Kirilenkois rarely used as a screener and can score from almost anywhere on the floor.He played in all 82 games in his first season, was an All-Star by his third andmade the All-Defensive first team in his fifth.

The Kirilenkos'issues with Sloan first developed during 2006--07, when point guard DeronWilliams and power forward Carlos Boozer emerged as Utah's primary options.That squeezed out Kirilenko, who saw his scoring average decline from 15.6 in'05--06 to 8.3 and his playing time drop by 10 minutes per game. In closed-doormeetings Sloan advised him to keep playing defense while Kirilenko asked for abigger role in the offense. "I was really frustrated," says Kirilenko."I didn't know how Coach wanted me to play. I didn't know what to do on thefloor. I played hard defensively, but I was lost on the other end."

Rock bottom cameduring the first round of the playoffs. After sitting on the bench for thefinal 17 minutes of Utah's Game 1 loss to the Rockets, Kirilenko began sobbingas he talked to the press at practice the next day. "I have noconfidence," he told reporters. "None." A horrified Masha couldbarely watch. The following morning she flew to Houston and found her husbandalone in his hotel room, inconsolable. "The thing that you have to realizeabout Andrei," says Masha, "is that he is impossible to get upset. Ican't do it. So when I saw him like that, I knew something was seriouslywrong."

After the seasonthe couple returned to Moscow, where Kirilenko led the Russian national team tothe European championship and was named MVP of the tournament. "I found outthere was nothing wrong with my game," he says. "I was still the sameplayer." Emboldened by his success, Kirilenko began to lash out. Hecomplained to the Russian press that the Jazz treated him like a rookie insteadof a franchise player. He praised Russia's coach, David Blatt, in his blog forhelping him "realize a dream" while attacking Sloan for constantlyreminding players of their exorbitant contracts and harping on their mistakes.To top it all off, he demanded a trade and threatened to walk away from hiscontract and stay in Russia if it didn't happen. "We didn't want to gothrough that again," says Masha. "That was the worst year of my life. Icried every day."

The trade nevermaterialized. Kirilenko reported to camp (he blamed the media for blowing hisremarks out of proportion), and after a clear-the-air meeting with Sloan andgeneral manager Kevin O'Conner, he stepped right back into the starting lineup."There was a frustration on our part and a frustration on Andrei'spart," says O'Conner. "He told us what he had to do to get over thehump, and we tried to give him what he needed." Kirilenko's numbers tickedup last year, and, more important, he and Sloan appeared to bury the hatchet—orat least learned to coexist. "If you have two competitive guys, there aregoing to be disagreements," says Bucks coach Scott Skiles. "Too much ismade of that. Nobody wants a team full of patsies who won't voice theiropinions."

SITTING AT hiskitchen counter with his wife by his side, Kirilenko looks to be at peace. Hisfamily is happy—when asked his favorite place, the Kirilenkos' seven-year-oldson, Fedor, says, "America"—in part because he and Masha have decidedto leave the basketball talk in the gym. "We used to talk about it all thetime," says Andrei. "It was 24/7. Now we try to focus on otherstuff." He still thinks about playing in Russia, but not anytime soon."When my contract is up, I'd like to go back," he says. "I want mycountry to see me play before I am too old."

For now, life isa sweet dream. Really. Sure, he's a little more jaded—"It's hard to totallyforget all the stuff that happened," he says—but he's usually wearing thegrin that Masha fell in love with nine years ago. "I've seen Andrei happiertwo times," says Masha. "When he made the All-Star team and on ourhoneymoon. He just wants to help his team. That's the only thing that mattersto him."

Rock bottom came after he rode the bench for the final17 minutes of a 2007 playoff loss. "I have no confidence," a sobbingKirilenko said. "None."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Filippo Monteforte/AFP/Getty ImagesRUSSIAN SUB Able to play four positions, Kirilenko is well-suited to his new role.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH[See caption above]PHOTOBOB ROSATO (OLYMPICS)WAVING BYE? Andrei, Russia's 2008 flag bearer, and Masha say they'd one day like to move home.PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGH (WITH MASHA)[See caption above]PHOTOMELISSA MAJCHRZAK/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES (SHOOTING)DETENTE After demanding a trade in the summer of 2007, Kirilenko has patched up his relationship with Sloan (below).PHOTONOAH GRAHAM/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES[See caption above]