Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant (R) fouls Utah Jazz Andrei Kinlenko (L) during Game 2 of their NBA Western Conference semi-final basketball series in Los Angeles, California, May 7, 2008. Source: Reuters
In late June, the leading star of Russian basketball, Andrei Kirilenko, 34, made two important announcements: that he was ending his sporting career and that he would like to become president of the Russian Basketball Federation. If the first announcement was quite expected, Kirilenko’s possible transition to sports officialdom came as a surprise to his fans.
“Russian basketball is in a difficult situation,” the athlete told RBTH in an interview. “The conflict between the clubs and the federation has led many successful projects into a dead end,” he said.
“After Russia’s victory in EuroBasket 2007 and the bronze medal in the 2010 Olympics, thousands of kids joined basketball clubs, there were many social stories around basketball, our players were regularly recruited by NBA clubs.
“However, the rift in the basketball community has resulted in our sport now being associated only with scandal. Sponsors have turned away from the federation and this situation needs to be changed. I think I have enough experience that I gained playing in Russia and the U.S. to rectify the situation.”
Kirilenko was drafted by an NBA club, Utah Jazz, at the age of 19. In 2003, at the age of 22, the young player, learning his craft at St. Petersburg’s Spartak club, decided to try himself in the U.S. Before Kirilenko, only two Russian players had ever played in the NBA: Sergei Bazarevich and Nikita Morgunov. However, neither made much of an impact in the States.
“When I came to the U.S., I thought there were basketball gods playing in the NBA. I had a certain fear but I managed to overcome it after the first couple of games,” said Kirilenko. “There was no bias against me at Utah Jazz because of where I was from. All the players and coaches helped me not only on the basketball court but also in everyday life.”
At first the young Russian was surprised at how well-attended games at the club’s Delta Center home were. “There were some 20,000 people coming to each game. With such a level of support, it is simply impossible to play poorly,” he said.
“I was also amazed by how much the Americans enjoy the show. Fans would be making faces and players, like Hollywood stars, would play along. The way I had been trained, all that mattered was the result, but I managed to adjust.”
Kirilenko’s U.S. career lasted 13 years. In 2004, he became the first and so far the only Russian athlete to take part in the NBA All-Star Game. In 2005, he signed a top-range contract with Utah, earning about $15.3 million a year.
“In the first year at NBA I had a beginner contract. Given that the tax in the U.S. is 51 percent, I did not earn quite so much as many people think. In Russia, I could have earned more. But never in my life have I regretted testing myself in the NBA. I made many friends there, I got to know a different culture. The thing that amazed me most in the U.S. was the people. They are very open and are always in a good mood. Even today Americans have good feelings about Russians. There is propaganda at the government level, but people are relaxed about it all.”
Andrei Kirilenko (AK47) - Utah Jazz Highlights. Source: YouTube / Andrew Mitchell
Kirilenko managed to live up to the investment that the managers of the Salt Lake City-based club made in him. In the 2006/2007 season, his brilliant performance helped Utah, for the first time in many years, to reach the NBA conference finals. However, the team did not get a chance to fight for the NBA’s main prize, the Larry O'Brien NBA Championship Trophy, as they were beaten by the more experienced San Antonio Spurs.
However, changes in the squad the next season meant Kirilenko no longer felt himself one of the team’s leading players. After the appearance of Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer in the team, AK-47 (as Kirilenko was known) saw his stats slide and he increasingly found himself on the substitutes’ bench. He even thought of moving to another team, but Utah management and fans staged a rally outside the administration and persuaded the player to stay on.
Kirilenko stayed with Utah up until the lockout of the 2010/11 season. Having spent a year back in Russia with CSKA (2011/12), he decided to return to the NBA, feeling that he had unfinished business in the States.
“I felt that I had not yet said my final word in the league and I was very keen to go back,” he said. “I had learnt a lot in the U.S. First of all, I realized that an NBA player is much more than just an athlete. You have to spend a lot of time talking to the media, to the fans, to carry a lot of social responsibility. I have very fond memories of the year I spent with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Sadly, a series of injuries prevented us from reaching the NBA playoffs.”
Kirilenko decided not to extend the contract with Minnesota and before the start of the 2013/14 season he moved to the Brooklyn Nets, owned by Russian billionaire businessman Mikhail Prokhorov.
“The Nets turned out to have a playing style that did not quite agree with me. I did not get an opportunity to show all that I’m capable of. I spent more time struggling than playing and I asked the club to let me know. It is a pity that in my long NBA career I never won the main trophy. This is perhaps the biggest disappointment of my sporting career.”
In February 2015, Kirilenko returned to CSKA and ended his career with a victory in the Russian championship. Now his plans include reforming basketball in Russia if he is elected president of the Russian Basketball Federation, with voting due to take place in September. The former darling of Utah Jazz has an ambitious vision for the future of the sport in Russia.
“It is necessary to start with infrastructure: to build basketball courts and comfortable arenas. Then more children will be able to start playing basketball and more spectators will start coming to professional games,” said Kirilenko.
“In any event, this is a long process and we shall not see its results immediately. But I am convinced that we have potential to reclaim our leading position in the world arena.”
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