SALT LAKE CITY — There’s no doubt that Utah Jazz fans have different memories of Andrei Kirilenko’s interesting 10-year tenure with the organization.
Some loved the unique skillset AK-47 brought to the court.
Some thought his $86-million contract torpedoed the team over the last decade.
Some fall somewhere in between.
Five years after his Jazz days concluded, Kirilenko returned to his old stomping grounds to be honored by his team and fans during Monday’s game against the Los Angeles Lakers.
It’s the first time Kirilenko has been to a Jazz game since he officially retired from basketball and was named the president of the Russian Basketball Federation last summer.
Regardless of Jazz fans’ opinions of Kirilenko, the former Utah forward has a big soft spot in his heart for them, their franchise and their community.
Kirilenko’s love affair with the Beehive State and its pro basketball team began in 1999 when he was drafted 24th overall by the Jazz while in Russia.
“I was 18 years old. I was in summer camp with the youth national team,” Kirilenko recalled during a press conference before Utah’s 123-75 blowout win over the Lakers. “Somebody told me the Utah Jazz drafted me. I was like, ‘Wow. This is the Jazz who played just in the Finals against the Chicago Bulls. Karl Malone. John Stockton. … Somebody started calling me Mailman instantly.”
Kirilenko’s appreciation for Utah grew immensely when he nervously left Russia to join the Jazz in 2001. His fear stemmed from the fact that playing in the NBA was a mystery to him. He compared it to heaven. He’d heard about it before, but had no clue what it was really like.
“I come here and instantly from my first year, from summer league, I start feeling like I’m local,” Kirilenko said. “The people around the community kind of make everything possible that I feel great and I feel like I’m at home.”
And that, the Russian added, even though his English was very limited at the time.
Kirilenko’s decade with Utah had its ups (including being named an All-Star and an NBA All-Defense first-teamer) and its downs (injuries, the pressure of the big contract, the public crying incident in the 2007 playoffs).
But in his time with the Jazz, Kirilenko finished in the top seven of eight different all-time franchise statistical categories — from No. 2 in blocks to fourth in seasons played and steals to fifth in assists and minutes, sixth in points and seventh in rebounds and games played.
“We never crossed paths,” said Jazz coach Quin Snyder, who coached one season in Russia, “but certainly he’s revered over there as he is here. It’s special to have him back tonight.”
He did a media tour over the weekend, overtook the Jazz’s social media on Monday afternoon, held a pregame autograph session and was recognized on-court during the game. Kirilenko's return to Utah was part of the Jazz's team alumni program, which has previously recognized the likes of Thurl Bailey, Antoine Carr, Darrell Griffith, Frank Layden, Mehmet Okur, Jerry Sloan and the 1984 "Team With Heart" playoff squad.
“Thank you very much for all of them memories,” Kirilenko told the Jazz crowd, which gave him a loud standing ovation. “I will remember them all of my life.”
Kirilenko said he hopes Jazz fans remember him more for his effort than his results, which included being a key contributor on that Western Conference Finals run despite his rough season.
“I think they would remember me as AK-47, which is all-around balanced kind of weapon on the floor,” he said. “That’s all I’ve been doing. I’ve been trying to go on the floor and give my best, just hustle out.”
Kirilenko said he didn’t chase stats, which showed his versatility. They just happened.
His most impressive stat lines happened in his 5X5 games during which he collected at least five points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals in an outing. Kirilenko did that three times and is one of only 12 players to ever achieve that balanced performance in NBA history. He and Hakeem Olajuwon are the only ones who did it more than once.
“I was trying to win the games and that was the bottom line,” Kirilenko said. “I had great teammates along the way. Every time I’m thinking, ‘We need to get a W. We need to get a W.’ Night after night. I hope fans can say that, ‘I don’t know how good he was, but he was hustling. He was trying. Every night.’”
Kirilenko said he tries to keep up with Mehmet Okur, Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer, but the 35-year-old admitted it’s tough to do often because of family commitments.
Though he’s now busy spearheading the Russian national teams, Kirilenko also said he’ll always be there for the Jazz if the organization needs him.
“I would help Jazz anyway they want me,” he said. “I’ve considered myself as a Jazzman and I think all fans around the world they associate me with the Jazz. … I’ll keep coming here, keep watching games, keep cheering for the Jazz.
“It’s a special place in my heart.”